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April 01, 2012 9:51 AM “Ethicist” sees no ethical issue with excluding women

By Kathleen Geier

We’re hip-deep into a year that’s been overflowing with virulent antifeminist backlash. Another outbreak of the epidemic as occurred, but this time it’s in a most unexpected place: the New York Times’ Ethicist column. Ethicist columnist Ariel Kaminer has announced a contest inviting omnivores to write essays about why it is ethical to eat meat. The problem? The panel of luminaries she’s selected to judge the contest are ethicists Peter Singer and Andrew Light, food writers Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman, and novelist Jonathan Safer Foer. All, as you may notice, white dudes.

The lack of diversity of the panel has been pointed out to Kaminer. She has claimed that there aren’t any qualified women who have the name recognition of the men on the panel. It has been suggested to her that this is untrue, and people have identified a number of highly qualified, high-profile women who would make excellent additions to the panel, for example: chef and food activist Alice Waters, nutritionist Marion Nestle, novelist Barbara Kingsolver (who wrote a book on the ethics of eating), Frances Moore Lappe (author of the mega-best seller Diet for a Small Planet), scientist and activist Vandava Shiva, investigative journalist Tracie McMillan (author of the fascinating-sounding new book The American Way of Eating), and many others. But Kaminer has dug in her heels and refused to make any changes to the panel.

I can’t tell you how depressing and demoralizing it is to still, nearly 50 years after the dawn of the second wave feminist movement, be fighting for basic issues of diversity, representation and inclusiveness. And to have to be making the case for the value of women’s full humanity and participation in society to a so-called ethicist, yet!

In addition to the ethical side, the practical case for the value of diversity is well-known. (Here, for example, is an excellent recent article which surveys some of the research on the business case for women in the boardroom). And for heaven’s sake, by now it should be second nature for every single person who’s in the position of hiring someone, or putting together a panel or committee, to make an effort to include women and people of color whenever possible. That’s just basic human decency.

I also wonder just who Kaminer thinks her readers are, particularly her readers who are most interested in issues like food, diet, and cooking. I strongly suspect it is women who are overwhelmingly interested in this topic, and to exclude women’s voices on the panel and then blithely dismiss the concerns of those who value this kind of diversity is just plain arrogant and disrespectful.

Scholar and activist Frances Kissling, who is a bioethicist and was the longtime president of the wonderful pro-choice organization, Catholics for Choice, has written a thoughtful and powerful letter about this controversy to Arthur Brisbane, the public editor of the New York Times. She has given permission to circulate it, and you can read it after the jump. All I can add is, what she said!

Dear Mr. Brisbane,

There has been considerable commentary regarding the judges selected for a “contest” initiated by the Ethicist on the ethics of meat eating. I share many of the concerns expressed by bloggers and various experts on the topic. Five privileged white men would be inappropriate whatever contest one held; but for a column on ethics and on a topic that so significantly impacts women’s lives, it was especially disappointing.

Granted, the column is in a popular venue, written by someone who is not an expert in ethics and is a bit more of a cross between advice to the lovelorn and Emily Post than a serious exploration of the very profound ethical questions we confront in modern life.

The contest and Ms. Kaminer’s reaction to criticism only highlighted the lack of seriousness with which she and the Times take the matter of ethics. Would we find a similar feature in economics, health etc in the Times? I doubt it.

I won’t repeat what I am sure you have already heard regarding the number and names of highly qualified women and people of color who could have contributed to a more robust judging process (see http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/2012/03/an-argument-in-favour-of-eating-meat/#comment-14286 for comments on this).

I do have however have some questions I hope you will explore should you chose to deal with this issue. As you know, Ms. Kaminer has characterized her goal in conducting the contest as creating an event that gets lots of attention. The way to do that she believes is to have big name high recognition judges - content be damned. Is that the approach to serious issue the Times editors like? It can get one on MSNBC, create a personality, but does it do justice to the topic?

Ms Kaminer also views diversity as of lesser value than making waves. In her response to some who have written her, she pays lip service to it. I think she rightfully notes that not every single panel, etc needs to represent all diversities, but she ignores that this panel has no
diversity. My apologies for not finding an age range among white males significant. What is the Times’ commitment to diversity?

