No, Plant-Based Meals Do Not Undermine Freedom of Choice

No, Plant-Based Meals Do Not Undermine Freedom of Choice

Written by Joanna Demaree-Cotton

 

Last month, TV personality Jeremy Clarkson took centre-stage in our local county politics with an argument against plant-based meals. His fury—expressed on television, on Twitter, and in a strongly-worded column in The Sun—was sparked by the Oxfordshire County Council’s decision to provide only plant-based meals at council-catered events as a move towards environmental sustainability.

 

Local farmers—including Jeremy Clarkson, whose farm in Oxfordshire was the focus of his latest TV venture Clarkson’s Farm—protested the measures. There is nothing surprising about this. There’s a straightforward conflict of interest here. It’s in the interests of people who make a living from selling animal products to promote diets based around animal products. (As local arable farmer John Richardson was reported to have said at the protest, “[we’re] just trying to promote the good food we produce”.)

 

More curious, however, is the claim that it’s morally wrong to have policies committing to plant-based catering. More specifically, one of Clarkson’s arguments was that deciding to provide plant-based catering is morally wrong because it interferes with freedom of choice. Standing with protesting farmers, Clarkson reportedly argued:

 

“I think people have to have choice. If people want to eat seeds and weeds, fine. If people want to eat meat, fine. … You can’t dictate. You might be a vegetarian but you can’t make everyone else a vegetarian just because you are.”

A similar idea was echoed by local Conservative councillor David Bartholomew—who said that he “abhor[s]” being “commanded” to eat vegan food, hyperbolically calling the “authoritarian” County Council a “bullying diktat”. And the same idea recurred in comments expressed, much less hyperbolically, by farmer Richardson, who reportedly said, “We believe people should be given a choice as to what they eat.”

 

This dispute is interesting precisely because it is not merely provincial, particular to Oxfordshire county politics. In the face of mounting scientific evidence that high levels of meat consumption are not environmentally sustainable and that plant-based meals have a lower carbon footprint,[1] “reducetarianism” (making an effort to reduce the quantity of meat and dairy in your diet) is on the rise. This means that increasing numbers of individuals and organizations (including select football clubs, primary schools, university canteens, even a US state) are moving towards reducing meat, making more plant-based choices, and to committing to plant-based menus for public events—if not all the time, then at least on Mondays, as the popular ‘Meat-Free Mondays’ trend goes.  And, in analogous fashion, these moves are frequently accused of unjustly limiting freedom of choice.

 

But the argument that plant-based meal policies (like that implemented by Oxford County Council) violate freedom-based rights is difficult to make sense of. Ultimately, I suggest, it does not stand up to logical scrutiny. Jeremy Clarkson says people have the right to choose. What exactly does this right to choose consist in? Here’s the dilemma: either, the kind of right he has in mind is not a right that we, in fact, have; or, it is a true moral right, but it’s not a right that is violated by reducetarian, plant-based policies of the kind that he is protesting against.

 

Consider, first, that Clarkson might mean that you have the right to choose what kind of food is served at public events; or that you have the right to be presented with more than one food option at such events, allowing you to pick something according to your preferences. Both of these are nonstarters. We simply do not have those rights. If Jeremy attends a lunchtime event, and the only food option on offer is ham sandwiches, he might be disappointed at the limited menu. But his rights have surely not been violated, no more than your rights are violated by a local chippy that only does chips. Even if he would have preferred a nice hearty soup, or a salad bar, or tacos, or simply to have an extensive menu, there’s no sense in which he has the right to be provided with those options. While people might have the right to healthy nourishment—perhaps even the right to a diet consisting of a regular selection of healthy nourishment—it’s not clear that they have the right to be served specific forms of it, at specific times, by specific sources. My freedom of choice is not violated if an event I attend doesn’t serve mango sorbet, or pizza, on the grounds that those are my favourites. Academics do not have their freedom of choice violated if a conference serves a choice between salad, bagels, and soup, even if burritos would have been much more popular with the majority of attendees. Indeed, these events could simply not serve any food whatsoever without violating freedom of choice.

