It’s been more than a week now that I think about, or rather live through, a unique life story. This story is a personal biography of one of my study participants, Lucy (this is a pseudonym) – that rich and promising case which I choose to start the data analysis with. I made a good choice – the interview provided a lot of food for thought. Although at this stage my analysis is only preliminary, I set myself several quite concrete objectives – by following the trajectory of Lucy’s life, I wanted to discern the origins of her moral commitments and trace the development of her distinct identity as an ethical consumer.
Lucy’s idea of food ethics is centred around animal life and welfare. At the age of 12, she proclaimed herself a vegetarian and has been sustaining a meatless diet ever since. Three years ago, she took her moral project to the next level by going vegan. It doesn’t take Lucy long to pinpoint the origins of her ethical commitments – she links them firmly to her personal experiences with animals which had very tangible implications for how she went on about her diet. These were experiences of animals’ pitiful living conditions. She was first awakened to the issue of animal welfare as a 5-year-old child growing in a house full of pets but finding no pleasure in seeing them live in cages. “It just upset me, I’d see these animals in cages and they did not seem happy…” – she recollects. Then, as a secondary school child on an educational visit to an animal farm she once again happened to be an eye-witness to the misery of captive animals. In particular, she was deeply moved on seeing a sow separated from her suckling piglets by iron bars. “I was so shocked, it gave me nightmares. It was absolutely appalling” – Lucy’s memories of the experience are infused with strongly affecting emotions. Many years later, she would feel the same mix of horror, sadness, and empathy towards little calves, taken away from their mother and chained on a dairy farm amidst an idyllic Alpine landscape in Switzerland: “(…) and they were crying, they were just protesting against that fate, and it upset my so much, I still feel tears when I think about it”. These three experiences, disconnected in time and space, have all had the same profound impact on Lucy – they aroused her emotionality and awakened her consciousness to the concern over animal life. This concern, embraced by Lucy as her ultimate concern, laid the basis for a moral commitment which would guide not only her consumption practices, but many other choices and decisions that she would have to make on her way through this world.
As I was reading and trying to read into Lucy’s accounts of her life experiences, I kept thinking back to the theory, trying to link the empirical with the conceptual and move from description to interpretation. I took several steps along this way – some only tentative, some a little more confident. So far, Archer (2000, 2004) and Coff (2006) proved to be my closest theoretical allies, although I find that their ideas may warrant some further refinement. Thus, Archer offers a useful conceptual prism through which to look at the relationship between concerns and emotions (see this blog post of mine for more details on this) – the relationships that are clearly evident and well evidenced in Lucy’s story. Yet, this theory does not go far enough in explaining the origins of people’s concerns. The question still remains as to why exactly animal well-being and not, for example, social justice or environment happens to be Lucy’s moral priority. It seems quite obvious to relate her concerns to the above mentioned experiences – the caged pets, that sow behind the bars, and those chained calves. Yet, it calls for further explanation how exactly these encounters led Lucy to her ethical commitments and how the foods in question – the meat and dairy products – themselves became embodiments of these upsetting experiences.
This is the gap that Coff’s ideas may help to bridge, specifically his notion of short-range and distance ethics and the argument about the centrality of personal experiences to ethical actions (I discuss Coff’s theory in this blog post). Thus, encounters with trapped animals might be construed as “glimpsed experiences” into their miserable stories, which became part of Lucy’s own biography as well as got attached to relevant foods, charging them with the potential to invoke deeply upsetting memories. Although this seems to be a convincing explanation of how Lucy became so sensitive to the issues of animal welfare, a crucial element seems to be missing. When discussing the significance of personal experiences for ethical consumption, Coff appears to concentrate exclusively on the knowledge and information that they provide to consumers while ignoring the intense emotional response that they arouse in individuals. Yet, Lucy’s example suggests that it is not as much through learning as it is through feeling that consumers become inclined to ethical actions. Indeed, her experiences offered no new knowledge as she has been long aware of the unpleasant side of the industrial food production. However, they supplied deep emotions which served as the driving force to move Lucy towards cruelty-free foodways. In fact, she consistently refers to what she calls a “gut reaction” and a “rush of horror” as main reasons for why she couldn’t even contemplate the idea of eating animal products again.
This is the point I have taken my data analysis to so far. Lucy’s story is still unfolding, and I am following it closely in the hope to shed some more light on the questions of her identity and value formation.
Archer, M. S. (2000). Being human: The problem of agency. Cambridge University Press.
Archer, M. S. (2004). Emotions as commentaries on human concerns. Advances in Group Processes, 21, 327-356.
Coff, C. (2006). The taste for ethics: An ethic of food consumption (Vol. 7). Springer.