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factory-farm When we think about what to eat, three considerations usually occupy our attention. Will it taste good, is it healthy, and how much will it cost? Unless you are a vegetarian with moral objections to eating animals, eating doesn’t appear to have moral implications.

But that is because when we think about food only as a source of nutrition or pleasure we make the ethical implications of food invisible to us. What and how we eat has moral implications because eating creates relationships, and those relationships implicate us the fate of the people affected by our actions.

How are relationships created by our food choices? We usually eat with others and, in fact, most social situations are punctuated by encounters with food. Who we choose to eat with gives structure to social life. When we eat we maintain connections to traditions and ethnic or regional identities and our choices influences the persistence and stability of those identities.

Furthermore, eating creates relationships with a network of communities and producers that grow, create, and distribute food. Included within that network are relationships with animals, plants, and resources such as soil and water. By creating these relationships, my choice of what to eat will have something to do with how well those people, processes, and resources thrive.

Thus, when I choose to eat a lovely English Farmhouse Cheddar, I determine who will receive the money I spend and whose land, resources, and labor will be exploited and whose will not. I also make it more difficult for someone else to consume English Farmhouse Cheddar since I use up a finite resource. Importantly, my choice contributes to determining which processes of food production will flourish and which will not, and this will have a bearing on downstream communities affected by the manufacturing process such as future generations and the availability of resources for them if my choice is not of a sustainable process.

So a decision about what to eat is not a solitary action. It is a decision that ramifies throughout a complex network of relationships and it produces good or ill effects depending on the nature of the choice.

Why is this relational approach to the ethics of consumption recommended? After all, we could account for the value of our food choices differently, by seeing them as part of an economic calculus or a cost/benefit analysis. What work is the idea of “relationship” doing?  The problem with economic calculations and cost/benefit analyses is that the fate of individuals is swallowed up in an abstract number that lacks meaning. Such calculations make our contributions to that network of relationships invisible and thus we are unlikely to take responsibility for them.

By contrast, thinking about consumption in terms of relationships puts a face on the impact of our actions. Although my contribution to someone’s welfare via choices about what to eat is small, it doesn’t disappear as it does in a numerical summation of costs and benefits. Although we often don’t know the other people affected by our food choices, we can nevertheless know their vulnerabilities because these are vulnerabilities that all of us share. Our responsibility to others is more visible on the relational approach because the vulnerability of the people we impact is more readily apparent. On the relational approach we must see them as individuals, not items on a balance sheet.

But more importantly, by thinking of food choices in terms of relationships we can more clearly see that not all relationships are equal—relationships with people, for instance, are deeper and phenomenologically richer than relationships with animals, plants, or natural resources. Thus, a relational understanding of food choices properly locates value, not in terms of abstractions such as profit or aggregate consumption but in the real lives of actual human beings.

It is a (perhaps unfortunate) fact about human beings that we feel the full weight of responsibility only when our impact is palpable and harm or benefit is concrete. We empathize with individuals, not with entries on a ledger. An ethics of relationships brings that concreteness to our attention.

These considerations bring to the surface the problem with industrial food production and expose one of the underlying reasons why people deeply concerned about food often take a dim view of factory farms. Industrial food production makes obscure this relational dimension and makes it more difficult to grasp our food sources and the impact of our decisions. When personal connection is subtracted from our lives we experience that as a loss of meaning. Thus farmer’s markets, CSA’s, artisanal foods and the whole concern with “authenticity” can be seen as a way of recapturing that sense of connection, the ethical relationship, that modern industrial food production lacks.