I Think Even Waiters Have the Right to Remain Silent

Ethicist Jack Marshall is talking about immigrants in restaurants again. And as usual, he demonstrates that he either doesn’t like the free market or doesn’t understand it.

He starts by quoting fellow ethicist Chris McDonald:

“…imagine again that you’re a waiter or waitress. As you set a plate of food down in front of a customer, the customer asks: “Were any ‘minorities’ involved in the production of this food? Do you have any foreigners working in the kitchen?” Appalled, you stammer: “Excuse me?!” The customer continues, “I don’t like immigrants, and I don’t like the idea of them touching my food. I have the right to know what I’m eating!” Does this customer have the right to that information? Most of us, I think, would say no, of course not. She might see that information as really important — important to letting her live her life the way she wants to — but few of us would agree that anyone else is obligated to help her live out her racist values.”

In his response, Jack Marshall has somehow transforms the original scenario’s immigrants into illegal immigrants, but in general I agree with this part of his answer:

I think the customer’s request for information regarding who is preparing one’s food is a valid one. Does a diner have a right to the information? Why not? What if a citizen objects to the illegal employment of undocumented immigrants, and doesn’t want to support businesses that undermine U.S. immigration policy while exploiting underpaid workers? Or suppose the customer has read about health issues among local food workers, and wants to know if they have been vaccinated…or is a supporter of organized labor, and wants to know if the restaurant is using union members…or wants to support establishments that hire immigrants, because she was one herself.

But then Marshall starts examining the waiter’s obligation to answer the customer, and his argument takes a funny turn:

If the customer who is concerned about any of these matters asks, he has a right to an honest answer unless there is a legitimate interest in keeping that information proprietary.

So once he asks the question, the waiter is has a moral obligation to answer? How would such a moral obligation arise? Here’s where Marshall runs off the rails:

McDonald’s justification for withholding the information requested in his hypothetical–that telling her would be helping her live out her racist values– is not valid. In the United States, we have a right to racist values, socialist values, anti-feminist values and any other kinds of values whether anyone else approves of them or not. The post was about rights, and no one has a right to foil my chosen lifestyle or the values I choose to live by until they threaten to do tangible harm. It is presumptuous for anyone else to actively withhold information that permits a customer to make an informed choice about what eating establishment she patronizes, a breach of autonomy.

So Marshall thinks the waiter is interfering with his lifestyle by refusing to answer her questions? He thinks she’s entitled to an answer to every stupid bigoted question she might ask, but it’s the waiter who’s presumptuous?

Telling her something substantive about how her food is prepared isn’t endorsing her racist values; it is forcing her to do something–eat the restaurant’s food–that she wouldn’t choose to do if she had all the facts.

Nobody is forcing her to eat the restaurant’s food. She can always just walk away. However, since she got the food she asked for, someone is probably going to force her to pay for it. If she’d had the common sense to ask her bigoted questions before placing her order, she wouldn’t even have to do that. 

What her motivations may be, and whether the waiter, owner, or Dr. Mc Donald approves of them is irrelevant. She has a right to ask, she has a right to know the information, and she has a right to act on that information–based on beliefs and motivations she has a right to have–within certain legal strictures, however she pleases.

No. She has a right to ask, but nobody has an obligation to answer. She also has a right to act on whatever information she receives, and if nobody answers her, she has a right to act on that too and simply walk out of the restaurant without ordering.

McDonald’s hypothetical goes beyond the topic of his article, which is about our right to know the contents of what we eat, but I am presuming that he would argue for the ethical withholding of information in an “unethical values” case involving ingredients too. What it a customer asks if her tuna was caught using porpoise-safe fishing methods, not because she’s an environmentalist, but because she hates porpoises due to a bad experience with Flipper in her childhood, and wanst to only eat tuna that have been caught the old-fashioned, porpoise drowning way?

Well the the waiter can answer her, or not. And based on that answer, or lack thereof, she can order the tuna or not. In a free market, nobody has obligations they don’t agree to.

I think she has a right to know this information, as much as she has a right to know the contents of her meal for motives Dr. McDonald approves of. My rights don’t diminish because you may disagree with the motives for exercising them, regarding food, speech, voting, or anything else.

Your rights can always be diminished when they are in conflict with someone else’s rights, including the waiter’s right not to answer questions he disagrees with. How, in a situation where the customer isn’t being forced to do anything they haven’t agreed to, can you possibly say it’s ethical to force the waiter to say things he doesn’t want to say?

I mean, even if you thin the waiter is being unreasonable, how is this supposed to work? If the customer has a right to ask questions, however unreasonable they may be, doesn’t the waiter have the right to be at least equally unreasonable?

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