What is food? (Food metaphysics)
How do we know it is food? (Food epistemology)
What is good food? (Gustatory aesthetics)
What should we eat? (Food ethics)
Should food be natural? (Food technology)
How should food be distributed? (Food politics)
Are you what you eat? (Food identity)
Philosophers have a long but scattered history of analyzing food. Plato famously details an appropriate diet in Book II of the Republic. The Roman Stoics, Epicurus and Seneca, as well as Enlightenment philosophers such as Locke, Rousseau, Voltaire, Marx, and Nietzsche, all discuss various aspects of food production and consumption. In the twentieth century, philosophers considered such issues as vegetarianism, agricultural ethics, food rights, biotechnology, and gustatory aesthetics. In the twenty-first century, philosophers continue to address these issues and new ones concerning the globalization of food, the role of technology, and the rights and responsibilities of consumers and producers. Typically, these philosophers call their work “food ethics” or “agricultural ethics.” But I think they sell themselves short. Philosophers do more than treat food as a branch of ethical theory. They also examine how it relates to the fundamental areas of philosophical inquiry: metaphysics, epistemology, aesthetics, political theory, and, of course, ethics. The phrase “philosophy of food” is more accurate. We might eventually come to think of the philosophy of food as a perfectly ordinary “philosophy of” if more philosophers address food issues and more colleges offer courses on the subject—or at least that is my hope.
But why is this subject – a footnote to Plato just like the rest of the philosophy – not yet fully entrenched as a standard philosophical subject? Why do philosophers only occasionally address questions concerning food? The subject is obviously important and the scholarship on food has real pedigree. Some have argued that food is eschewed because of the perception that it is too physical and transient to deserve serious consideration (Telfer, 1996). Others have argued that food production and preparation have conventionally been regarded as women’s work and, therefore, viewed as an unworthy topic for a male-dominated profession (Heldke, 1992). Still others argue that the senses and activities associated with food (taste, eating, and drinking) have traditionally been seen as “lower senses” and are too primitive and instinctual to be analyzed philosophically (Korsemeyer, 2002). These are all plausible explanations.
But perhaps the real reason why relatively few philosophers analyze food is because it’s too difficult. Food is vexing. It is not even clear what it is. It belongs simultaneously to the worlds of economics, ecology, and culture. It involves vegetables, chemists, and wholesalers; livestock, refrigerators, and cooks; fertilizer, fish, and grocers. The subject quickly becomes tied up in countless empirical and practical matters that frustrate attempts to think about its essential properties. It is very difficult to disentangle food from its web of production, distribution, and consumption. Or when it is considered in its various use and meaning contexts, it is too often stripped of its unique food qualities and instead seen as, for example, any contextualized object, social good, or part of nature. It is much easier to treat food as a mere case study of applied ethics than to analyze it as something that poses unique philosophical challenges.
But things are starting to change. The level of public discourse about diet, health, and agriculture in the US is remarkably more sophisticated than it was only ten years ago. Food books are bestsellers, cooking shows are ubiquitous, and the public is more informed about food safety and food politics. The mainstream media no longer tends to blame malnutrition and food insecurity on overpopulation but on poverty and poor governance. And most people, I suspect, regardless of one’s take on animal ethics, would be sickened to learn that a staggering 56 billion land animals are slaughtered each year for food. Philosophers are not immune from these facts and trends. We are increasingly joining other academics, journalists, and citizens who take food very seriously. More philosophical work has been done on food and agriculture in the last five years than the previous thirty. Hopefully, we are not just following a trend but helping to steer it in a more intelligent and responsible direction.
The role of philosophy is to cut through the morass of contingent facts and conceptual muddle to tackle the most basic questions about food: What is it exactly? How do we know it is safe? What should we eat? How should food be distributed? What is good food? These are simple yet difficult questions because they involve philosophical questions about metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, and aesthetics. Other disciplinary approaches may touch on these questions concerning food but only philosophy addresses them explicitly. Once we have a clear understanding of philosophy’s unique role, we’ll all be in a better position to engage in dialogue aimed at improving our knowledge, practices, and laws. We should also gain a renewed appreciation for the scope and relevance of the discipline of philosophy itself.