Finally, what would we expect from the Times and its columnists and editors when a mistake is pointed out in plenty of time for it to be corrected? Does having a column in the Times mean never having to say you are sorry? Ms Kaminer knew no women of comparable stature to the men she chose. She has been clearly shown she was wrong and names provided. All she needed to do was to say woops, let me add three of four women, people of color etc. It would also seem something editors should step in and make happen.

For a column focused on ethics, this would have been *the right thing to do*. Ethics, after all, as Peter Singer says, is about what is the right thing to do in a given situation.

I, for one, have lost confidence in this columnist. It has not been a particularly provocative space under her authorship, but now it is tainted by poor ethical judgment.

Many thanks for your kind consideration.

Frances Kissling

Visiting Scholar, Center for Bioethics
University of Pennsylvania

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

Comments

  • Danp on April 01, 2012 11:35 AM:

    I'm missing something here. Shouldn't we be looking for diversity of ideas among the panelists? Should we expect a different ethical perspective from a woman? If not, it strikes me as a bit hyper-sensitive since we're talking about a five-person panel.

  • Hedda Peraz on April 01, 2012 11:41 AM:

    "name recognition "
    HAH! So once again qualifications are trumped by fame. . .
    If that is true, why didn't she invite someone with both?
    I speak, of course, of Lady Gaga.

  • CTVoter on April 01, 2012 11:52 AM:

    Thanks for posting the letter. "What she said", indeed.

    Particularly the observation that the column hasn't been particularly well-served under this columnist.

    And yes, Dr. Kissling: being a Times columnist means never having to admit error.

    One final issue: in terms of name recognition, Alice Waters has a lot more than most of those on the panel.

  • RepublicanPointOfView on April 01, 2012 12:03 PM:

    While I appreciate your perspective and where you are coming from, methinks that this be much ado about damn little. Is this really going to be a panel that anyone is going to pay attention to?

    However, I will agree with you that it would be a good idea to have a woman or two or ten on the panel. After all, we republicans are desireous of promoting diversity and of women having their say on unimportant topics. As long as you accept that old white men are the only impartial arbiters of important topics like womens' health care decisions.

  • martin on April 01, 2012 12:10 PM:

    Granted, the column is in a popular venue, written by someone who is not an expert in ethics and is a bit more of a cross between advice to the lovelorn and Emily Post than a serious exploration of the very profound ethical questions we confront in modern life.

    Catty, but true. (and yes, if a man wrote it the response would be something "ewww, burn.")

    I've just started McMillian's book and it is interesting in a disturbing way. The real ethics question it raises is should we be eating at all, given the way we get our food from field to table.

    or regrewo mouths as Mr Captcha says.

  • SadOldVet on April 01, 2012 12:20 PM:

    The prior posting from my alter-ego RPOV (who reflects and mocks the views of many of his republican friends) was snark.

    That The New York Times has a columnist who is an ethicist seems to me to be a contradiction in terms. At least, until it was explained that she is really a cross of Emily Post and advice for the lovelorn. As an old man who was an undesiring participant in an illegal, bogus war several decades ago, I have a very long memory. New York Times - ethics - Judith Miller? The New York Times is just another part of the war pimping corporately owned media.

  • zeitgeist on April 01, 2012 12:21 PM:

    The panel has many problems, aside from being little more than a way to generate controversy and therefore views and responses (and in that it seems to be succeeding.) Regardless of one's views on the topic, it nonetheless seems odd to have a panel heavily slanted toward a particular outcome before reading the responses: the panel consists of those favoring limited consumption of meat and those vehemently opposed to meat. (And in a lot of ways, this lack of diversity seems substantively more troubling than whether they are all white men. The real problem with the "all white men" arises in Kaminer's lame defense that there are no comparable women or non-whites, which shows a staggering ignorance.)

    as an aside, to martin, i am about 2/3rds through McMillian's book and I don't know that the real question is should we be eating so much as it is should we be eating so differently from one another and what should the price of food be. Our access to inexpensive food is highly subsidized by the poverty and insecurity of those who do the physical labor to provide it.