 

So the idea that we ought to literally be presented with food options is probably not what Clarkson meant when he said that serving an exclusively plant-based menu violates our right to choice. More to the point, he might say, is that people do have the following right: they have the right to choose their own lifestyle: to choose whether to be vegan, reducetarian, or to consume animal products as a regular part of their diet. Of course, whether or not we do have the moral right to eat animal products is the crux of the debate between vegans and non-vegans. Many animal-rights activists and environmental activists argue that eating animal products is not even morally permissible, at least for those of us with the privilege of choice (i.e. those of us not limited by medical restrictions, economic hardship and so on). On this view, we therefore do not have the right to choose to eat animal products, just like we don’t have the right to eat endangered species, to eat children, or to eat food belonging to the lady next door.

 

Clarkson would disagree. But whether or not Clarkson or the vegan activists come out on top about that is simply moot. That’s because even if we have a right to choose whether or not to be vegan, this right is not plausibly violated by plant-based catering policies of the kind being considered, so it wouldn’t show that it’s wrong to only serve plant-based meals at county council events. This is because even if these events only serve plant-based meals, this still leaves attendants very, very free to spend most of their time eating animal products as a regular part of their diet—the definition of being a committed omnivore. After all, presumably nobody is forced to eat food offered at these events – they can simply not partake and eat the relevant meal before or after the event; or they can bring their own, or pop down the road for an egg-salad sandwich if they are so inclined. And even if they do eat the plant-based food on offer, they are free to eat meals centred around animal products the rest of the time. In fact, they could insist on eating nothing but medium-rare steaks for every other meal and snack they ever consume (though I don’t think their doctor would advise it). Their right to an omnivorous lifestyle, if they have such a right, is not threatened.

 

Still, it’s plausible that if public events only or regularly serve food that certain members of the public cannot eat without violating their own religious or moral convictions, this makes those events less accessible to them—even if they don’t have to eat what is served at those events, and even if they can maintain their own lifestyle the rest of the time. And it’s plausible that this unjustly and unfairly restricts their ability to participate equally in public life, even if it doesn’t make it literally impossible. For example, it’s plausible that serving exclusively pork-based products at public political events would be wrong, despite the fact that kosher Jews could in principle go to events and simply not eat: since partaking in the food would violate their personal values, they are not be able to participate as easily and fully as others.

 

Along these lines, Clarkson might offer the following argument. First, you have the right not to eat certain foods if that goes against your personal, moral, or religious values. What’s more—he might continue—you also have the right to have a meaningful choice over whether or not to participate equally in public life, including local politics, without having values forced on you. And—here’s the third step of the argument—even if these policies do not literally prevent you from leading an omnivorous life should you choose to do so, the food being served is vegan food, and I (Clarkson) am a non-vegan. So plant-based menus, he concludes, leave non-vegans less free to participate fully in public life without violating their personal values.

 

This hypothetical Clarkson makes some reasonable points. It’s plausible that you have the right not to eat foods if that goes against your own values, and that you in some sense have the right to free and equal participation in public life. Hypothetical Clarkson, however, falls down at step three, where he claims that plant-based catering violates his values as a non-vegan, or forces vegan values onto him even though he rejects vegan values.

 

For a start, if partaking in a plant-based meal changes your lifestyle, or violates the values of non-vegans, then Jeremy Clarkson was in big trouble that time he ate beans on toast. But of course he needn’t be worried. That’s because most of the things that non-vegans are able to eat are plants. Whether it’s a portion of fruit salad, nibbles of tortilla chips dipped in guacamole, or a snack of pita bread with hummus, eating plants cannot turn you into a vegan, any more than going to dinner at an observant Jewish friend’s home makes you a kosher Jew.

