Introduction to Ethics and Food Systems

Fall 2017, University of Vermont (PHIL 010: Food Ethics)

Office Hours: Tues and Thurs 1:40-2:40pm in Room 209, 70 S. Williams St.


Course Description

This course provides an introduction to ethics through the lens of food systems. It also includes modules on the ethics of ending life, and on sustainability. (Students should verify that they are comfortable with course that includes a module on abortion and ending life.)


In more detail, this course explores the different ethical issues that arise in the context of our food choices both at the level of personal decision-making and at the level of public policy. We address questions such as: what sorts of ethical obligations do we have to those who produce our food? Are the food choices we make ethically constrained by our obligations to preserve the environment or to preserve our own health and, if so, how are they constrained? Is it ethically permissible to eat meat? Is the government ethically permitted or even obligated to regulate our personal food choices (e.g. by regulating the volume of single serving soft drinks)? To what extent is a government like ours obligated to ensure that people have adequate access to food?


This course has two, related educational aims (goals, objectives). The first is to prepare you to begin developing and defending your own answers to these and other questions in the domain of food ethics. The second is to equip you with a certain set of skills: both in preparing for class, in your writing, and through class discussion and group work, you will develop your ability to (1) communicate clearly and concisely, (2) reconstruct arguments for a position or view from a piece of text, (3) critically evaluate arguments, (4) construct persuasive arguments of your own in defense of a position or view, and (5) anticipate and address potential objections to arguments that you find persuasive. Although deploying these skills will be crucial in your effort to advance your own thinking about the questions in food ethics that we will discuss in this class, developing these skills has independent value as they can also be usefully applied in a variety of different domains outside of philosophy.



Optional Textbook


Anne Barnhill et al., Food, Ethics, and Society, Oxford UP, 2016 (Readings below are marked 'T' if they are in this textbook.)



Readings (Only Numbered Readings are Required)

August 29: Overview of Course Outcomes; Collective Ethics vs. Production Ethics vs. Consumer Ethics

1. Introduction to Chapter 1: The Ethically Troubling Food System (T)

August 31: Intensive Industrial Animal Agriculture and Empirical Premises about Animal Welfare

Optional: selection from Gilovich et. al., Social Psychology, 1st ed. (introduction to social psychology textbook) (not in T)


September 5, 7, 12: The Ethics of Ending Life; the Nature of Basic Rights

1. Judith Jarvis Thomson, "A Defense of Abortion" (not in T)


September 14: Objections to Thomson's Arguments

1. Michael Tooley, objections to Thomson on abortion (not in T) (note that this provides an excellent model for how to write your own philosophy papers in this course)



September 19: Utilitarianism; Singer on Expanding the Moral Circle and Speciesism



September 21: Singer vs. Tannsjo on the Implications of Utilitarianism; Total Utilitarianism vs. Average Utilitariansim

1. Torbjorn Tannsjo, "It's getting better all the time" (T)


FIRST PAPER ASSIGNMENT: due Sunday, October 1 at 11:59pm via email


September 26: No In-Class Meeting; Non-utilitarian Approaches to Animal Ethics


September 28: Consumer Ethics; Non-utilitarian Vegan Arguments 

1. Tristram McPherson, "How to Argue for (and against) Ethical Veganism" (T) (note that this provides an excellent model for how to write your own philosophy papers in this course)



October 1: First Paper Assignment is due at 11:59pm via email


October 3: Consumer Ethics and the Inefficacy Objection
If your class begins at 11:40am, we are meeting directly at the Intervale to glean (meet in the lot at 114 Intervale Rd at 11:50am (gives you time to get there), first on the left as you enter the area). Otherwise if your class is at 2:50, we are meeting in the normal class location.



Optional: Introduction to Chapter 4: Consumer Ethics (i.e. pages 165-186) (T)


October 5: Kantian non-utilitarian theories of Animal Ethics and Consumer Ethics

1. Christine Korsgaard, "Getting Animals in View" (T)


2. Eliot Michaelson, "A Kantian Response to Futility Worries?" (T)


3. Read pp. 176-178 (only) on Kantian and other deontological theories of consumer ethics in the Introduction to Chapter 4: Consumer Ethics


October 10: Production Ethics; Ideal vs. Non-Ideal Theory; Industrial Plant Ag and the Ethics of Feeding the World




October 12: Industrial Plant Ag and Empirical Premises about Feeding the World




October 17: Global Hunger
If your class begins at 2:50pm, we are meeting directly at the Intervale to glean (meet in the lot at 114 Intervale Rd at 3pm (gives you time to get there), first on the left as you enter the area). Otherwise if your class is at 11:40am, we are meeting in the normal class location.