  • Anne on April 01, 2012 12:24 PM:

    Michael Pollan is Jewish, not White.

    Why are you so racist towards white people?

    Write an article about the lack of diversity in college basketball or the NBA or at the Federal Reserve.

  • PTate in MN on April 01, 2012 12:51 PM:

    "...fighting for basic issues of diversity, representation and inclusiveness."

    Really, having five white males on a NYT panel that is going to judge essays on why it is ethical to eat meat is an offense to diversity, representation and inclusiveness? Would having women (or people of color) on the panel meaningfully change the judging? I doubt it.

    Feminist outrage in this kind of trivial situation has given the Republicans fantastic leverage because it allows them to neutralize feminist outrage in situations with serious impact on women's lives. The majority of white men now vote for Republicans because Republicans have successfully branded Democrats as favoring the interests of women and minorities and hostile to the interests of white men. This is bad for everyone: for women, for men and for the nation.

    So, imho, save the outrage for real offenses like refusing to pay for contraception, character assassinations by Rush Limbaugh or criminalizing abortion.

  • Fess on April 01, 2012 12:53 PM:

    Danp says,"Shouldn't we be looking for diversity of ideas among the panelists? Should we expect a different ethical perspective from a woman?"

    Interesting question. I would posit that women would have a somewhat different perspective than men on the subject of food. Most women are the main buyers and preparers of food in this country, perhaps the world. That means thinking up what's for breakfast, lunch, and dinner + extras, plus going to purchase it, bringing it home, preparing it, serving it, and recycling the leftovers. Not to say that men don't ever do this or that men in a household don't have menu requests and/or contributions fairly frequently, just that default is that the global nature of the job generally falls to a woman, perhaps with some male input here and there. I do know men who are marvelous cooks and are responsible for household food, but it's not the norm.

    What does it have to do with the ethics of meat consumption? I think women, in general, have spent more time in their lives thinking about food consumption than men. They have considered how much vegetable matter ends up on the table, the role of fruit and carbs, percentage of protein consumed, and calorie load in general. Most women have at some time considered how food gets to the store/farmers' market they buy it from and made food decisions based on their philosophy of the food cycle and general nutrition. This makes a whole different food background than a male who when there isn't anything good to eat at home decides to go out, or who enjoys making and decorating cakes, or is a whiz at the BBQ. This is not to denigrate the role of men, just to point out the different place they start from, globally speaking. So, yeah, without women on the panel, it will be missing a necessary "diversity of ideas," i.e. that half of the population that carries most of the family food decisions.

  • DAY on April 01, 2012 1:09 PM:

    Fess makes an excellent point, that worldwide it is women who "put the food on the table".
    But historically it is the men who is the "breadwinner", be it a prehistoric hunter/gatherer, or a 19th century cattle baron.
    Salad bar vs meat and potatoes. Might makes Right- until a coronary makes the woman the family dietician.

  • jpe on April 01, 2012 1:18 PM:

    Inanity like this is why (D)s get stuck w/ the overly-PC reputation.

  • liam foote on April 01, 2012 1:23 PM:

    They should include Brooke Johnson, President of the Food Channel.

  • TCinLA on April 01, 2012 1:24 PM:

    Once again, the New York Times has been revealed for creating the poor-quality litter box liner it is so well-known for. I'm shocked - shocked! - to discover that tenth-rate "journalism" is going on at America's Litterbox Liner of Record.

  • winner on April 01, 2012 1:24 PM:


    I don't know why the New York Times would be a "most unexpected" place to find overt sexism or racism. For about a decade they had only one woman and one black man out of about 10 regular columnists. And the woman was the supercilious Maureen Dowd! What a great representative of her sex.

  • Tom Maguire on April 01, 2012 1:26 PM:

    I will not be your April Fool.

  • martin on April 01, 2012 1:33 PM:

    zeitgeist: That's what I was hoping to say in a snarkier way;>

  • mudwall jackson on April 01, 2012 1:59 PM:

    oh good grief. we've got people starving, wars raging, a global economy that's teetering and a host of other issues, and you're concerned about the lack of diversity on a panel on whether it is ethical to eat meat? really?

