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Nothing is like mother’s ice cream

The Icecreamists, an ice cream parlour in Covent Garden began selling a human breast-milk based ice cream last month, only to have it confiscated recently by Westminster Council in order to check that it was “fit for human consumption”. New York chef Daniel Angerer was reported as served human cheese (he didn’t, but see his blog for the recipe). He was advised by the New York Health Department to stop, since although there were no departmental codes forbidding it they claimed “cheese made from breast milk is not for public consumption, whether sold or given away”. What is it exactly that is disturbing with a human milk ice cream or cheese? And are there any good reasons to hinder selling it?

Milk and the harm principle

Westminster Council seems to invoke the harm principle: it is legitimate to coerce people in order to prevent harm. Breast milk can transmit disease, so it is sensible to check whether the new product is safe. The ice cream makers claim the women the milk comes from has had her health tested with the same test used for NHS blood donors and that the milk is pasteurized. Assuming they are right and nothing harmful is found in the milk, then the Council has no legitimate moral reason to prevent them from selling the ice cream, at least as far as the harm principle goes. However, given the typical functioning of human ‘yuck!’ factors I think it is a safe bet that it will try to find some other reason not to allow the sale. But it might be hard to find a solid moral foundation for such a reason.

Another harm argument would be to claim harm against the donating women. Maybe they get too little compensation? But they were recruited in the UK case through the Mumsnet website and voluntarily accepted the price of £15 for 10 ounces. The Daily Mail:

‘”It wasn’t intrusive at all to donate,” said Victoria Hiley, 35, who responded to the call, “just a simple blood test. What could be more natural than fresh, free-range mother’s milk in an ice cream?”‘

This doesn’t sound like the voice of someone exploited in a serious way.

We might be more concerned whether there was a big demand of food milk that competed with the demand from infants, harming their interests. Right now this is not the case. Many lactating mothers complain that their problem is often overproduction of milk and they feel guilty throwing it away, knowing how healthy it is. There are many infants in need of milk, but like food disparities there are no easy ways of redistributing it.

Another argument is that the ice cream would contribute to commodification of motherhood, or of the products of the human body. This might be a bit late. There is a thriving market in human hair, not just used for fashion but also to clean up oil spills and to produce food additives (!). While sale of human organs is banned in many countries there is a thriving system of institutions and companies compensating each other in facilitating transplantations. People do donate milk, sperm and blood in exchange for money. Human cheese has been made as an art project. In fact, there exists human milk soap and apparently an entire subculture of people interested in making human milk products. Their motivations do sound different from mere commodification.While we might not wish to commodify the human body itself it is also unclear whether there is anything problematic about selling products of the body: we do sell our work and mental activity, which are non-material products of our bodies. Of course, paid work might actually be a bad thing we should try to overcome, but compared to that selling milk is clearly a minor issue and holders of this view should focus their energy on banning work.

Who has a right to milk?

Going outside the harm principle, one argument might be that human milk should go to human infants. They should always have priority for it because they 1) can make the most use of it, 2) it is made for them. But if infants cannot make use of all the milk (due to local overproduction and problems in distributing it to remote but needy infants) they do not have a demand on it. Furthermore, many mothers drink excess milk themselves or give it to older siblings: if only infants have a right to drink milk this is wrong.

Even more problematic, if we accept the argument, how does this square with us drinking cow’s milk? Doesn’t calves have a stronger moral claim to that milk? PETA actually asked ice cream makers Ben & Jerry in 2008 to make ice cream out of human milk instead of cow’s milk, out of concern for animal welfare. In fact, milk willingly given (with full informed consent) might be more ethical than milk forced from cows.

Some might regard eating food made from human products as akin to cannibalism (I do wonder how they view infants?)  The moral bads of cannibalism is that it treats others as means rather than ends (especially if they are killed for food) and often contradict people’s posthumous interests. But these are not applicable for this kind of food: nobody is hurt, the donors are not mistreated and their interests are not harmed. But we are getting closer to the emotional core of the resistance: disgust.