Food Metaphysics (return to top)
We presuppose some conception – however vague – of what food is whenever we eat or identify something as food. Different conceptions can have real consequences for our health, the environment, and the economy. Metaphysics makes these implicit assumptions explicit by examining the very notion of what food is and what property or properties make something food. The answers to questions concerning the nature of food are not at all obvious. Nor are the answers to other metaphysical questions about the difference between natural and artificial food, the identity of food over time (from raw to cooked to spoiled), the difference between food and an animal, or the difference between food and other edible things (such as water, minerals, or drugs). Predictably, there is no consensus among philosophers about the nature of food but there are several good candidates.
Food as nutrition. Food is a substance or material that originates in the environment in plants, animals, or water. It is made up of naturally occurring nutrients metabolized by an organism to sustain, grow, and repair vital life processes. The primary function of food is to provide nourishment to an organism. Nourishment is furnished by nutrients: carbohydrates, fats, fibers, protein, vitamins, and minerals. These and other chemical compounds are essential for basic bodily functioning. Food on this model has objective properties (that are really present) that are not open to interpretation.
Food as nature. Nature is not only objective but also normative. It is often perceived to have intrinsic value distinct from its instrumental value satisfying human ends. In this sense, food not only comes from nature but it is good when it does and bad when it does not. The more natural food is, the better it is. When viewed holistically as a part of a food chain, food production and consumption are seen as belonging to interdependent ecological relationships. The more we live in accordance with natural processes, the more healthy and “balanced” our lives will be. Harmony with nature is good; disharmony, bad.
Food as culture. Food has social meaning and significance beyond its nutritive function; it is also expressive and normative. Each society determines what is food, what is permissible to eat, and how and when particular things are consumed. Food laws, for example, specify what is intended to be, and can reasonably expected to be ingested by humans. There are good and bad foods, legal and illegal foods, appropriate and inappropriate foods, basic and celebratory foods, ritualistic and symbolic foods, and so on. Food preparation and consumption are bound to the beliefs, practices, and laws of nations and cultures. Food and culture define one another.
Food as social good. Food is a basic thing that humans want and need in order to live together in societies. As such, it is the subject of social justice. Governments play a role in the distribution of food according to some conception of justice (e.g., free market, religious tradition, the Principle of Utility, the Difference Principle, and so on). Food, on this model, is something people can use, allocate, and exchange in a way that is consistent with the meanings societies give to it. Food distribution concerns the basic institutions of society and the principles of justice that regulate how this social good is allocated.
Food as spirituality. Food is central to religious traditions throughout the world. Religions typically prescribe which foods should be eaten and which should be avoided; they assign significance to food production, preparation, and consumption; and they connect dietary regimentation with moral conduct and spiritual salvation. Food on this model has a metaphysical – nonmaterial – dimension that is realized only in religious practice. This spiritual dimension of food connects us to religious communities and to the supernatural when consumed appropriately.
Food as desideratum. Food is the object of hunger and desire. It is the focus of what we want when we feel the urge to eat. This desire, or appetite, is tied primarily to the physical sensation of hunger caused by complex physiological reactions. A “food craving” is a desire to eat a specific food generated by something other than hunger, such as a memory, psychological motivation, or pregnancy. When food is viewed as the object of desire we are lead into murky depths of the unconscious and bodily urges – often coupled with a social realm that influences our desires.
Food as aesthetic object. Food is aesthetic in two senses. First, as the object of aesthetic experience it has a taste and it appeals to the senses. We describe food as, for example, delicious, satisfying, or disgusting; over-cooked, fresh, or crunchy. Second, food is artful. We describe it in terms of its visual presentation and sensual composition. We attribute aesthetic properties such as elegant, hearty, or simple. Food on this model is primarily the subject of aesthetic judgment about its taste and appearance and only secondarily about nature and nutrition.
This list is far from exhaustive. Other metaphysical conceptions of food include: food as diet (inevitably connected with a lifestyle and often a tradition); food as fuel (like nutrition but more narrowly construed as primarily energy-producing); food as commodity (an economic good with value relative to the market); food as veganism (no animal flesh or animal products); and, less commonly, food as technology (a manufactured and processed social reality, more akin to a drug than to nature). Food can plausibly be any of these things, often more than one at the same time.