 

One of the principal difficulties here is that most of the things that non-vegans eat are already plant-based. Non-vegans eat many things: wheat; pasta; rice; oats; nuts; herbs; spices; legumes; potatoes and starchy vegetables; lentils; fruits and berries; olive oil; salads; tomatoes, chillies, peppers, aubergines, and all the nightshades; onions; squashes… the list goes on. And this list is shared by vegans. The only difference between vegans and non-vegans is that non-vegans also eat animal products—meat, fish, and dairy—in addition to all that plant-based stuff. Plant-based meals are defined by an absence. It’s an “everything except__”. So serving only plant-based meals at an event doesn’t force anybody to eat foods that aren’t already a part of their diet, and it’s not plausible that it forces people to make an unjust choice between their personal values and participating fully and easily in public life. In fact, if we think public life should be equally accessible to all with a range of personal beliefs and values, and that this principle should affect our catering policies, that’s all the more reason to go plant-based. While vegans and various religions avoid some or all meats, plants are generally good to go for all.

 

So it’s difficult to find a way of fleshing out the idea that exclusively plant-based menus violate freedom of choice for non-vegans in a way that justifies the conclusion that these plant-based catering commitments are therefore wrong. Maybe there are other reasons to think that these policies are wrong. But it can’t be because it violates freedom of choice.

 

Still, there is something philosophically deep about the thought that an organization publicly declaring a morally-motivated commitment restricts our freedom. This is not because the organization itself unjustly controls us, or does anything wrong, but because, as rational moral beings, we are restricted by morality. Morality binds us and tells us what we can do and cannot do. Morality says, “I don’t care if you desperately want to lie and cheat your way to the top. That’s banned.” It says, “No matter how good it tastes, nabbing the apple crumble that your neighbour left on their windowsill to cool down is simply not on your menu of options.”

 

The idea that morality constrains the limits of our freedom has been explored and developed in different ways by many philosophers over centuries. It also finds reflection in ordinary moral reasoning. Research in experimental psychology suggests that when an action is immoral, people are more likely to think that the action is something that it is impossible to do, and less likely to think of it as a meaningful option. For example, imagine your car breaks down on your way to the airport. There are a number of possible courses of action that you are free to choose between: trying to hitch-hike, finding a bus, calling a friend. But people tend to feel that doing something seriously immoral to get to the airport, like murdering someone else and stealing their car, is not a possibility—just like it’s impossible to get the airport by flying unicorn or teletransportation.[2] There is also evidence that people tend to be objectivists about morality, meaning that they feel that moral imperatives are universal, commanding everybody equally, and that if we disagree about morality, only one of us is right.[3] This means that if morality bans murder for you, it also bans murder for me.

 

Because of this, when other people make moral claims, they seem to implicitly place restrictions on us. If I’m at dinner with friends and someone explains why they think it’s immoral to tip any less than 20%, I no longer feel as free as I did to leave my measly 10%, even if I’m giving the payment on a card terminal that none of my friends can see. If it feels like there might be something to my friend’s moral argument, 10% no longer seems like an option I can freely choose. Similarly, when an organization states that there are moral reasons to reduce our consumption of animal products—whether those reasons are to do with sustainability and the environment, or moral reasons to do with the cruel treatment of animals in contemporary, large-scale agriculture—there is a sense in which this threatens to restrict the freedom of animal-eaters. It makes salient moral values that have the potential to take a hold on them and command them to change; it raises the possibility that mainstream dietary choices that have previously been thought to fall into the undemanding, uncontrolling domain of “personal choice” in fact fall within the “dictatorship” of morality. And if the organization in question is right and there are moral reasons for the organization to reduce the consumption of animal-based products, well, then those moral reasons apply to me too, and affect my choices as well. So the trouble that animal-eaters might have with Oxford County Council isn’t really that Oxford County Council is dictating people’s dietary choices by serving up some plant-based meals. The trouble is that it has made claims that suggest that it’s a moral issue, and that morality ought to dictate people’s dietary choices. So perhaps the freedom of choice that Jeremy really wants is the freedom not to have to think about whether or not morality demands that he change some of his ways. But that is not a freedom to which he, or any of us, is entitled.

 

 

Clark, M. A., Springmann, M., Hill, J., & Tilman, D. (2019). Multiple health and environmental impacts of foods. PNAS, Vol.116, Issue 46, pp.23357-23362.

 

Phillips, J., & Cushman, F. (2017). Morality constrains the default representation of what is possible. PNAS,Vol.114, Issue 18, pp.4649-4654.

