A Year of Food Choice at Indiana University

Problematizing Choice

Launching into the Sawyer Seminar this semester, we delve right into our central query: What is choice? In his discussion of freedom and choice, Amartya Sen addresses choice as having both intrinsic value and as being a means to an end. The latter, instrumental choice, is valuable as a means to an end (e.g. choosing an apple instead of hamburger) while the former refers to one’s freedom to opt, generally, regardless of the pursuit (the fact that just having an ability to select is in and of itself beneficial). In daily life, Sen argues, the two are bundled together and both important to our individual experiences of freedom, that is, what a person can do or be. Sen continues by affirming the limitations of our ability to be informed when making choices, and therefore be satisfied with our options.

However, this is not to say that choice makes us happier as individuals.  Does an excess of choice make us more depressed, heighten our sense of regret, keep us from making and selection at all? Research implies that this very well might be the case. Britain, for example, has adopted an official state policy to take measures to promote happiness (GWB, general well-being, rather than GNP). And yet, how does a nation govern and execute a policy in which the citizens esteem choice but so often opt for the decision that makes them less happy overall? Professor Wilk comments, “We are children who want to eat ice cream for dinner…it’s not good for us, but we want it anyway.”

The falsity of rational decisionmakers

Ultimately, people are not rational decisionmakers and we can therefore not be trusted to make optimal decisions. This then begs the question, do we want to be told what to do to optimize our health, happiness etc., or is the primacy of choice ultimately most important? For example, why do so many dieters seek out those diets that eliminate choices (e.g. Weight Watchers), yet we simultaneously fight against food policies that control and limit our choices (e.g. the ban on sodas larger than 16oz in NYC)? What about the choice of consuming products in consideration of their fairness of trade vs. their addition to the waste stream? Professore Wilk notes, according to a study he and a student tried to perform sourcing every stitch of a sneaker that ”the devil is in the details and exactly what you care about” – for some it may be equal exchange for producers, for others it may be the least environmentally devastating choice. In other words, not only is there an ideal of choice making that assumes information can yield one rational decision, but the freedom to choose itself, while privileged, is not only complicated but also a false ideal (freedom as enlightenment project).

The falsity of choice

Standing up against our inability to optimize and our great capitalist society in which the consumer reigns and we, the consumers, want our options above all else, is the sad reality that many of our food options are not really options at all. Quotidian activities may seem replete with choice: what soda, deodorant, meat to buy, copious options of each crowd supermarket aisles. But often this marks a proliferation of false choices i.e. 90% of the items are Coca Cola or Pepsico, Proctor and Gamble or Colgate, Tyson or Cargill. And even when we do think we rationally choose our product, we see 4,000 advertisements every day (advertised products which more often occupy prime shelf-space as well); could even the most discerning consumer not be affected by some measure of influence?

This is what the Sawyer Seminar sets out to discuss. Bringing together academics from throughout our university and beyond. Over the next year we will try to disassemble and critically investigate the complexities of food choice, freedom and politics. Join the conversation as we investigate one of the more polemic issues of contemporary politics and social life throughout the U.S. and beyond.

The Sawyer Seminar Series at Indiana University