From closeness to distance: Christian Coff’s theory of the ethics of food

binoculars-1026423__340I have recently come across a book with a very compelling title – “The Taste for Ethics: The Ethics of Food Consumption” by Christian Coff. In it, the author (who is, by the way, the founder of the first CSA in Denmark) delves deep into philosophy to untangle the concept of food ethics and explain the challenge of applying ethical principles in food consumption. The book is full of interesting ideas, and I intend to write a more comprehensive review of it in the next couple of weeks; for now, however, I’d like to discuss some of the author’s theorisations about food ethics as well as their implications for the praxis of ethical consumption.

So, I found particularly interesting Coff’s discussion of the distinction between so-called short-range and long-range food ethics inspired by Ancient Greek philosophy. Short-range ethics prevailed during pre-modern times, when both food production and consumption occurred within the same geographical locales and were, therefore, inconsequential for far-distanced environments, animals, or people.  Hence, food ethics were limited to individuals’ immediate geographical and temporal contexts. However, as humans’ technological advancement (and, concomitantly, their capacity to intervene in the natural food growing processes) increased, and the consumption and production of food grew further and further apart both spatially and temporally, the implications of people’ diets started to extend far beyond their local surroundings. These changes call for a different kind of ethics – that which exceed the boundaries of one’s “here and now”. Coff (2006, p. 107) defines such long-range (also called “distance”) ethics as “an ethic for those areas of society and nature which despite their distance from me are not unaffected by my actions, and whom I therefore cannot ignore in my vision of the good life for and with others in the production of foods”.

Long-range ethics are intrinsically paradoxical: while ever-increasing production-consumption gap necessitates the expansion of consumers’ ethical concerns, it at the very same time precludes any such considerations since, being distanced from food production, consumers remain unaware of its conditions and can’t therefore assess the implications. Thus, for long-range ethics knowledge is key – it takes the place of direct experience on which short-range ethics are based. The ethics of distance are challenging precisely because of the lack of first-hand experience of the production process – this blurs consumers’ vision of the consequences of their choices and turns ethical considerations into something unhelpfully abstract and hypothetical. According to Coff, consumers can only engage in the ethics of distance through the ethics of closeness: for individuals to fully appreciate the implications of their consumption, they must experience the production “in the local and in the present” (Kemp, 1997, p. 99 cited in Koff, 2006, p. 99). Such experience can be obtained either personally – by visiting a farm, for example, or in a mediated way – from second-hand accounts by someone whom we trust (which is, understandably, a weaker source).

Both scenarios allow for a partial, “glimpsed” experience of food production which, according to Coff, is absolutely central to the ethical action – having experienced the production practice “in the local and in the present”, consumers become able to extend their food ethics over more lengthy distances in space and in time. This becomes possible since personal experience turns the production history into a narrative, a “hi-story” (Coff, 2006, p. 100) that gets inscribed in consumers’ own biographies. Coff argues that the process of turning the production history into the form of a narrative is key to consumers’ vision of food ethics. In this process, consumers play the role of both the receivers and the narrators, since their own experience of and knowledge about food production act as a source of the narrative (admittedly, producers and sellers of food can and, more often than not, do act as narrators as well). The narrative itself consists of the information about manufacturing processes, animal welfare, environmental issues, labour conditions, and so on. The specificity of such narrative is that it does not require language to be told – it can be articulated through anything that awakens consumers’ minds to the production history. The food product itself becomes “a silent document” (Coff, 2006, p. 133) – a reference to the spatially and temporally absent conditions of production of which consumers had previously had an experience, albeit only partial. Thus, the glimpsed experience turned into a narrative, a story, becomes tied to foodstuffs and serves as a constant reminder of their production history. Such bringing of the absent into the present is precisely what enables the extension of people’s food ethics beyond their immediate contexts.

Reflecting on Coff’s theoretical speculations, I was drawing parallels with my own empirical evidence about individuals’ food ethics. One specific example that keeps playing in my mind is that of a woman who, having personally witnessed the misery of little calves separated from their mother on a dairy farm, could not help picturing that image to herself whenever she considered buying a dairy product. This “glimpsed experience” of milk production was, as she admitted herself, central to her irrevocable transition to a dairy-free diet. So, the book has provided me with another potentially very useful theoretical framework for understanding the development and application of ethical considerations in individual food consumption.

References

Coff, C. (2006). The taste for ethics: An ethic of food consumption (Vol. 7). Springer.

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One response to “From closeness to distance: Christian Coff’s theory of the ethics of food

  1. Pingback: Data Analysis Insights. Case 1: Lucy’s moral horrors or what it takes to go vegan. | ediblematters·

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