Ethical Economics, Economical Ethics

By Dr. Karen Rezach, Director of the Ethics Institute at Kent Place School

The negative impacts of the Coronavirus continue to be felt throughout various sectors of our society. Beyond the catastrophic death toll across the world, the harmful consequences of both the virus and the unintended consequences of the interventions that were put in place to combat the virus will be felt for years to come. Economically, many businesses were forced to close as a result of CDC guidelines and governmental policies. Some of these businesses are still barely recovering which has resulted in a loss of jobs and a decrease in wages for thousands of people. Combined with the highest rate of inflation in 40 years, many people in our community find themselves in an extremely challenging economic and financial situation. Many struggle to pay bills, mortgages and food expenses. The numbers of those members of society who are “food insecure” continue to rise.

Food insecurity is nothing new. Issues of “food” have long been the topic of discussion in ethical circles; namely, issues like food distribution, food deserts, and the creation and distribution of genetically modified food, to name a few. In an effort to combat the moral and ethical effects of hunger, many people participate in food drives and donate time to food pantries. Our Ethics, Leadership and Economics program participants were among those people who volunteered to help those in need this summer, as they made their way to the Community Food Bank in Hillside, NJ.

One might ask, “What could be unethical about food banks? Or food donations? Or helping those in our community who are food insecure?” Yet there are a number of ethical issues that arise, and were the topic of discussion with our students:

What if food that is the most convenient and shelf-sustainable is not the healthiest?

Research proves that food that lacks nutritional value and is high in salt, sugar and/or preservatives can lead to long-term health issues and potential public health crises, such as obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure. With this in mind, should the nutritive value of donated food be taken into consideration? Which is more important: to “fill” people or to “feed” people? 

Is “food” a basic human right?

Food that is “environmentally friendly” is usually more expensive to produce: ie, organic. Should food that is not produced in an “environmentally friendly” manner be excluded from food pantries? From government food-assistance programs?

Do governments have the right to dictate what food can and cannot be purchased with government-issued food subsidies? 

How do we consider the values of autonomy, empathy and justice when discussing “food insecurity” in our community?

What would you be willing to “trade off” in order to ensure that everyone was “food secure?”

What do you consider to be the most important of ethical considerations discussed? Why? These questions are not easy to answer. Approaching these questions through a lens of ethics and economics invites us to think not only about idealized solutions to the ethical problems, but also how we might accomplish that practically, given the economic constraints that exist. Our ideal ethical solution might not be practical or economically feasible, and similarly the easiest economic solution might not be the most ethical. Hence, let us continue to wrestle with the complications that exist between “ethics and economics.”