Jun 7, 2012

Are Organic Foodies Judgemental?

The Atlantic recently ran a provocative -- and in certain ways tellingly misguided piece -- Does Organic Food Make You a Judgmental Jerk? Maybe by one of their health topic bloggers, Brian Fung.  Lest I be categorized too quickly for being "judgmental," however, I have to point out that Fung is just uncritically passing on the results, or rather speculative interpretations, of Kendal Eskine's recent study Wholesome Foods and Wholesome Morals? Organic Foods Reduce Prosocial Behavior and Harshen Moral Judgments. The bulk of the evaluations -- whether on-target or off-base,  carefully considered or great imaginative leaps -- stem directly from the study itself.

You can see this pretty clearly by comparing other pieces summarizing (and admittedly spinning a bit further) the same study results.  A decently representative sample of this new (anti?-)moralizing story spans the gamut of news and opinion sources: Psychology TodayTime, Scientific AmericanThe Inquisitor, Jezebel, and even The Times of India. Gluten Free Spinner, who initially evinced a bit of healthy skepticism, quickly bought into the classification and characterization of jerkiness.  Reason.com went so far as to even speak of such people as being "anti-social" -- but then, after yucking it up with now seemingly obligatory references to the Portlandia granola hipster stereotype, at least brought in some dissenting voices.  The question I'd like to ask though is:  Are the critics actually pointing out the real flawed assumptions here?


Preliminary Remarks

Before presenting a bit of analysis and criticism from a Virtue Ethics perspective, let me do two other things, one that just takes a moment, the other requiring a bit more time and space. First, let me lay my own cards on the table.  You can consider me a foodie if you like, since I know my way around a stove, tinker with recipes, and invest the time in cooking meals from scratch -- and I mix with culinary people -- but I'm about as liable to buy my groceries at a Walmart as I am a farmers market or a whole foods store.  I've got nothing against organic farming, but I'm not wedded to it either.  And, I long ago developed a distinct and not-entirely-rational distaste for the sort of moral smugness and superiority some foodies clearly do evince, whether the flavor of their lifestyle be vegan, vegetarian, freegan, locavore, slow food, or even the food trend elite -- some, I stress, certainly not all.  I also personally find equally . . .  no, more disturbing, those who play at not being judgmental by condemning and contemning those who have and act on moral commitments -- in my book, it's not passing moral judgements that puts one at fault, but passing them poorly (or passive-aggressively).

A second necessary preliminary is canvassing a portion of the write-ups of the study -- studying the ripples of meaning propagating throughout the web from this study.  The Atlantic piece tells us:
Kendall Eskine, an associate professor of psychology at Loyola University, says those who are primed to think about healthy organic foods like spinach, apples, and tomatoes are more likely to criticize morally questionable activities. He took 62 Loyola undergrads and divided them up into three groups. One group was given images of fruits and vegetables bearing organic labels; another saw comfort foods like cookies and ice cream; and the third group looked at "neutral" foods such as grains and beans.

All the participants were then polled on the acceptability of certain scenarios, including incest and eating a dead pet. . . . . Finally, they were asked whether they could spare some additional time to help another professor with a different study.

Those who'd seen images of healthy foods were more likely to rank the morally questionable activities as not okay, and were least likely to say they could give their time to the other professor's study
 Scientific American is a bit more specific:
. . .  the author handed them another packet with a series of questionable moral scenarios. These were things like consensual cousin sex, lawyers trolling ERs for lawsuits, and a guy eating his already dead dog. Eskine . . . asked them to rate the morality of the deeds on a scale of 1 (totally ok) to 7 (totally NOT ok). Last of all, the students were told another prof in the department needed volunteers for a study…how much time could they spare?

. . . after viewing organic food pictures, students rated moral transgressions (like humping your cousin) as being worse than students who saw the normal or comfort foods. They also said they could volunteer significantly less time for the other prof’s experiment (what psychologists call reduced prosocial behavior). . . . Seeing the organic food made people less nice, not nicer. The people viewing the junk food, on the other hand, were nicer, volunteering the most time and judging people the least.
Eskine concluded that the people who saw the organic foods felt confirmed in their moral identities (in other words, they were self-satisfied), which made them less likely to help others.
Once we get to Time, the interpretative spin gets very interesting:
 . . . a new study shows that organic foodies’ humane regard for the well-being of animals makes some people rather snobbish. The report . . . notes that exposure to organic foods can “harshen moral judgments.” Which, to us, sounds like a nice way of saying that organic-food seekers are arrogant. But that seems rather paradoxical: organic eaters are more likely to seek benevolence in their food, so why don’t they seek it in their relationships? Well, according to the study, they tend to congratulate themselves for their moral and environmental choices, affording them the tendency to look down on others who don’t share their desire for pesticide-free living
Even the author fuels speculation going way beyond the study's data:
“There’s a line of research showing that when people can pat themselves on the back for their moral behavior, they can become self-righteous,” . . . Dr. Kendall J. Eskine . . . told NBC’s Today show. 
It’s like the group had already fulfilled its moral-justice quota by buying organic, so it felt all right slacking off in other ethics-based situations. Eskine labeled it “moral licensing.” 
“There’s something about being exposed to organic food that made them feel better about themselves,” he told the Today show. “And that made them kind of jerks a little bit, I guess.”
It gets even better with Psychology Today:
When folks start shopping and eating organic, a self-righteous change begins. In other words, they become snobs. They look down on those with the processed food, the frozen dinners and even those who do not bring their own reusable bag and become downright judgmental. . .  And even more importantly, their self importance and harsh judgment was not just food related; it carried over to other areas of their life, as well.
Organic shoppers say they feel good about themselves. Yet, while their bodies may be benefiting from a healthy lifestyle, their brains are not faring as well. They may be purchasing goods with moral names . . .  but they are being seduced by a sense of moral superiority, and pass judgment on others with a narcissistic and self focused aura.

