Sunday, January 22, 2012

Ethics and MREs

At the intersection of philosophy of food and military ethics I hereby present for your consideration this (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) discussion on MRE ethics.

MREs are the US military's field rations. MREs are the field rations that soldiers get when it is impractical to feed them more conventional meals.  Each country has a different style of field rations. (Here is a sampling.) It is interesting that different countries have different approaches to field rations, with some rations meant to last all day while other counties produce rations that are to last for a single meal; some countries have rations that are meant to be shared among a few soldiers while others are designed to be eaten by individual soldiers. The US has a wide variety of meals while other countries only have a few, some countries like the US have vegetarian MREs, while other countries do not. Different countries have different allowances for how long a soldier can eat field rations, before presumably getting sick or malnourished. In the IDF all field rations (all food actually) are kosher. The US has kosher MREs as well (though they are difficult to obtain, and few people really insist on them).  Presumably all the meals are designed with the culture in mind. All Japanese rations, for example, I am told, have some kind of rice. Some field rations have alcohol, others had cigarettes. US MREs all still have matches, toilet paper, and bad tasting chewing gum. The US puts a fair amount of effort into making sure they are edible. Other countries , shall we say, try less hard.

With these differences in mind, I want to offer some philosophical thoughts about an interesting twist on distributive justice.

I have noticed an interesting sociological phenomenon that occurs when a unit in the US Army sits down to eat an MRE meal in the field.  Each soldier gets one MRE. MREs come in boxes of about 20 different MREs. So a unit that has about 50 people in it will open three boxes. (The numbers here are not that important.) So most (though not all) soldiers will get the meals the want, or they will get something close enough. But each MRE not only comes with a main meal, it comes with a whole bunch of "side dishes" as well. Most people do not keep good track of which extras come in which MREs, and besides, the MRE menus change frequently as do the side dishes, candy, deserts, etc. There may be coffee, toffee, skittles, m&ms, spicy peanut butter, cookies, pretzels, peaches, pears, cinnamon apples, etc. Few people ever get a complete MRE that has all and only the items they want. In units that are nice enough to let everyone choose the MRE they want (and most units do), most soldiers choose by main dish.

But as soon as the meal starts, so does the trading. Sometimes, in some units (especially in basic training) there are a host of quick (I mean stock market quick) quid pro quo trades where people announce what they have and weigh the various offers of trade, and finally execute the trades. In other units, (especially ones that have been together longer) there is a rapid succession of people doing what eventually amounts to the same thing - soldiers just give away all their unwanted MRE items. Soldiers call out "anyone want my X?" and someone else says "here" and it is tossed to them. Most items are quickly snatched up this way. Sometimes, there is just a box where soldiers put all their unwanted MRE items and everyone freely takes from it.

I suspect that the reason that in places like basic training people try to make trades, is because there is little trust in, or understanding of, the reciprocal nature of the trades that will be made. With trust comes the comfort in simply giving away what you don't want and knowing that something you do want will likely be offered shortly thereafter.

Regardless of which kind of trading is done, what ends up happening in both cases is that people who start out with an equitable, though unequal, distribution of resources, quickly and efficiently end up with a distribution that may or may not be equal, but is far closer to their ideal end-state than the distribution they started with. They all started with a main dish they wanted and perhaps some other things too, but all extra goods were redistributed in a fairly efficient procedure.

I am uncertain what lesson to draw from this. Have we learned anything about human nature from this?  I am not sure.  After all, in general, there is no question that there is no genuine scarcity of goods. No one worries that they have to try to gain an advantage lest they end up hungry. But it is clear that each soldier is attempting to seek advantage by getting the MRE items that he or she prefers. So by participating in a community where everyone is simultaneously looking out for their own interest, people can maximize their goals.

Of course, I suspect that we can't really derive any deep philosophical lessons. After all, there is little chance of someone starving under this system, nor is there any realistic possibility that someone will have enough "resources" to have any power over anyone else. That would be one messed up unit. But there is a good metaphor in this.

Nozick talked about the idea that even if everyone started out with an equal distribution of resources, there are many reasons to think it will not stay that way. The main reason is that people don't all want the same thing. And even if we all had the same thing, there will be parts of that which I do not want, and more of something I do. There will also be a person who feels just the opposite and is willing to trade with me.  The resulting state will then almost necessarily be unequal, and perhaps may result in a state that is far different from the original state. But if the result is from a set of fair exchanges, the result should not only seem just, but preferable to another system.

But this example we gave is probably a bit too artificial to be meaningful.

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