  • Skip on April 01, 2012 2:08 PM:

    Exclusion. Is it because that when women and/or minorities are brought into the conversation they change the dynamics of the topic and put strain on the adage of That's The Way It's Always Been?

  • zeitgeist on April 01, 2012 2:25 PM:

    yes, yes, there are Very Serious Problems out there and this topic is just not as important.

    but somehow I think this blog -- not to mention to cumulative space on all of the blogs -- has plenty of room to both address the Very Serious Problems and, just occasionally, dabble in slightly lighter fare.

    then again, when Issa had his contraception panel with nothing but old men, I don't recall anyone thinking the outrage was misplaced or the coverage was wastefully devoted to frivolity. true, the ethics of meat consumption is not as threatening or larded (sorry, couldn't resist) with baggage as access to contraception, but it is yet another instance of the same phenomenon, an example to illustrate the same larger point, and one that shows just how expansive the problem is -- from Congressional panels on Very Important Problems to the most mundane NY Times publicity contest, the default is white males.

    which is to say i find the complaining about the alleged overreaction here to be an overreaction.

  • Matt on April 01, 2012 2:31 PM:

    Okay, I'm glad I'm not the only one who saw this story and said "much ado about nothing". In a world where the GOP is pushing for state-sponsored rape and slipping into insanity, where rich cranks and big business are growing slowly more influential in the elections through superPACs, where the American right-wing and European financial elite are fully entralled with contractionary austerity economics, the panelists in a contest about meat-eating is a complete non-issue at best and a sad attempt to rile up your more liberal readers at worst.

  • Matt on April 01, 2012 2:36 PM:

    @zeitgeist

    When you expend too much effort into non-issues, it tends to reduce your credibility once a big issue comes up. I call it the boy-crying-wolf effect.

  • HMDK on April 01, 2012 3:05 PM:

    Matt, here's what I call it:
    Being able to fight the good fight on more than one thing at a time. And if it is as unimportant as the naysayers claim, then not much effort would be needed to counter it, right? In other words, why the hell are you expending energy and time complaining about something you consider trivial. By the way, when has the representation of minorities been "crying-wolf"?
    Yes, this IS a petty issue.
    That doesn't mean you get to ACT petty.

  • Leroy Johnson on April 01, 2012 3:27 PM:

    Is that "Matt" character for real? He should spend less time taking drugs and more time on getting his GED.

  • no on April 01, 2012 3:43 PM:

    How about setting your sights a little bit higher?

    And cut this misleading headline bullshit. This isn't Salon.

  • rrk1 on April 01, 2012 4:00 PM:

    Expecting ethical behavior from the NYT, and by extension any media outlet, or in journalism generally, is essentially oxymoronic.

    While the ethics of eating red meat, or any meat, is not entirely trivial, it is not a driving ethical issue of our time. Income inequality, lack of access to decent healthcare, unbridled corporate capitalist greed, supporting brutal dictators, destroying the planet with greenhouse gases, ignoring the needs of the young, the old, the sick, and the disabled, waging voluntary wars against non-enemies, creating a fascist state in the name of fighting 'terrorism', these are all ethical questions a columnist on 'ethics' should be addressing.

    Why do I think that isn't happening.

  • zeitgeist on April 01, 2012 4:08 PM:

    i may have been too quick to concede the premise that the topic of this post is not a "big" topic.

    the ethics of meat production and consumption, and the food and farm policy it is a subset of, are in fact very big issues. just skimming rrk1's list above, healthcare is intimately connected to food and farm policy, as is sustainability of the planet, and to large degree capitalist greed (especially in the localism versus CAFO type issues surrounding meat). so viewed as an issue of meat ethics, the issues is big indeed.

    as it is viewed as a diveristy/discrimination issue. it is a problem that needs addresed as often as it takes when as large a megaphone as the NY Times suggests that there is an area of policy expertise as important as food and farm policy for which no women or minorities is qualified. That sends a powerful (and erroneous) message.

    it may be quite true that the Times' silly "contest" is trivial. it may be true that there are bigger issues (although if the blog were nothing but the three biggest issues, 10 posts a day, 7 days a week, it'd be a much less interesting blog). but on second thought, this particular debate is not at all trivial. indeed, were i someone like Marion Nestle I wouldn't find this one bit trivial.

