Honesty in Wine: An Inquiry – Part 3

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virtueThe first two posts in this series dealt with two dimensions of honesty: truth and morality. Truth insofar as to be honest can mean to be genuine, and morality insofar as to be honest can mean to be authentic, consistent and sincere. This final post will try to bring together the ideas I’ve already discussed in a comprehensive approach to honesty that gets at the heart of what honesty means to wine.

The best way I could think of to do this was to bring in some suggestions from a brand of ethics known as virtue ethics. I do not mean to make this a treatise on virtue ethics, nor am I promoting it as the best moral system for all questions. Instead, I think it can provide some very useful insights to the question at hand: how is honesty a virtue?

3. Honesty as Virtue

Virtue ethics is an approach to ethics that emphasizes moral character, in contrast to an approach which emphasizes duties or rules (deontology) or that which emphasizes the consequences of actions (consequentialism), both of which I discussed in the second post in this series.

As a vinously-inspired example, consider a winemaker who is deciding between going fully biodynamic in their vineyards. A utilitarian would point to the fact that doing so would maximize well-being, perhaps here understood as overall health of humans and a diffuse entity known as the “environment”. A deontologist would point to the fact that doing so would be acting in accordance with some moral rule, such as “human interference with nature should be minimized to the greatest extent possible”.

Unlike these two approaches a virtue ethicist would consider the fact that making biodynamic wine is in itself an honest act. So the question remains, how can we understand what it means to make choices based on virtues as ends, and how can we determine the content of those virtues?

In the previous two posts, I have pointed to some ways in which we are able to give content to the word, and now the virtue, “honesty”. But those inquiries seem somehow insufficient in themselves. We need some way to make decisions in a complex and comprehensive environment. This ultimately leads us to ask what are the moral reasons for acting one way or another?

Virtue, and in our case, honesty, cannot be determined merely with reference to a single action. An honest person cannot be identified simply as one who, for example, does not cheat. If one acts merely because he or she thinks that honesty is the best policy, or because he or she fears being caught out, rather than through recognizing “To do otherwise would be dishonest” as the relevant reason, they are not the actions of an honest person.

A winemaker is not honest simply because he or she makes wine organically, or because he or she is worried about selling wine and so engages the larger community. And, let’s be honest, most of us are pretty savvy at discerning who is genuinely engaging with us and who is not.

Thus, instead, to possess a virtue is to be a certain sort of person who accepts a certain range of considerations as reasons for acting. And, what I have attempted to do in the first two posts is provide as many “reasons for acting” as possible. For example, to be consistent, to be sincere, or to be transparent and genuine.

This is why there is no set criteria for honesty – only a variety of reasons for acting that an honest individual considers when he or she makes his or her choices. To be honest is to be comprehensively attuned to this great variety of reasons for acting that are associated with honesty. Pure consequences, pure actions, truth-telling, consistency, etc. are all components of the virtue of honesty, but each in itself cannot determine the meaning of honesty. Honesty is the comprehensive consideration of all these reasons for acting within a given set of circumstances. Thus honesty can be diverse, multi-faceted and, in the end, is not discernable by reference to a basic set of criteria.

For example, a winemaker makes decisions every day about how to tend to the vines, the vineyard, and to every step along the way in the wine making process. Wineries also make decisions about how to market, how to distribute, how to price, and how to communicate their story. Each of these decisions, if they are to be honest, must be made with a comprehensive analysis of all the factors that comprise honesty in that situation. The ones I have suggested in the first two post provide some guidance to the sorts of considerations that an ‘honest’ person might make.

Honesty, from the perspective of a virtue ethics, is something to be assessed “in the thick of things”, as choices are being made, and with access to the full context of decisions.

Thus, an honest person’s reasons and choices with respect to honest and dishonest actions reflect his or her views about honesty and truth. Accordingly, it is impossible to easily classify someone or something as honest or dishonest. These assessments will always be dependent on the comprehensive criteria we use to determine what honesty is, and the weight we give to each criterion in a given situation.

So perhaps all I’ve done is point out that it’s really darn hard to decide whether or not someone is being honest or that something is honest. I do think this is a worthwhile exercise, however, because it highlights care in the way that we assess both our actions and the actions of others. We must think comprehensively and in context, with reference to a full gamut of reasons for acting, if we are to, ourselves, honestly assess another’s honesty.

Perhaps it is this end that best exemplifies that wine is more about dialogue and less about judgment. Judgment can be a part of dialogue, but only if it engages perspectives fully and honestly. Thus honesty in wine should apply not just to producers, but also to consumers, marketers, and everyone involved in the wine business. If we are to think of wine as more than a mere commodity, I think it is incumbent on all of us not only to be as broad minded as possible, but also to be willing to engage in debate and dialogue about what makes a wine honest. This, I hope, will help make everyone a little more honest themselves.

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