Food Epistemology (return to top)
The metaphysics of food is always bound up with epistemology: different conceptions of food are connected to our different beliefs about it. Obviously, what one thinks food is depends upon how one perceives and judges it. This claim applies to any object and to the metaphysics-epistemology relationship in general. But food epistemology is somewhat different. It is not only concerned with typical epistemic questions about knowledge, justification, and truth because food is not merely an object of experience. It is also an object of consumption. We don’t just perceive it; we also prepare it and eat it. We have different interests, rely on different sources of knowledge, and justify our beliefs differently. We perceive food as something that might taste good, make us sick, have symbolic significance, spoil unless refrigerated, and spark other various concerns that are unique to food perception. In addition to typical epistemological questions concerning the reasons and conditions that warrant beliefs, food epistemology is also about risk and trust, practical reason, and the effects of physiology and psychology on perception.
Risk. Food consumption (as well as production and distribution) always involves uncertainty. Risk refers to situations where there is uncertainty as to whether an undesirable event will occur. It involves partial, incomplete knowledge: enough is known about a situation to know that not enough is known about its probable outcome. With food the risks usually involve safety. The absence of reliable knowledge means that there is always a chance that our food is unsafe to eat or drink. Every day, public health officials deal with practical questions about acceptable food risks. Often the standards come from the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the international body developed in 1963 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organization. The commission is responsible for standardizing the Codex Alimentarius, the international food code, designed to protect consumers and ensure fair trade practices.
The Codex defines food risk analysis as a process of assessment, management, and communication. First, regulators identify and assess food hazards and the likelihood of adverse effects. Then, food control agencies weigh policy alternatives and take steps for prevention or control. At the same time, information is communicated among governments, industry, NGOs, and consumers. Food risk epistemology on this model involves not only science but also decision-making and public policy. Risk analysis takes place through vast networks of actors and institutions.
Trust. Risk and trust form a pair. Risk refers to uncertainties and hazards; trust refers to situations where, in the absence of assurances, one must rely upon or place confidence in someone or something. Risk-taking often requires trust in others; trust always involves the risk of dangers. Although people sometimes knowingly take risks about food (like eating something you suspect could be spoiled) most of the time we simply trust that others have made our food safe to eat and have labeled it properly. It is questionable as to whether our trust in food is truly justifiable or even avoidable. And if trust is unavoidable, is it even a rational choice or is it instead more like an act of faith – something we just commit ourselves to in the absence of evidence? Food consumption is an exercise in the epistemology of trust. We typically have no choice but to trust the safety of our food in the absence of reasonable assurance. And, unlike risk assessment, “trust assessment” is typically a solitary activity.
Practical reason. Food is also the object of practical knowledge, or skills. We not only know-that but we have food know-how. We know, for example, how to farm and fish, process and package, cook and dispose. Knowledge with respect to action is called “practical reason.” We learn it from others and hone it through practice. The standards are historical and highly sensitive to context. In academic food studies this knowledge is part of what is called "foodways." Like folkways, foodways refers to the study of food production and consumption – the culinary practices of what a group eats and what it means. These tradition-bound activities and beliefs largely determine how a group organizes and understands its food-related practices. We typically rely on practical wisdom to address questions concerning food risk and trust – that is, if questions even arise. Practical reason (and its cousins, common sense, custom, and habit) usually determines what kinds of things are even candidates for epistemic justification. Everyday life usually determines if and when something food related becomes questionable, and it usually determines the answer – not some impartial risk assessment or other set of rational criteria.
The involuntary and the unconscious. Sometimes our experience of food is inexplicable. There is often no apparent reason why we have an urge or repulsion. We just do. Some of these basic (yet enigmatic) experiences are caused by involuntary bodily processes, some by unconscious motives and desires. Food epistemology is complicated by physiology and psychology. The usual stock of epistemological concepts (such as “belief,” “justification,” and “truth”) are primarily concerned with propositional knowledge and are ill equipped to deal with something as visceral as the sensation of a craving or the feeling of disgust. When it comes to food the traditional epistemic task of evaluating the reasons for beliefs in order to convert them into knowledge is challenged by physiological causes and unconscious motives. Eating disorders (such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating) are extreme cases of perception that has been distorted by the body and unconscious mind. But even ordinary experiences, like a food preference or desire points to limits in our knowledge. We have to go beyond our immediate, desire-influenced experience in order to explain it. Perhaps philosophical reflection needs to be supplemented by empirical sciences and psychoanalytic psychology in order to make sense of the experience of eating food.