  • Roger Ailes on April 01, 2012 5:11 PM:

    It seems a greater honor not to have to read 600 word essays by New York Times readers about the ethics of eating meat.

    That sounds like about as much fun as reading Maureen Dowd's column on S&M.

  • Matt on April 01, 2012 6:15 PM:

    @Leroy Johnson

    Yes I'm for real and if you feel that the staffing of a private company's panel for an essay writing contest is a big issue, you might want to check your priorities.

    In the context of a panel that focuses exclusively on women's health (such as the congressional hearings on birth control) then a woman's voice should be present. When we're talking about an issue that's not gender-specific and a panel with only five people, complaining about the lack of diversity is stupid. An extra minority or woman voice isn't going to affect a discussion on eating choices in any major way unless you're expecting them to play into their respective stereotypes.

    I like this writer and I absolutely love this site. Doesn't mean I don't have the courage to call them out when I feel the content is lacking in some way. And I do that because I didn't come to this site for red meat, I came here for intelligent, nuanced journalism about the issues of the day.

  • Jj on April 01, 2012 6:40 PM:

    Do you wear a leathet belt?

    Or carry a leathet Coach bag?

    Or wear leather high heels?

    So what do you think is underneath leathet?

    STFU

  • Jj on April 01, 2012 6:45 PM:

    Do you wear a leathet belt?

    Or carry a leathet Coach bag?

    Or wear leather high heels?

    So what do you think is underneath leathet?

    STFU

  • Texas Aggie on April 01, 2012 7:09 PM:

    Seems to me that the biggest problem here isn't the initial error, but the subsequent coverup. Ariel was wrong to not be more inclusive, but considering who it is and the subject under consideration, that isn't much more than a #3 sin on a 1 -10 scale. But then refusing to consider expanding the panel to include women interested in the area and people who have no problem with eating meat, is a #8.

    This behavior is becoming too common among columnists and TV talking heads. Until it stops, we are being informed by spoiled little children who have absolutely no concept of fairness and integrity.

  • Tony the Wonderhorse on April 01, 2012 7:18 PM:

    @danp

    "Should we expect a different ethical perspective from a woman?"

    Uh, yes, so obviously that I don't intend to defend it. Have you spent your life living on an army base?

  • Texas Aggie on April 01, 2012 7:18 PM:

    There seem to be more than a few people who think that because this topic doesn't rise to the point of being world altering, that it should be ignored. I'm reminded that many of these same people bought into Rudy Giuliani's "broken window" theory of crime. Briefly, if you ignore the small things, it permits the big things. You have to go after the little things hard so that you don't have so much of the big things later.

    You can't have it both ways. Is it ok to ignore the little things or not?

  • Howey on April 01, 2012 7:53 PM:

    Is that an April Fool's prank?

  • Joe Biden on April 01, 2012 9:05 PM:

    This is a big fucking deal.

  • jdw on April 01, 2012 9:33 PM:

    Well I suppose she would have no problem with constantly excluding men.

  • Tom Maguire on April 01, 2012 10:48 PM:

    "Is it ok to ignore the little things or not?"

    Anyone else?

  • SecularAnimist on April 02, 2012 10:19 AM:

    I notice that with the exception of Peter Singer, both the NYT's actual panel, and Kathleen Geier's list of suggested female panelists, fail to include any animal rights advocates.

    If you are going to have a panel on the ethics of meat eating, how about recognizing that the only reason the question even arises is that animals are sentient beings capable of emotion, thought and -- most relevantly -- SUFFERING? How about including some panelists who approach the question from the standpoint that it's not about US, and it's not about "food" -- it's about the suffering of the 8 BILLION animals raised in misery and slaughtered for human consumption every year in the USA alone?

    So I would ask Ms. Geier:

    How about including Ingrid Newkirk, founder of PETA?

    Or Karen Davis, founder of United Poultry Concerns, and author of The Holocaust and the Henmaid's Tale: A Case For Comparing Atrocities?