 

Poore, J., & Nemecek, T. (2018). Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science, Vol. 360, Issue 6392, pp.987-992.

 

Scarborough, P., Appleby, P. N., Mizdrak, A., Briggs, A. D. M., Travis, R. C., Bradbury, K. E., & Key, T. J. (2014). Dietary greenhouse gas emissions of meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans in the UK. Climate Change, Vol.125, pp.179-192.

 

Zijlstra, L. (2021). Are People Implicitly Moral Objectivists? Review of Philosophy and Psychology, https://doi.org/10.1007/s13164-021-00593-y

[1] E.g. Clark et al., 2019; Poor & Nemecek, 2018; Scarborough et al., 2014.

[2] Phillips & Cushman, 2017.

[3] Zijlstra, 2021.

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6 Responses to No, Plant-Based Meals Do Not Undermine Freedom of Choice

  • Barkson says:

    Convincing reasoning!

    To which we can add that there are still many more situations with no vegan meal option (i e. all meal options contain animal ingredients) than situations with no non-vegan option. If the latter type of situation transgresses against freedom of choice then so does the former. And since the former is more common it is quantitatively worse for those transgressed against, because they are confronted with it more often. Thus Clarkson should spend most of his freedom of choice activist time on helping get vegan meal options into schools, elderly care facilities, hospitals, pubs and so on.

  • CG says:

    Thank you. Vegans are often accused of “forcing our views” on others, but the reality is that we live in a world in which meat eating is still practically compulsory. If anything, institutions need to take more seriously our right to *not* eat that which we find morally objectionable, since currently the choice to do so comes with a great deal of social obstacles – lack of available plant-based food options being the most important.

  • Paul D. Van Pelt says:

    My comment was not registered, as far as I can know. So, well—it was not that important anyway.

  • James Hunt says:

    If the argument is that providing only one type of meal does not deny freedom of choice because adherents of other diets can make their own arrangements, providing catering with animal sourced products will cater to the vast majority of people (with the vegetarian societies estimate of 2-3% of UK adults being vegan/vegetarian). There are serious environmental consideration to the use of industrially produced fats and oils utilised in many commercial animal free products, therefore a blanket policy of replacing animal sourced foods is shortsighted and irresponsible.

    • Joanna Demaree-Cotton says:

      Thanks for the comment, James. The argument is actually that providing vegan meals caters to *everyone* (more or less), since everyone (vegans and non-vegans) can eat fruit, veg, grains, etc., whereas animal-based meals excludes vegans, vegetarians, and also people of various religions (that prohibit pork, beef, etc.) That seems preferable to catering to the majority while systematically excluding a minority for their ethical and religious commitments.

      I don’t know the research on the oils you’re referring to, but research has consistently shown that diets with meat and dairy have a higher environmental impact than diets without. So if the products you’re referring are high impact, it doesn’t seem to be enough to make plant-based diets worse for the environment overall compared to meat-based diets (this could be for various reasons: eg animal-based products are even more high-impact; or, also plausible, these items only make up a very small proportion of what vegans actually eat; etc.) It’s also perfectly compatible with my argument to claim we should try to minimise the environmental impact of catering *even further* by including only lower-impact vegan meals and avoiding specific higher-impact items – though this is a more extreme position than the one I was arguing for here, which was only that plant-based catering as such does not meaningfully restrict freedom of choice

  • MICHAEL DEMAREE says:

    No, Plant-Based Meals Do Not Undermine Freedom of Choice
    Published April 13, 2022 | By Joanna Demaree-Cotton