The radical indecency of drinking milk

When we think about it, humans drinking cow milk is actually mildly repulsive. However, it is so useful and has been going on so long, that most of us find it completely natural (indeed, we have evolved towards it over the past 7,000 years). We get reminded about the strangeness when we hear about people from other cultures enjoying horse, camel or moose milk. As J.B.S. Haldane remarked in his classic essay Daedalus:

“But if every physical and chemical invention is a blasphemy, every biological invention is a perversion. There is hardly one which, on first being brought to the notice of an observer from any nation which has not previously heard of their existence, would not appear to him as indecent and unnatural.

Consider so simple and time-honored a process as the milking of a cow. The milk which should have been an intimate and almost sacramental bond between mother and child is elicited by the deft fingers of a milk-maid, and drunk, cooked, or even allowed to rot into cheese. We have only to imagine ourselves as drinking any of its other secretions, in order to realise the radical indecency of our relation to the cow.”

If we accept trans-species milk drinking as natural, then inter-species milk drinking seems far less problematic. Conversely, if drinking human milk is bad, maybe cow milk is worse.

Another factor in the emotional reaction is of course the sexual connotations of adults drinking human milk. Food and sex make the most potent ‘yuck!’ responses imaginable, especially since many bodily fluids are regarded as sacred in different cultures. I think this gets closer to what is really causing the unease. We are in the domain of powerful intuitions about what is disgusting, what goes where in the order of things, what substances have some inherent value. But at the same time the ice cream clearly has some form of artistic value: it is not just food but intended as an experience (it was branded as the ‘Lady Gaga’ and served by a specially dressed waitress, made at the table using liquid nitrogen). While some might find that irreverent to the sacred nature of mother’s milk others might applaud the elegant contrasts between the disparate elements, and indeed find it an aesthetic experience.

Maybe there is a moral assumption in the NY health authorities claim that human milk is not “fit for public consumption” – human milk is something private. This would fit with the intuition that it represents a special bond between mother and child, that there is something worrying about selling it and that allowing family members to drink it might be OK while allowing others to do it is not OK. But this hinges on the assumption that we all agree on what aspects of life should be public or private, and that it is a moral matter to agree on it. While Western culture makes many aspects of life such as sex and excretion private, the same aspects are not private within other cultures (and the level of privacy has changed over time). In pluralist democratic societies there will have to be ongoing negotiations of what forms of privacy to enforce or tolerate. There doesn’t seem to be any human universals about what should be in the private or public category, and hence it is hard to believe that something like human milk must morally be private. Of course, common public moral views might still be outraged and this would lead to a widely supported ban on human milk food, but we should recognize that this is little more than a cultural choice that can change as culture changes.

This relativist aspect is also why appeals to the “wisdom of repugnance” has such a bad reputation in ethics. If what disgusts us is not a human universal but highly dependent on culture then it seems to be problematic as evidence for it being intrinsically harmful or evil. The disgust felt by a racist or homophobe is not regarded as having any evidential content for deciding how to treat others. Human milk food might by its nature be close to sensitive areas of our emotions, but there are enough people thinking “why not?” or even “beautiful!” about such uses of milk that we should seriously doubt any repugnance-based judgement on the practice.

From a marketing perspective the whole affair has of course been a great success, no matter whether the ice cream goes on sale again. Which raises another question: when is it right to trigger predictable ‘yuck!’ reactions in order to garner attention?

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2 Comment on this post

  1. The main danger from human derived foods is that they are very compatible environments for human pathogens. Eating across species limits microbial danger to for example, the set-intersection of germs that cows can catch and germs that humans can catch. Likewise for prions.

  2. Ultimately, any moral judgement made by a human being is going to be based on emotion. Reason alone cannot tell us what is right, and what is wrong. Emotion can enter directly – as in the "yuck" factor – or it can enter indirectly by leading us to espouse certain ethical systems (and perhaps mistakenly regard them as "true"). But it will enter somewhere.

    For me, the best moral judgements are going to be those that are associated with a positive vision of the future, that is to say a vision about which we feel "enthusiasm". But this doesn't mean that disgust can't also play a role. For example, those of us who value freedom and equality tend to be disgusted by racism and homophobia, and this is good. I agree that we shouldn't rush to moral judgement every time we are disgusted by something, but subject to appropriate constraints I believe that disgust has an important role to play in motivating the moral judgements on which our future depends.

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