Mark Bittman on the Purpose of Society

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, February 21, 2014)

New York Times food expert and op-ed columnist Mark Bittman wrote a recent piece, What Is the Purpose of Society? Obviously the title captured my interest. But what could an expert on healthy food have to say about the purpose of society? A lot it turns out.

Bittman begins,

The world of food and agriculture symbolizes most of what’s gone wrong in the United States. But because food is plentiful for most people, and the damage that conventional agriculture does isn’t readily evident to everyone, it’s important that we look deeper, beyond food, to the structure that underlies most decisions: the political economy.

Bittman argues that progressives don’t pressure the “Democrats to take strong stands on everything from environmental protection to gun control to income inequality …” Instead they accept that most politicians are indebted to monied interests. But the big problems of the country—income inequality, race relations, climate change, unhealthy food, immigration law, education—won’t be fixed by creating a nice business climate. So he offers a different vision.

Shouldn’t adequate shelter, clothing, food and health care be universal? Isn’t everyone owed a society that works toward guaranteeing the well-being of its citizens? Shouldn’t we prioritize avoiding self-destruction?

These are the questions we should be asking ourselves, not how do we create a better business environment. Consider what this implies about the purpose of people, to say nothing about the meaning of life. The business of America should not be business, but well-being.

No philosopher can read this and not be reminded of Aristotle’s assessment of governments. They are good to the extent they provide the conditions in which all their citizens can live well. But does America today do this or even try to? As Bittman says:

For example, is contemporary American agriculture a system for nourishing people and providing a livelihood for farmers? Or is it one for denuding the nation’s topsoil while poisoning land, water, workers and consumers and enriching corporations? Our collective actions would indicate that our principles favor the latter; that has to change … For example, if we had a national agreement that food is not just a commodity, a way to make money, but instead a way to nourish people and the planet and a means to safeguard our future, we could begin to reconfigure the system for that purpose.

Bittman understands that there will be unintended consequences that follow from tinkering with complex political and economic systems,

But without an agreement on goals, without statements of purpose, we are going to continue to see changes that are not in the interest of the majority. Increasingly, it’s corporations and not governments that are determining how the world works. As unrepresentative as government might seem right now, there is at least a chance of improving it, whereas corporations will always act in their own interests.

Bittman challenges us to rethink political philosophy and political economy, whose goal should be to create a society in which everyone can flourish. A society so much different from America today.

The big ideas and strategies for how we should manage society and thrive with the planet are not a set of rules handed down from on high. To develop them for now and the future is a major challenge, and we — progressives and our allies — have to work harder at it. No one is going to figure it out for us.

2 thoughts on “Mark Bittman on the Purpose of Society

  1. John, this is a wonderful essay! Thank you.

    Mr. Bittman is absolutely correct when he says that we need “a national agreement that food is not just a commodity, a way to make money, but instead a way to nourish people and the planet and a means to safeguard our future”; and that “The business of America should not be business, but well-being.” And I also appreciate your reference to Aristotle’s assessment of governments. I think Aristotle’s views on the good life (per your other essay) are perhaps also part of the conversation.

    Mr. Bittman doesn’t demonize people in the food industry, but rightly points out that corporations act mainly in their own self-interest. As a food scientist, my father was highly motivated to invent new products that would benefit people as well as the corporate bottom line. But sometimes new products had unintended health consequences. Back in the 1960s or 1970s, my father commented about the amazing benefits of high fructose corn syrup – that it was a cheap additive, making foods more palatable with better texture. Both the corporation and the consumer benefited. Little did anyone know that high fructose corn syrup would later contribute to the obesity epidemic. People often blame the food industry for “forcing” products like high-fructose corn syrup on an unsuspecting public. But consumers share some of the blame by having unrealistic expectations of unlimited, low-cost, good-tasting food.

    By adopting national goals as outlined by Mr. Bittman, we might be able to prevent the next dangerous food product from being marketed, have a cleaner and more ethical system of food production and improve the health and well-being of humans. But how do we achieve those goals? Governmental regulation can only do so much in a “free” society. Ethics of individual citizens need to be the driving force in this solution. If consumers demand healthy, ethically-produced food products, corporations will largely oblige without governmental regulation.

    As part of the solution, we need to change our taste buds in favor of healthy foods. Not every meal should end with a cookie or a dessert. Not every meal should include meat (and some would argue that no meal should contain meat). We often forget or ignore the fact that our health is largely a reflection of what we ingest (eat, drink and breathe). There is a lot of truth in the old familiar quip: “You are what you eat, from your head down to your feet”. Aristotle would advise us to develop better eating habits. This would lead to the demand for more healthy, ethically-produced food.

  2. Thanks much Jim for your insightful comments. Aristotle thought that moderation in all things, including the appetites, was one of the most important virtues and necessary for a good life. And you are right that putting good food into your body is the single biggest thing you can do for your health—which Aristotle also believed was crucial to having a good life. – JGM

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