    1 This delightful posting invites an exploration of the thoughts expressed. And as I am universally unknown, let me describe my own thinking concerning a government/citizen relationship as “Constitutionalist”, referring to the United States Declaration of Independence, a mission statement, and the United States Constitution and Amendments, a systems delineation.
    For ease of reference I have taken the liberty of adding a number for each Cotton paragraph, starting with this Paragraph 1. And also, before starting, may we assume that the term here in Paragraph 1, “…meals at council-catered events…”, includes all ingredients, preparation, involved utilities, venue, needed furnishings, fixtures, and fittings, dishes, glasses, advertising, service, and clean-up, [meal] and all costs thereof [costs]. Doing so, let us simply use the words “meal” and/or “costs” and move to Paragraph 2.
    2 As we look at “cost/benefit” and possible conflicts of interest raised in Paragraph 2, the next unanswered question is quite basic to the need for any further exploration. Who is paying for the “meals at council-catered events” [meals]? If the “Oxfordshire County Council” [Council] is paying all costs of the meal and not utilizing any County facilities thereby incurring non-reimbursed costs, clearly they can invite whom they like, serve what they like, and invitees may choose to attend and partake or not attend or not partake. Case closed. End of discussion. If this is the circumstance, read no further.
    However, if in the Council sponsoring of the meals the costs of the meals are paid by the County or County resources are utilized by the Council without proper and complete reimbursement to the County, such circumstances may warrant further investigation. This assumption moves us to Paragraph 3.
    3 In Paragraph 3 the specter of morality arises. Surely the choice of what is served has no moral component, but the introduction of the term “policies” may well have a moral component.
    Since the funds available to the Council are only funds extracted through taxes on ratepayers, extracted under threat of force or even death if payment of taxes is refused (think taxes are unjust you’ll be taken to court, court upholds unjust taxes, still don’t pay unjust taxes they will seize your assets, refuse to give up your assets to unjust seizure they will arrest you, refuse to be unjustly arrested they will use force, fight against the unjust force and you will be subdued, continue to fight and the unjust force will be heightened, injure a perpetrator of unjust force or even kill a perpetrator of unjust force and your life is forfeit) surely all tax payers should and must, morally speaking, share equally and benefit equally in the largesse of the Council in providing meals. But if the choice of what is to be served at these meals excludes certain tax payers from the profits derived from selling to Council, or if the meals provided are only acceptable to a certain group of tax payers, and the tax payers are overlooked or ignored, or denigrated because of disagreement with the “correct” policies of the Council, and the tax payer is not given a refund of his proportional share of the costs of the meal, then surely a moral wrong is, in fact being committed. Force is being used to limit the freedom of choice of that individual tax payer.
    4 Paragraph 4 shows how others consider exclusive policies enforced by the use of force are morally repugnant to those whose freedoms are limited by that force. It is morally wrong.
    5 Ms. Demaree-Cotton here calls on a few points of view to which she is amenable as justification for the use of force to promote those points of view when there are as many or more of the views opposing her preferences which she sadly has enumerated in her position. I would think she would choose a deep dive into the “who benefits” by reducetarianism question. But she seems to slide into the implication of the totalitarian proponents that the “greater good” should exceed the value of any individual rights.
    6 I repeat, the question is not addressed. It is not “what is served” at the meal, but the policy of “what is served” at the meal which needed exploration.
    7 Apparently tax payers, citizens if you will, have no rights to object to policies harmful to themselves. And the “chippy” example is of course a simple totalitarian distraction from the actual question. The question is should the tax payer be required to fund the costs of the chip shop even he doesn’t care for chips? If he is required, by force, to pay the costs for chips whether he wants chips or not that is surely a gross violation of his freedom to choose. That is why even the proponent of the totalitarian would be embarrassed to openly require the tax payer to fund the chip shop. In the same way, Mr. Clarkson should never be forced to fund the Council’s discriminatory policies.
    If I am paying for a meal I have a right to choose what I purchase. Is that so difficult?
    8 Demonstrating non-starters are the examples in the last sentence. If we agree that endangered species should not be eaten and if we agree as to what are endangered species then we have chosen as is our right. If we agree that children should not be eaten and if we agree as to what a child is then we have chosen as is our right. If we agree that theft of the property of others should not be done, and if we agree as to what is the property of others then we have chosen as is our right.
    9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, and 18 Again, cute examples conjured out of thin air to satisfy particular personal emotional investments shown in Paragraphs 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, and 18 are all irrelevant to the question.
    The question remains, “Should any individual be required, by force or threat of force, to fund or indeed to acquiesce to the morality, however derived, of another individual?” If the answer is “yes” I hope for your sake that you are the one at the top of such a totalitarian hierarchy.

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