Food Aesthetics (return to top)
Of the five senses involved in eating, taste is the most important. It is our most direct, embodied encounter with food; it affords pleasure and disgust; and it is the one sense we cannot help but use. Yet taste is more than something that just happens in the mouth: it is also the leading metaphor in aesthetics. Taste refers to our discrimination regarding art objects and our standards for artistic judgments. To have taste means the ability to discern aesthetic qualities in things. It is a particular kind of knowledge especially appropriate for artworks – one that bridges epistemology and philosophy of art.
When we direct aesthetic attention to food and drink, however, we find that the parallel to artworks is tested. Judgments about tastes in food are more difficult to justify. Although most of us believe there is a difference between good food and bad food, we also acknowledge that tastes are highly subjective, or at least cultural. The sense of the taste itself – what happens in the mouth – is one of the least reliable senses. It is difficult to describe how something tastes because it is less differentiated and less sensitive than vision or hearing. The relationship of gustatory to art-centered aesthetics is further strained by the questionable status of food as an art form. Should culinary art be considered high art? Does it require the same skill to produce? Faculties to appreciate? Should salads be displayed in museums alongside of paintings? The aesthetics of food, drink, and cooking pose unique challenges to aesthetic theory and philosophy of art.
Taste as judgment. When philosophers speak of a judgment of taste we typically mean the ability to identify the aesthetic qualities of artworks and nature. This kind of judgment has traditionally been understood to be both subjective and universal. It is subjective because it is based on a feeling or sensation; universal because “subjective” does not mean that we cannot all potentially agree on feelings and shared pleasures. Historically, the problem for philosophers has been to acknowledge the subjective character of taste while avoiding a slide into a relativism of incommensurable personal preferences. They want to affirm critical standards for judging artworks in the face of the highly subjective pleasures that underlie our tastes.
One of the ways aesthetic theorists have traditionally achieved these two competing goals is to disentangle aesthetic taste from literal taste. Actual taste is seen as low in the hierarchy of the senses, even antithetical to the rational character of genuine aesthetic experience. The experience of beauty requires reason, imagination, and other cognitive activities that accompany aesthetic pleasure. Philosophers from Plato to Hegel to the present insist on this distinction between mere physical enjoyment and the reasoned (even spiritual) pleasure of beauty. Genuine aesthetic taste requires cognitive content so that we might discern and evaluate a work in terms of a common language – and literal taste is hardly the right tool for the job. An aesthetic theory of artworks and objects needs cognition or at least one of the more reliable senses, like vision or hearing, so that our judgments are substantive and meaningful.
The aesthetics of food and drink is somewhat different. We must embrace the sense of taste: there is no other way to know what something tastes like! Gustatory aesthetics begins with the immediate, direct, even pleasurable experience of eating and drinking but does not try to explain it away, nor treat taste as a mere metaphor for “higher” forms of judgment. Instead philosophers today are likely to affirm both the cognitive and sensual experience of food. Taste experience might be subjective but that does not rule out the possibility that there is something objective in food that our sense of taste detects, rather than invents. It is what permits standards of judgment and discrimination. People disagree about tastes because there is actually something about their food – not just their experiences -- to disagree about. (If we only quarreled about subjective experience and not what the experience is about there would be no way to disagree: each person’s claims about his or her experience would always be right!)
Furthermore, philosophers today typically recognize some kind of cognitive or symbolic dimension to food in a way our Enlightenment predecessors did not. Food has meaning. It does not represent or depict as well as art but it does, nevertheless, tell us something about the world. Food expresses its culture and history (pizza, jambalaya, sushi), ceremonial function (Eucharist, horseradish on a Seder plate), and customary consumption (hot dogs rather than beef Wellington at a baseball game, champagne rather than milk for a toast). Gustatory aesthetics directs attention to both the sensual and meaningful qualities of food and drink.
