Session VIII: Equality and Responsibilities in Citizenship

Gordon Babst and John Compton, “Equal Citizenship and Religion”
Joan McGregor, “Why Food Citizenship?”
Moderator: Leslie Francis
Report by Mark Navin


I have organized my summary of this session’s discussion thematically. I hope that what I have sacrificed in chronological accuracy is made up for by a more accessible format. (Thanks to Ken Kipnis for suggesting that I write my report in this manner.)


On Joan McGregor’s, “Why Food Citizenship?”

Food Citizens

Richard De George asked what we gain by thinking about the agents who are responsible for food justice as citizens rather than as human beings. Joan McGregor replied that talking about food citizenship foregrounds the fact that food choices are not merely private choices, i.e. they are not beyond the scope of ethics or justice, but they are means by which we discharge our responsibilities as members of political communities. Mark Navin suggested that talking about food citizenship may make more sense in contexts in which public political institutions have failed to promote food justice (and in the face of a reasonable belief that these institutions will continue to fail to promote food justice). So, ethical (and political?) consumerism is not mere vigilantism, but is virtuous citizenship, in such contexts (see e.g. Hussain 2012). Helga Varden continued the discussion about why food citizenship matters: It helps us to see that we are talking about more than the duty to act with kindness towards our fellow community members, but that we are ultimately focused on making laws to regulate a food system in which we all participate. The food system is a system, and not merely a matter of transfers between individuals, and so it falls under considerations of justice and within the concern of persons considered as citizens. Joan McGregor was largely sympathetic with these friendly suggestions.

Laurence Houlgate also wondered whether there was only one kind of ‘food citizenship’, i.e. whether the only food citizens are people who have the ‘right’ views about food policy. Or can there be deep disagreement among people who are nonetheless all food citizens? McGregor replied that food citizenship requires a commitment to public engagement and deliberation about the causes and effects of food systems, but that food citizens might be committed to any number of policy positions.



Deen Chatterjee worried that Joan McGregor was committed to a kind of communitarianism, but that communitarianism was unnecessary and unhelpful for her project. If locavorist forms of food citizenship are inconsistent with cosmopolitan forms of moral thinking, then we have reasons to reject locavorism. In particular, Chatterjee observed that we need to have a global perspective to explain why a person should act contrary to the food practices of his community, when those food choices do not promote justice, for example, if we want to give reasons why a person from Nebraska should be a vegetarian. On this point, Heidi Malm wondered what Joan would say about locavorism when local food cultures are morally problematic – and when local political practices are unjust. Malm said that we surely need a way to criticize parochial views and practices. Ann Cudd also worried that a commitment to locavorism may encourage parochialism – making our worlds even smaller than they already are. And Yi Deng observed that food trade often provides opportunities for small-scale producers from isolated rural areas to access consumers elsewhere. So, there may be much to commend ‘distant food’. John Francis continued by suggesting that it may not be helpful to see local food practices as existing in tension with commitments to national and global projects. So, even if we want to accommodate contemporary interests in locavorism, perhaps this is consistent with – or even required by – our commitments to national or global concerns (see e.g. Navin 2014).

Joan McGregor replied that she was a communitarian in the sense that she thinks that it is important for each community to get to define what it cares about, including its own food culture. However, McGregor does not endorse a justificatory communitarianism that rules out cosmopolitan forms of moral thinking. Furthermore, McGregor insists that the value of locavorist forms of food citizenship depends upon their tendency to promote good consequences. In that way, food citizenship is much more sophisticated than the simple invocation to ‘eat local’.


Policies for Locavorist Food Citizenship

Peter Higgins wondered what food citizenship looks like for people who do not have access to local food, e.g. people who live in food desserts. Nicolaus Tideman observed that McGregor focused on personal activism and public regulation, but he wondered whether better-functioning markets might play a prominent role in food citizenship. In particular, Tideman wondered whether we might best promote food justice by using price mechanisms to force people to pay for the real costs of their food, i.e. internalizing the externalities of current food production methods (see e.g. Buller and Morris 2004). Laurence Houlgate observed that well-intentioned policies may not work well. Consider the new federal nutrition standards for school lunch programs, i.e. that require students to take fresh fruits and vegetables. These policies are commendable, but what do we say about the fact that ~60% of the fresh vegetables and ~40 of the fresh fruits that are served to children are thrown away (see e.g. Watanabe 2014)?

In reply to these concerns about policies, Joan McGregor observed that food citizens may promote a variety of different practices, including personal and community gardens, Farmers Markets, activism aimed at corporate agriculture, etc. And food citizens need not be committed to any one kind of local food practice. Also, it seems likely that early interventions will be necessary; children who are raised on sugary, salty and fatty processed foods may find it more difficult to develop good eating habits later in life.


On Gordon Babst and John Compton’s, “Equal Citizenship and Religion”

Where to Draw the Line?

Matt Lister asked how far back the jurisprudence ought to be pushed back – how radical are Babst and Compton’s conclusions? John Compton replied that they would like to see a return to 1980s jurisprudence on religious exemptions, when the courts were less sanguine about religious exemptions in economic activities. So, for example, they would support a ministerial exemption, but not exemptions for individuals or corporations engaging in economic activities. Emily Gill suggested that any time public money is being received by a religious organization the religious organization should abide by nondiscrimination laws. John Compton agreed with Gill. Richard Parker shared his sense of unease about the courts assessing the sincerity and centrality of religious objections. Gordon Babst shared this concern.


Issues with Hobby Lobby

Ed Abegg suggested that what is troubling about the Hobby Lobby case is that health insurance belongs to the employee and, therefore, that a business’s attempt to tell a worker how to use her health insurance is tantamount to a business telling her how to spend her money. In reply, Bruce Landesman suggested that workers consent to the content of their insurance policies, i.e. through their employment contracts. But John Compton countered that, in the Hobby Lobby case, the changes to health insurance policies were not the objects of voluntary consent, but of statutory requirements and legal challenges.

Robert Van Wyck observed that the Hobby Lobby decision provided an interpretation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). But the problems that this statute was meant to address (e.g. the liturgical use of legally prohibited drugs) seem far removed from claims about the religious conscience rights of businesses. John Compton agreed and noted that the RFRA received near unanimous bipartisan Congressional support, but that this would not have happened if members of Congress understood the RFRA to be establishing religious exemption rights for corporate persons.


Broader Issues

Stephen Nathanson worried that the US Constitution seems to grant great latitude to religious expression, even if there are good reasons of justice not to permit exemptions like those protected by the Hobby Lobby decision. In particular, the 1st Amendment seems to protect an expansive scope for religious exemptions and it seems to build a priority for religious objections into the law. In reply, John Compton observed that the 1st Amendment has been interpreted (and, therefore, can be interpreted) in many different ways. In particular, there has been a radical change between 1980s 1st Amendment jurisprudence and recent Supreme Court decisions. Ken Henley suggested that while Hobby Lobby was disturbing, we should worry more about religious exemptions that cause harm to children. In particular, Wisconsin v Yoder is still law, and it allows parents to act in ways that radically close off the futures of their children, since it permits them to remove their children from school after the eighth grade. John Compton agreed that there are many problems with current US law regarding religious exemptions.

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