    Or feminist Carol Adams, author of The Sexual Politics of Meat and co-editor of Animals and Women: Feminist Theoretical Explorations?

  • Barbara on April 02, 2012 11:01 AM:

    I don't know that I want to go down the "this is sexist/unethical behavior" so much as, how much more do you think Pollan, Bittman and Singer have to say that they haven't already said before in the ample opportunities and space afforded to to them by the Times? I have read so much of these three that I could probably write their comments. I am especially fatigued with Pollan, who seems to exist on a plane that no other average person does -- having reduced diet to a slogan without the least bit of advice or suggestion how to do it. Bittman, at least, has his boots on the ground and is always trying to help people figure out how to make their daily eating better. Light is the only one I don't have a ready made image for.

    At any rate, having someone more in the camp of "Principles are great but I have to get dinner on the table EVERY DAY" kind of person would be nice. And yes, most of those people are women.

  • George F Mohn on April 02, 2012 11:50 AM:

    Some things never change. 30-40 years ago, the few women who "made it" were much more conspicuous. They may have been feminists before their success (when it served their purposes). But after their success, many of them wanted to be seen as "one of the guys." As much as possible, they socialized with men only. The highest compliment they could receive was, "She thinks like a man." They did not want it said that women stick together, so they did not support each other. More than men did, they lorded it over women who hadn't made it. (Old-fashioned, now much-derided chivalry moderated the attitudes of many men.) The attitude of these women was "I made it, what's wrong with you?" I remember the fury of my female boss (who did not share the attitudes of these successful women) after she returned from a meeting where she heard one of them tell the meeting, "I don't trust women." Ms. Kaminer is just the latest successful female who wants to pull up the ladder after her.

    It well be true that "Having a column in the Times [does indeed] mean never having to say you are sorry." Many of the previous commenters on this article have made it clear that they don't want to hear anything bad about the NYT. If a conservative or Republican were caught out on a PC subject like diversity, these same commenters would likely be all over them. The Washington Monthly has been telling tales out of school!

  • Elros on April 02, 2012 4:59 PM:

    "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."
    Martin Luther King, Jr

    I guess Kathleen Geier believes that people character is determined entirely by skin color or gender. It is hypocritical to judge against someone for being a woman, and then judge against someone for being a man.

  • Alfred Hussein Neuman on April 02, 2012 5:11 PM:

    "I can't tell you how depressing and demoralizing it is to still, nearly 50 years after the dawn of the second wave feminist movement, be fighting for basic issues of diversity, representation and inclusiveness."

    Hmmm, Forced marriages? Foot-binding? Clitoridectomies? The prevalence of unwed, poor mothers in the black community? Stoning of rape victims? Lawful beating of wives under Sharia law?

    No - this is important stuff.

  • Joyce Willis on April 02, 2012 5:14 PM:

    This is an April Fools joke, right? I hope so. If not, you might want to consider increasing your medication.

  • len perkins on April 02, 2012 5:24 PM:

    Please tell me the column and the letter were just April Fool send ups.

  • lllll Alaska Jack on April 02, 2012 5:43 PM:

    PTATE -

    I love how you start out sounding pretty normal, then casually mention that "refusing to pay for [other people's] contraception" is one of the things you consider an "outrage."

    That's awesome. One day, I hope to visit your planet.

    lllll AJ

  • Batya Bauman on April 02, 2012 7:01 PM:

    A superb panelist would be Carol J. Adams, author of THE SEXUAL POLITICS OF MEAT.

  • Capt. Craig on April 02, 2012 8:07 PM:

    Poor Kath, she actually believes that this sxxt is relevant. What a sad commentary on what passes for supposed intelligence.

  • Nils on April 02, 2012 8:33 PM:

    I guess all the important things to get indignant about were taken? Note to Ms. Greier: Don't sleep in next time you need a liberal issue to get in a wad about.

  • DEEBEE on April 03, 2012 5:35 AM:

    Bill Maher's description of Plain with the c-word must have been a premature e**aculation. Since it seems to describe you poerfectly

  • Dan da man on April 03, 2012 9:31 AM:

    Funniest April Fools column ever. Thanks.