Is this what happens when you feel better because you're contributing to the good of Mother Earth? Yes, I call it the “moral superiority syndrome” and you see it in fashion statements (just say no to fur), cars (hybrid, of course), workout regimes (bikram yoga) and religious cults.
Finally, Jezebel brings it home:
Science can be a wonderfully vindictive thing, especially when it suggests that people who self-righteously purchase and consume organic foods are more likely to not help you jump your dead car battery, hold the door open for you, or volunteer to coach a community little league team. That's right, everyone — organic foodies would sooner run a child down on her way to softball practice with their Schwinns than help that child learn how to catch a flyball, and that's more or less a scientific fact. 
. . . this study sort of shows that those people are really more liable to be selfish jerks just because they've fallen victim to clever packaging that exploits their self-righteousness.

 A Few Problems with the Study

One could raise all sorts of objections about the study design, a few of which Scientific American and Reason.com point out.  Much more telling are the rather strong conclusions spun out from Eskine's article.  The researcher himself extrapolates an awful lot from a rather small and all-too-homogenous sample of college students, leading us along a path leaping from one stone to the next --from looking over three associated groups of pictures of foodstuff, to taking stances on images of morally problematic situations, to exhibiting a greater reluctance about assisting a professor with research, to far-reaching generalizations about moral judgements, selfishness, jerkiness, self-esteem, self-righteousness.

If it seems almost as if there's an entire moral system jam-packed into this experiment, brilliantly culled out by our anti-judgementalist exegete of the human condition and his admirers. . .  well, that's probably because there is a moral system of sorts, at the very least a loose association of conceptions and sentiments, underlying all of these easy inferences and ironic (or perhaps unwittingly so) condemnations about moral judgement.  One might also read into the fast-and-loose transitions from the limited study to global attacks on all those smug, self-satisfied, righteous, organic foodies, some intellectual and emotional biases, some poorly managed and understood resentments, perhaps even in a few cases some self-loathing on the part of the commentators and interpreters.

Before identifying and examining unargued-for and often unarticulated assumptions  involved in this entire discourse  -- about the nature of moral concepts and categories, and about having and acting on those concepts and categories -- I do have to point out one considerable flaw less in the study design than in the web of wild associations -- really, one can barely dignify them  as inferences, can one? -- quickly knotted about this bit of research.

The flaw turns on three small matters -- and my criticism consists largely in noting that they are indeed small matters, certainly not of sufficient size to fill out the much larger frameworks erected around them, deceptively lending an illusion of stability and solidity.

Three Criticisms

First, consider the notion that those who involve themselves in the organic lifestyle and ideology, or who just buy organic groceries thereby become less willing or interested to help others -- presumably because, already feeling good about themselves on account of their ethically superior food choices, they are less motivated by the guilt or need for approval that drive the rest of us non-organics.  What exactly is the observed phenomenon here, the supposed stock-in-trade of science, even if it be social science?  The sample of students were less willing to volunteer as much time for another professor's experiment.  Do we know why?  Can we really assume that they had accorded themselves "moral licensing"?  Or is this just as much an artifact of the researcher's assumptions and imagination as it is of the journalists'?  The sample of students who looked at junk or comfort food turned out to be more willing to volunteer.  Does this mean much, though?  Can people have all sorts of reasons -- which might transcend the scope of the study -- for agreeing or not to help out another professor?  I suppose that could be the case. 

Second, consider as well the assertion that the organic group were more willing to engage in moral condemnation, when "morally questionable" situations were exhibited to them, and their response was being solicited.  What were these situations? The study itself tells us:
second cousins engaging in consensual incest, a man eating his already-dead dog, a congressman accepting bribes, a lawyer prowling hospitals for victims, a person shoplifting, and a student stealing library books.
All three groups in the experiment, it should be noted, did engage in moral judgement about these situations, on a seven point scale.  Interestingly, even the organic group were not particularly condemnatory or puritanical, averaging a 5.58 in contrast to the neutral food group's 5.08 and the comfort food group's 4.89.  While a social scientist can legitimately say this variance is "statistically significant," as a ethicist I find the lack of variance morally relevant, and I find the researchers' and journalists' leap to judgements about moral harshness risible.  It's not as if the experiment noted a major swing towards extreme views -- whether condemnatory or permissible.  No group was morally neutral, let alone permissive, and no group was particularly harsh, uncompromising, or. .  as we might say, particularly principled.  Given what I know about college students and the variance of their cultures from campus to campus, I would be extremely interested to see what results of similar experiments would be if conducted outside of just a Loyola classroom.

