Vol. 2, Issue 9, March 2, 2004
Dodo: the Other Other White Meat

Ethics Conference to Focus on Coffee

The University of Texas at Austin's annual ethics conference is poised to address what is for some a ubiquitous and defining characteristic of modern American society: coffee.

"Our nation has been wracked with far too many serious issues," said William Powers, dean of the School of Law at UT Austin. "We couldn't decide on the most pressing ethical issue in America: war, the economy, the justice system, Enron - the steering committee was deadlocked for days. Finally we decided on coffee as a meta-theme which could encompass many of these problems."

Powers' keynote address, scheduled for April 15, is to be entitled "Wake Up America: The Coffee Conundrum." Fourteen other speakers will be addressing issues ranging from overcaffeinated policy decisions to the choices involved in constructing the average latte.

"Is the milk from cows treated with bovine growth hormone or not?" said Powers. "Quite a dilemma."

Coffee is America's drink of choice, with the average American consuming over 90 gallons per year. It has been periodically touted as a possible health food, with studies hinting that it contains beneficial antioxidants and can reduce the risk of diabetes. However, the fact that it is essentially a mind-altering substance, especially after 4 or 5 cups, raises thorny issues from an ethical standpoint.

"The church has no official position on coffee consumption, which is a cause for concern among some," said Archibishop Gerald Downs. "As a beverage with the potential to alter one's mental faculties, it falls into a similar category with wine, which has both positive and negative references in the Bible." Many are uncomfortable with the notion of any mind-altering substance, a guilty hesitation which some ascribe to the Puritanical roots of American culture that gave rise to Prohibition. Some sects, such as the Mormons, prohibit the use of coffee altogether.

However, the conference organizers point out that while coffee may seem a relatively modern American problem, it has actually been inexplicably intertwined with Western thought and philosophy since the seventeenth century.

"You have to remember that the Enlightenment, the age of reason which gave rise to the philosophical underpinnings of our very Constitution, was created by thinkers hanging out in coffee shops," said Mark Carson, associate professor of philosophy at Marquette University, noting that most European countries consume far more coffee per capita than the U.S. "The eighteenth century was awash with caffeine. Voltaire consumed upwards of seventy cups of coffee a day. Perhaps we must consider that in America today the problem is not too much coffee, but rather too little."

Sessions scheduled at the UT Austin conference include the ethics of using coffee in the workplace, the societal inequities perpetrated by the rise of specialty coffee shops, and the knotty problem of artificial sweeteners.

"One thing we won't cover is decaf," added Powers. "We'd need a lot more than three days to deal with that ethical quandry."

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