Honesty in Wine: An Inquiry – Part 2

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moralityMy first post in this series discussed honesty in wine in relation to honesty as truth. In that post I argued that truth helps us to think about how wines are made and the particular histories and philosophies behind bottles of wine. In this second installment of the honesty in wine series, I will discuss the moral dimension of honesty.

Part 2: Honesty and Morality

Morality helps us situate wines in the common world – it acts as a guidepost for our evaluation of a wine. But, what moral system we choose will have a massive impact on this valuation. So let us turn to those ‘moral’ qualities that common usage, history and literature have come to associate with honesty.

First, authenticity. This is not authenticity in terms of truth, but authenticity in terms of consistency. Someone honest is authentic because they are consistent in how they act and how they think. They don’t say one thing and do another. This aligns with the notion of sincerity. An honest person is sincere because he or she does not try to obfuscate his or her motives, values, and perceptions. Sort of like, say, what a brand like yellow tale does with its promise of fun and adventure at the cost of environmentally friendly farming, and massive use of additives.

The other side of honesty and morality are the notions of equity and fairness. To be equitable is to operate with a lack of bias, without favoritism or hegemony. In many ways, we might say an honest person is a just person, a fair person. The famous political theorist John Rawles suggested a connection between justice and fairness that has been hugely influential in the modern western world. His idea is that justice is only possible in a hypothetical state where no one knows what particular advantages they will have in society. Without knowing what benefits one will have nor what attributes or detriments, people will work together to create equitable institutions that will not unfairly favor one group or one person over another.

So, if Rawles’ theory is at all compelling, to be honest is to have the ability to act as if one has no particular advantage over another. In the world of wine this might translate into a sense of ‘fair play’ where wineries and agencies don’t try to denigrate the perspective of others in order to serve their own interests, knowing that they will benefit while those who they denigrate will not. Thus, even if one might disagree with biodynamics, to denigrate it as nonsense without engaging it on its own terms is to act dishonestly towards another perspective. Conversely, a biodynamic wine maker who dogmatically argues for a ‘natural’ approach to wine making as morally and rationally superior to other approaches is not being honest insofar as to be honest means to be fair.

This does not mean criticism is not possible if one is to be honest. It does mean, however, that both an open mind and a willingness to entertain perspectives outside of one’s beliefs and purview is necessary for an honest appraisal of wine.

Thus, with a mind to the multiple perspectives that can have a claim on our moral and ethical personae, I will address some competing perspectives on how one might determine what exactly an honest wine is – or rather, what it should be.

One of the most important and dominant modes of ethical thinking is known as consequentialism. This philosophy argues that the best way to determine whether something is right or not is to look to its end. Does it produce the right result? Thus, a consequentialist evaluation of wine would look to the final product and compare it against a set of parameters to measure its utility, i.e. the extent to which it maximizes those parameters. Utility has traditionally been defined by philosophers of the Bentham school as welfare, or happiness. Thus, one moral approach to wine could be to evaluate a wine based on how much happiness it produces in an individual who buys it, collects it, and ultimately consumes it. The methods by which the wine reaches this end point become irrelevant.  

An honest wine, insofar as to be honest means to be fair, would seek to distribute this utility fairly and equally – across a wide variety of palates and perspectives. Thus, making one single style of wine using one approach across an entire region is not honest. Making as many styles as possible to suit the huge range of individual palates and levels of enjoyment, however, would be honest, for it does not operate on the premise that any one palate is superior to another.

One of consequentialism’s staunchest foes is a brand of thought known as deontology. Don’t let the crazy name scare you away, though, for its basic premise is compelling for most. Deontology asks what is right by looking at one’s actions. Outcomes themselves do not matter; it is how we choose to act that matters. And, it is the analysis of our choices in this respect that is the purview of moral thought.

Thus, in the wine context we could ask about the methods with which grapes are grown, fermented, and generally made into wine. This is where we might insert concerns about consistency. A wine is honest if the actions by which it was produced were morally consistent. That is, they did not fall prey to hyperbole or hidden artifice. Any artifice used is frankly and forthrightly declared. Any manipulation or lack thereof derives from a consistent approach and is made known up front, rather than tucked away. Thus, if a wine is to be honest, we can question it deontologically by looking at the consistency of the actions by which it has been both made and marketed, and, ultimately, sold.

Super high prices for wines that claim great care, but show little? That is not deontologically honest. Conversely, using a brand with huge equity based on their most expensive wines to sell cheap plonk? Not deontologically honest. Wines said to be made organically, but with little care of the larger implications of environmentalism (say, for example, by packaging a wine with a 7lb bottle)? That too is not deontologically honest.

 In the end, I think, it is both appraoches – that is, consequentialism and deontology – that can help us appreciate the moral dimension of honesty and apply it to wine. By thinking of wine in this way both consumers and producers can help discover what it means to make honest wine, and to act on that promise. To do otherwise would be, well…

This inquiry into morality, and the previous inquiry into truth, leaves my overall inquiry into honesty in wine with a relatively thin sense of how to put all of these ideas together. That question will be the topic of the third post in this series on Honesty as Virtue, where I will attempt to ‘thicken’ some of the concepts I have discussed so far.

Posted in: Honesty in Wine


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