Third -- and this one bears pointing out the most -- in this experiment, the only actual contact the student subjects had with organic foods were "a packet containing four counterbalanced pictures of food items."  The organic food pictures depicted "organic foods with organic food labels (apple, spinach, tomato, and carrot)."  The comfort foods shown were "ice cream, cookie, chocolate, and brownie." And the neutral, "control" foods were "oatmeal, rice, mustard, and beans." If it weren't for the fact that the experiment designedly called the students' attention to whether foods were "typical comfort food" or "typical organic food" -- casting these as diametric opposites, by the way! -- one might think the results could have more to do with how people react after viewing fruit and vegetables, by contrast to viewing sweets or deserts -- a much better descriptor than "comfort food."

But, notice what gets overlooked about letting this students look over some images -- all they did was to view images!  This study has absolutely nothing to do with -- and actually nothing to say about -- purchasing, shopping for, cooking, consuming, or sharing organic foods -- because, again, all the students did was look at a few foods.  We have no idea whether students in the comfort or control groups actually eat or prefer organic foods, and equally no information about the diet of the supposed "organic food" group of students.  So, how do all of these conclusions arise?
  • When folks start shopping and eating organic, a self-righteous change begins
  • [O]rganic foodies would sooner run a child down on her way to softball practice with their Schwinns than help that child learn how to catch a flyball, and that's more or less a scientific fact.
  • [A] new study shows that organic foodies’ humane regard for the well-being of animals makes some people rather snobbish
  •  There’s something about being exposed to organic food that made them feel better about themselves. . . And that made them kind of jerks a little bit, I guess.
This is actually a great example of pseudo-science pushing itself into the moral realm.  What's scientific about the study has practically no moral relevance in any rigorous sense.  And, what's moralizing or moralistic about it has practically no scientific basis.  Even the bridgework speculations substituted in the study for the outright bias and imaginative excess of the journalists -- invoking a "moral expansion route propos[ing] moralization is carried by cognitive-rational processes" and a "moral piggybacking route . . .carried by affective processes" remain rather dubious and slender reeds to rest so much weight upon.

Is there an Organic Ethos?

One might quibble with the study in many other manners, and pointing out journalistic excesses in drawing unwarranted conclusions from social science is really shooting fish in the proverbial barrel.  What most needs pointing out is that there is indeed an ethos involved in organic foodie ideology and commitments -- that should come as no surprise, since every coherent lifestyle or set of moral commitments consolidates itself around one ethos or another.  And every ethos, like it or not, involves moral judgement, categories, distinctions, and discrimination -- even those who deplore all of this in others are just as inescapably involved with these inevitable -- thank goodness for that -- dimensions of moral life and human existence.

I think that the moral term whose use is most telling in this situation is not those used to condemned in those organic foodies -- or rather to be more precise, in those students who say pictures of food labeled as organic! -- so not "selfish," "snobbish," "self-righteous," "narcissistic," "self focused." It's rather a shorter, far more ambiguous and amorphous word -- "nice."  The failure of those who make more moral judgements -- even if it's about situations in which we'd hope to expect decent people to be willing to call something wrong -- their moral lapse is evidenced by the observable fact that they are not nice.

I sense a perennial need to write much more about this particular topic -- a task I defer to future posts -- but let me just point out that while, from a Virtue Ethics perspective, there is some point and some value to some of the behavior and attitude that full under that rubric, or into that hole of sense, of being nice, for the most part, nice remains but a pseudo-value.  It does not name a virtuous disposition or state, but rather a particular sort of privation of, an obstacle to any real virtue.  It might well be understood -- when it becomes elevated above other values -- as akin to a both intellectual and moral vice.

What is wanted is not unwillingness to make moral judgements, but good sense to make them well, a development of the character and criteria required in order to do that, and to ascertain when other people's judgements are also made well.  It's hard to see how one can develop the capacity to make moral judgements well without actually practicing doing so.  If there is anything to this notion that organic foods render people more prone to make explicit moral judgements, perhaps -- whether they're good judgements or poor judgements, consistent or marked by incoherence or hypocrisy, it's still doing people some good.

I'm ever reminded, when I encounter these sorts of situations, of the lines of the Witch in the play Into the Woods, speaking to Cinderella, which I'll leave as parting lines here -- not claiming the Witch's position for my own, but rather putting her in place like a moral marker, a boundary stone, or a stumbling block:
You're so nice. You're not good, you're not bad, You're just nice.
I'm not good, I'm not nice, I'm just right.

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