international analysis and commentary

Food security, ethics and the Catholic Church


The world of ethics is divided into two large families, the so-called absolutist ethics and utilitarian ethics. The German tradition is rooted in the first line of thinking: An ethical action is ethical because it is made up of duty – not because one weighs the consequences, not because of love. The key is to act on the basis of an imperative. It is an absolute duty to do, irrespective of consequences.

We then have the British/American tradition: utilitarianism. According to this category of thought, there is no such thing as absolute duty; rather, one weighs the consequences. If the consequences are good for the majority, then an action is moral. If it is not, it is not moral.

When applied to the debate about the ethics of food security, i.e. food security as a moral imperative, we have to first understand what kind of moral template we have at our disposal.

In this respect, it is quite interesting to look at the position of the Catholic Church – as an agency that has been producing morality (or even sometimes immorality) for two thousand years. Let’s take for example the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, and then 1996, in connection with the access to food. There is a strong Kantian edge, to the extent that these documents state that people have the right to food in adequate amount and quality. This right is a “negative right” in classical terms, as long as individuals are not to be hampered in their endeavour to produce or collect food. Indeed, hunger is often the result of violent conflicts and wars, which result in food being taken away or prevented from being produced.

But the right to food is also a “positive right” – meaning that if you are poor and unable to produce your own food, then somebody else within the community must provide it for you. This is exactly the position taken by the Catholic Church: a combination of negative and positive rights, both conceptually and practically (through the Church’s commitment to supporting the poor in various ways).

Negative rights are mostly linked to markets and their efficiency, whereas positive rights are linked to solidarity, the welfare state and international donors. Regarding the morality behind food security, these two pillars – individual freedom as a force for good, and social responsibility to guard against the worst – cannot be separated. In other words, there must be a certain balance between opportunities for profit and basic solidarity.

Today, in comparison to 40 or 50 years ago, we know more about the causes of hunger and food (in)security: in particular, we know that markets (left to their own devices) cannot always produce a sufficient amount of food everywhere, and cannot bring it to parts of the world where there is a condition of Malthusian under-production. This is where the issue of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) comes into play: once again, it involves both negative and positive rights. Why should people be denied the market-based freedom to be entrepreneurs and produce new food (positive rights)? It is easy to argue that prohibiting or limiting GMOs increases the overall cost of food. In Europe, for example, the European Common Agricultural Policy (effectively prohibiting GMOs) makes food expensive, with the worst effect being felt by the lower income bracket of the population.

What does the Catholic Church have to say about this? Under Pope Paul VI, the Church took up this issue in the 1960s with the Encyclical Populorum Progressio. More recently, Pope Benedict XVI produced the Caritas in Veritate, and Pope Francis has made several speeches on the topic. The common thread of these documents and statements is straightforward: the problem of hunger in the world is not so much a material, economic or technical problem, but rather a moral problem. The lack of solidarity is the most important catalyst for underdevelopment and in the worst cases hunger. Caritas in Veritate explicitly addresses the role of globalization in this context: the conclusion is that as society becomes even more globalized, it makes us networked and connected but it does not make us brothers and sisters. Reason by itself is capable of grasping the notion of equality between human beings (thus providing the foundation of social coexistence), but it cannot establish fraternity, which can only originate from God and the teachings of Jesus Christ. In essence, the Church believes that, by reason alone, we will never achieve the kind of relationship among individuals and societies which is needed to eliminate underdevelopment, poverty and hunger. This is all the more significant because the elimination of world hunger has also become a requirement for safeguarding the peace and stability of the planet: we are therefore looking at the “absolute imperative” of Kantian ethics.

According to the book of Matthew in the New Testament, feeding the hungry is absolutely imperative for a good Christian. It is an absolute duty and as such it cannot be escaped, irrespective of the consequences. And yet, the point is made stronger by the observation that the consequence will indeed be good, because feeding the hungry will help eliminate underdevelopment and make the world a safer and better place. There is no apparent dilemma or trade off here between negative and positive rights.

If we take a somewhat different example related to vital resources, however, consistency becomes more problematic: drinking water is a case in point. In the name of universal and theoretically free-of-charge access to water, tap water should not be charged or should be underpriced (and this is exactly the position taken by the Catholic Church, along with various NGOs and civil society movements, on the issue); however, such a solution might eventually reduce the quality of available water and its distribution. Here, utilitarian or “consequentialist” ethics must come to the rescue. Of course, it will never be easy, in practice, to evaluate with precision whether “a majority” is benefiting from one or the other solution. Yet, the moral strength of a purely Kantian perspective is, in this case literally, a glass only half full.