Cup O’ Quandaries

Andrew Sullivan —  Oct 6 2014 @ 7:31am

In his latest Ethicist column, Chuck Klosterman advises a camp counselor to let a Mormon teenager sample coffee, disregarding the parents’ wishes:

As an authority figure, you have an obligation to approach the camper and ask, “Are you aware that your parents requested that you not drink coffee?” You might follow that with a second question: “Do you understand why your parents don’t want you drinking coffee?” This seems like a prime opportunity to have a meaningful discussion that might affect the rest of his life.

But regardless of the teenager’s response, you should not physically stop him from consuming a beverage that is legally and ethically within his right to consume. It’s not as if you’re forcing him to drink coffee against his parents’ wishes or placing him in a position where there’s no alternative; he is choosing to do this, despite his spiritual upbringing. A 16-year-old has the intellectual ability to decide which aspects of a religion he will accept or ignore. He’s not an infant, and you’re not living in the town where “Footloose” happened. It’s the responsibility of a secular camp to respect the principles of any religion but not to enforce its esoteric dictates.

Coffee, of course, has also stirred secular objections over the years. Dan Piepenbring unearths the “rhetorically marvelous if scientifically unsound” advice of one J. M. Holaday, who strongly advocated against the beverage in his 1888 paper “Coffee-Drinking and Blindness“:

Children that are allowed to partake freely of coffee will become restless, fussy and noisy, half wild with mischief. They probably advance in their school studies with abnormal rapidity. But they hate work. At times they are indifferent about education. Their strength goes to the brain. They grow rapidly, but not aright. They develop into men and women three years too soon. Yet their eyes dance with angelic splendor, and their cheeks glow with vermilion, providing that they started in life with robust constitutions. If they began life with puny physiques, however, coffee will make them slim and ghostly, and their eyes and features flat. Coffee … gives a sentimental strength—the strength that pertains to runts. The best thing that can be said of coffee is, that it has a tendency, like opium, to make lawless persons tame.