Paul B. Thompson is Professor of Philosophy and the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University. He is the author of 13 books and edited volumes, such as The Spirit of the Soil: Agriculture and Environmental Ethics and The Ethics of Aid and Trade. He has served on numerous national and international committees on agricultural biotechnology.
Public Lecture, January 22, 2015 2 - 3:15 PM, Cone 210
Abstract: Food system reform is currently (and rightly) in vogue. While “industrial agriculture” is identified as the target that needs reform, there is very little discussion of what industrial agriculture is or of why the current food system would have ever been designed or allowed to take its current form. This paper papers fills that gap by arguing that the industrial food system can be understood as the confluence of two ethically motivated philosophical trends that have their roots in early 19th century thought. First, there was the emergence of a general cultural ethic for the modern economy that promoted industrial growth constrained by a “do no harm” principle. Second, nascent conceptualizations of scarcity were applied to agriculture by Malthus, creating a prescription for agricultural science and technology that continues to be very influential to the present day. Here, increases in the productive efficiency of food system operations were judged to be morally good both in virtue of their ability to win a race against inexorable pressures of population growth and as contributing to an egalitarian leveling of life prospects. I will argue that many—perhaps most—criticisms typically leveled against contemporary food system practices continue to operate within this philosophical framework. As such, they miss many ethical arguments that would have been obvious to virtually anyone—including most philosophers—working before the advent of the industrial era. .
Cosponsored by the North Carolina Biotechnology Center and the College of Health and Human Services
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