Ethicist Chris McDonald, who holds forth on his Business Ethics Blog, has a provocative post on the right to know what you’re eating on another of his blogs, the Food Ethics Blog. I have no quarrel with the main point of his post, which I recommend that you read it here.
A related point in the article, however, not involving ingredients but food preparation, caused me to stop and ponder. Dr. McDonald writes…
“… imagine again that you’re a waiter or waitress. As you set a plate of food down in front of a customer, the customer asks: “Were any ‘minorities’ involved in the production of this food? Do you have any foreigners working in the kitchen?” Appalled, you stammer: “Excuse me?!” The customer continues, “I don’t like immigrants, and I don’t like the idea of them touching my food. I have the right to know what I’m eating!” Does this customer have the right to that information? Most of us, I think, would say no, of course not. She might see that information as really important — important to letting her live her life the way she wants to — but few of us would agree that anyone else is obligated to help her live out her racist values.”
I think the customer’s request for information regarding who is preparing one’s food is a valid one. Does a diner have a right to the information? Why not? What if a citizen objects to the illegal employment of undocumented immigrants, and doesn’t want to support businesses that undermine U.S. immigration policy while exploiting underpaid workers? Or suppose the customer has read about health issues among local food workers, and wants to know if they have been vaccinated…or is a supporter of organized labor, and wants to know if the restaurant is using union members…or wants to support establishments that hire immigrants, because she was one herself If the customer who is concerned about any of these matters asks, he has a right to an honest answer unless there is a legitimate interest in keeping that information proprietary. One such legitimate interest would be the privacy of the workers.
McDonald’s justification for withholding the information requested in his hypothetical—that telling her would be helping her live out her racist values— is not valid. In the United States, we have a right to racist values, socialist values, anti-feminist values and any other kinds of values whether anyone else approves of them or not. The post was about rights, and no one has a right to foil my chosen lifestyle or the values I choose to live by until they threaten to do tangible harm. It is presumptuous for anyone else to actively withhold information that permits a customer to make an informed choice about what eating establishment she patronizes, a breach of autonomy. Telling her something substantive about how her food is prepared isn’t endorsing her racist values; it is forcing her to do something—eat the restaurant’s food—that she wouldn’t choose to do if she had all the facts. What her motivations may be, and whether the waiter, owner, or Dr. Mc Donald approves of them is irrelevant. She has a right to ask, she has a right to know the information, and she has a right to act on that information—based on beliefs and motivations she has a right to have—within certain legal strictures, however she pleases.
McDonald’s hypothetical goes beyond the topic of his article, which is about our right to know the contents of what we eat, but I am presuming that he would argue for the ethical withholding of information in an “unethical values” case involving ingredients too. What it a customer asks if her tuna was caught using porpoise-safe fishing methods, not because she’s an environmentalist, but because she hates porpoises due to a bad experience with Flipper in her childhood, and wanst to only eat tuna that have been caught the old-fashioned, porpoise drowning way?
I think she has a right to know this information, as much as she has a right to know the contents of her meal for motives Dr. McDonald approves of. My rights don’t diminish because you may disagree with the motives for exercising them, regarding food, speech, voting, or anything else.