Over on my Food Ethics Blog, I recently posted a piece on the oft-proclaimed “right to know what I’m eating.” That right is often asserted, but seldom explained. Do we have a right to know everything about what we’re eating? Basically I argue that rights are a very serious kind of moral mechanism, to be used only to protect our most important, central interests.
Now, that blog entry was specifically about the right to know about your food. The (claimed or actual) right to information about your food is of course just one among many (claimed or actual) rights for consumers to know things about the products they’re buying.
Now, sometimes rights arise from government action: under food labelling laws in Canada and the U.S., for example, consumers have a right to know the basic nutritional characteristics — including calories — of the packaged foods they buy. So, does this right follow the pattern I suggested above? Is knowing the precise caloric content of a serving of Special K, or the amount of niacin it contains, essential to protecting or promoting my central interests? Clearly not. But take note: I’m not at all saying it’s not useful information; it clearly is. But people did manage to get by in life prior to such labelling rules. So having that information isn’t essential to protecting an individual’s interests.
Now, some will think this is a counter-example to the (very basic) theory of rights I proposed in my food info blog entry. Here, we have a socially-acknowledged right to a piece of information (calories in your breakfast cereal), despite the fact that it’s a piece of information that is hardly essential to my well-being.
But I think a better lesson can be drawn, here, and that’s that well-justified consumer-protection laws (like nutritional labelling laws) aren’t necessarily designed to protect the rights of individuals. They’re better thought of as being designed to promote the well-being populations. Knowing how many calories are in a bowl of Special K might not be essential to protecting my interests. But (so the thinking goes) there’s a good chance that forcing companies to reveal that information will result in a more calorie-aware population, which is a good result.
The distinction ‘under the hood,’ here, is an important one. Sometimes we attribute rights to individuals (e.g., the right to a piece of information) because we think that right is owed, morally, to that person. And sometimes we attribute rights to individuals instrumentally, as ways of achieving broader social goals.
I’ll likely return to this set of issues soon. There are lots of things consumers have an interest in knowing. For example, I’d love for the stereo salesperson at Best Buy to tell me if a competitor sells the same item cheaper. Do I have the right to that info? Stay tuned.