1. Pages 36-47 of the Introduction to Chapter 2: Global Hunger (T) (only pp. 36-47)



October 19: Food Security

1. Pages 47-57 of the Introduction to Chapter 2: Global Hunger (T) (only pp. 47-57)



Note: these public health sources agree that proper nutrition requires more than adequate intake of food; on this basis, USAID claims that food security should be understood as requiring more than reliably adequate dietary intake; nonetheless, global and national definitions of 'food security' that guide policy typically take only dietary intake into account -- for example, see FAO and USDA


MIDTERM EXAM: due Sunday, October 29 at 11:59pm via email


October 24: Why Adequate Food Access is Insufficient for Proper Nutrition, Importance of Early Childhood Nutrition and other factors for Future Life Outcomes




Optional: "Sanitation and Stunting", Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (not in T)


October 26: Singer's Argument for a Demanding Duty of Beneficence to Help the Global Poor


2. Browse www.givewell.org (not in T)

Recommended: Reread pages 36-47 of the Introduction to Chapter 2: Global Hunger (T)

Optional: "Philanthropy In Silicon Valley" (not in T)


October 29: Midterm Exam is due at 11:59pm via email


October 31 and November 2: Objections to the Empirical Premise of Singer's Argument, and Replies

1. Page 38 and pages 57-59 of the Introduction to Chapter 2: Global Hunger (T) (only pp. 38 and 57-59)






November 7: Sustainability and the Tragedy of the Commons






November 9: Sustainability and Self-Government of Common Resources



2. Pages 13-23 of Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons (not in T)


Optional: Some definitions of sustainability (not in T)

Optional: More definitions of sustainability (not in T)



SECOND PAPER ASSIGNMENT: due Sunday, November 19 at 11:59pm via email


November 14: Ethics and Local Food





November 16: No Class: Work on second paper assignment, get feedback from other students


November 19: Second paper assignment due at 11:59pm via email


November 20-24: No Class: Thanksgiving Break


November 28: Ethics and Organics, Food Sovereignty, and Local Food





November 30: Domestic Food Justice -- i.e. Justice Within Our Nation's Food System; Oppression and Injustice


1. Pages 92-101 (only) of the Introduction to Chapter 3: Food Justice (T)



FINAL EXAM and FINAL PAPER: due via email at the university-assigned final exam time:


December 5: Farmers, Farm Workers, and Food Justice

1. Page 179 (only) of the Introduction to Chapter 4: Consumer Ethics (T)


2b. Or read: Seth Holmes, "Farm Workers" (T) (or if you prefer, you can watch this video of Seth Holmes speaking on this topic instead)


Optional: Introduction to Chapter 11: Workers (T) (i.e. pages 519-529)




December 7: What should you do? What should we do? The Role of Entrepreneurship and Civil Society

Recommended: Reread pages 469-473 of Introduction to Chapter 10: Alternatives to Industrial Plant Agriculture (discussion of sustainable intensification) (T)

Recommended: Reread pages 333-335 (only) of the Introduction to Chapter 7: Industrial Animal Agriculture (discussion of ideal vs. non-ideal theory) (T)

2. Michelle Paratore, "Rising to the Food Waste Challenge" (T)

Optional: Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, selections from Nudge (T)


Optional: EWG Food Scores Methodology (not in T)

Optional: IMMP 25th Anniversary Report on Dolphin Safe Tuna (not in T)

Optional: Stanford panel on meat without animals (not in T)



FINAL EXAM and FINAL PAPER: due via email at the university-assigned final exam time:


Additional Resources

Peter Singer and Jim Mason, The Ethics of What We Eat, Rodale, 2006 (on reserve at library)


Ronald Sandler, Food Ethics: The Basics, Routledge, 2015 (on reserve at library)


Marion Nestle, Food Politics, website