The Luxury of Morality
When I was a freshman in college, I used to eat a bag of Doritos and a king-size package of Reese's peanut butter cups every evening around 12:30am, along with a 20 oz. Diet Coke. The only reason I didn't weigh 350 pounds was because I had the metabolism of a hummingbird. Since then, my metabolism has slowed substantially, and I've moved past Doritos and Reese's. However, I am still a creature of (bad) habits.
In Good Company
Apparently, I'm not the only one. Maggie and I have been chewing on a recent exposé of the food industry from The New York Times Magazine ("The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food" by Michael Moss, February 20, 2013). Highly recommended! It is both entertaining and enlightening. Moss explores the food industry's no-holds-barred crusade to increase their profits by growing our waistlines, and the devastating effects on national health.
After introducing the piece, he tells three stories -- one each about sugar, fat, and salt. He focuses on both the scientific fine-tuning of junk food and its marketing. I was simultaneously fascinated and disturbed by their tactics. You won't look at a bag of chips the same way again.
Business As Usual
The story shouldn't surprise us, really. Food companies are businesses like any other. They exist to make money, and there are only two ways to make money in a competitive environment: cutting costs and selling products. Unfortunately, the kind of food that succeeds on both counts is the worst for human health.
So, who's to blame for this? Moss' piece is so effective because it goes beyond number-crunching and tells a compelling story. By slowing down, we see that no one person holds all the blame for American obesity. Indeed, everyone has their hands in the cookie jar.
Am I My Brother's Keeper?
"I did the best science I could. I was struggling to survive and didn’t have the luxury of being a moral creature. As a researcher, I was ahead of my time."
Moss' research illustrates why economic success cannot be the primary aim for business. Anytime we define success too narrowly, we're in danger. Businesses must have a mission and vision which is bigger than shareholder value and marketplace dominance. It must include human flourishing. The CEO is not only accountable to the stockholder. As a creature and steward, he is also accountable to neighbor, culture, world, and God.
This is true for both the multinational corporation and the single household. As a father, if I define success too narrowly -- career growth, kids through college, retirement secure -- I'm in danger of neglecting what really matters. I risk taking out my family or my country for the sake of my shallow dreams. Success must aim for human flourishing. Clearly that has not been true for the major players in the food industry.
Still, the companies cannot bear the blame alone. It's easy to read an exposé like this and villainize the wealthy executive. But, he raises a good point when he claims that he is just giving people what they want. This excuse doesn't absolve him of responsibility, but it does highlight ours. Culture should serve as a check on business. A business which made it's money selling puppy legs wouldn't make it in America. Neither should these guys, without substantial changes.
But reading this article reminded me how much I hate thinking about what I eat. I resent food hawks which point out every harmful ingredient in my favorite foods (or favorite drink). I want to eat whatever I want, whenever I want.
Basically, I am America's health problem. My attitude reveals that, when it comes to eating, I also define success too narrowly. For me, success in eating is simply personal satisfaction at minimal cost. Health is an after-thought. This article reminds me how dangerous and irresponsible that is for me and my culture. Even the grocery store is not a neutral place.
So whether you sell food or eat it, morality is not a luxury. Success cannot be just making money or fueling up, but must aim for human flourishing. That's why loving God and loving others must be foundational to everything we do.
Where are you prone to define personal success too narrowly?