Sharing values or maximizing profits?: ethical discourses and sustainable food initiatives

E. de Bakker, H. Dagevos

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterProfessional


In this paper we pose that in a social context dominated by neoliberal politics utilitarian and contractarian ethics tend to hinder and can even smother critical alternatives of our food system that have more holistic narratives on the consequences of our food choices. First of all, we will argue that the dominant (neo) liberal view on society and economy, featured by the principles of value pluralism and freedom of choice, has a strong affinity with utilitarian and contractarian ethics. We will then take a closer look at 11 sustainable food initiatives in the Netherlands, ranging from larger agricultural projects with an international orientation to small-scale initiatives of crowdbutching. Particularly initiatives operating at the fringes of the agri-food system showed affiliation with an ethical virtue approach questioning the ends of our agricultural and food system. Instead of focusing on the maximization of profits these initiatives were thinking in terms of shared values. To some extent this approach shows a resemblance with the strategy of creating shared values that has been announced by Porter and Kramer as an innovative route that could reinvent capitalism. However, when we probe a bit deeper it turns out that more profound issues are at stake here. Resuming the fundamental tension between ‘oikonomia’ and ‘chremastike’, as originally brought to the fore by Aristotle, we finally formulate the following hypothesis regarding the ethical discourses on our food system: in a situation where economy and society are dominated by neoliberal politics, more virtue ethics are needed as a counterweight in the ethical and political debate on our current system of food production and consumption.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationKnow your food: food ethics and innovation
EditorsD.E. Dumitras, I.M. Jitea, S. Aerts
Place of PublicationWageningen
PublisherWageningen Academic Publishers
Number of pages434
ISBN (Print)9789086862641
Publication statusPublished - 2015


  • Food system
  • Neoliberalism
  • Social entrepreneurship


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