Food as art. The status of food as art is debatable. Their differences might be more relevant than their similarities. Granted, in judgments about both food and art we pick out significant aesthetic qualities, discern attentively, enjoy pleasurable experiences (or react negatively), refer to the judgments of experts, and dispute using reasons with the intention of convincing others. The activity of judging the aesthetic properties of food and drink is quite similar that involved with to works of visual arts, music, dance, and other art forms. Certainly the culinary arts require high-level skill and artistry – but does that make culinary objects fine art? Most would agree that food and artworks overlap but each does something the other cannot. Artworks can say more than food; they relate to broader, more articulated histories and meanings; they enjoy a very different social status; and art can depict food and eating with far more sophistication than food can depict art.
Of course, food, by virtue of the very sensual character that likens it to art, does things that fine art could never do, such as nourish, sate hunger, spoil, decay teeth, cause allergies, pose health risks, and do other things that distinguish the materials and embodied experience of food from fine art. Food and art may both be meaningful and moving (even profound) but in entirely different ways, perhaps enough to distinguish culinary from fine art -- or even make the comparison moot.
Food Ethics (return to top)
Food is about life as well as luxury. It is about serious things like hunger and malnutrition, diabetes and heart disease, eating and being eaten. It is a profoundly moral issue. It always has been. Even ordinary, everyday acts of cooking and eating are forms of ethical conduct. Cultural and religious traditions since antiquity have prescribed what we should and should not eat. In fact, ethical choices about food used to be considered as important as other more recognizably moral issues. Today people in the industrialized North tend to be less concerned about the relationship between diet and moral-religious conduct than we are about more mundane matters of health and, to a lesser extent, animals and the environment. Most of us are familiar with the standard ethical questions concerning food. They are becoming increasingly commonplace. What should we eat? Is it wrong to eat meat? What should we do about world hunger? Do my food choices even make a difference? Although debatable and unsettled, these issues are at least on the radar. Ethical issues about food and eating are dizzying in scope and difficult to catalog much less resolve. Nevertheless, there are several broad sets of concerns.
Responsibilities to self and others. Part of the landscape of ethical theory is the discourse of obligation and responsibility, also known as duty. On this model, there are some things people have to do simply because they are the right thing to do. As Kant famously argues, an action must be performed out of duty to have any moral worth. Actions motivated by self-interest, or love, or anticipated consequence are, of course, permissible but not moral in this narrow sense. Kant distinguishes between “perfect” (strong) and “imperfect” (weak) duties. Perfect duties are those that are always required of us; imperfect duties are those that are contingent and only sometimes required of us. He further divides duties between those we have to others and those one has for oneself. For example, the perfect duty to myself is to refrain from suicide; the imperfect duty is to develop my talents. The perfect duty to others is to refrain from acts of violence and coercion; the imperfect duty is to help others. Obviously, there is more to say about responsibility than Kant’s schema of duties but it is a helpful place to start in considering how food figures into the moral landscape.
What are our duties to others concerning food? Minimally, we should neither eat people nor deprive them of food. We probably have an obligation to prevent starvation and to feed the hungry, although it is not clear who “we” are. Doctors have obligations to feed patients in hospitals, sometimes intravenously or forcibly for those who cannot eat. Food manufacturers, farmers, restauranteurs, and other sellers have a moral (not just legal) responsibility to provide safe food. Our imperfect food duties to others are to alleviate suffering and to be hospitable, although the latter is probably a virtue not a duty.
What are one’s duties to oneself? Minimally, neither to starve nor to endanger oneself by food deprivation (although a hunger strike is a morally justifiable form of protest). If eating is a necessary condition to realize our autonomy and human dignity then each has the duty to eat a healthy and nourishing diet. A person who dines on only cheese doodles and vodka, for example, fails to respect himself – he has “let himself go.” The imperfect food duty to oneself is to eat in a way that helps to realize one’s potential. We should eat not only to survive but to flourish and enhance ourselves. Perhaps an athlete has a responsibility to eat a specialized diet to improve performance, while the rest of us should strive to improve our well-being through diet, not simply to maintain it.
This brief list of food duties is far from determinate but is representative of the kinds of arguments that can be made. Each claim, of course, needs to be justified and further clarified to specify who is responsible, to whom, and under what conditions. The very notion of a food duty raises more questions than it answers: How many people am I responsible for feeding? At what cost to myself? What kind of food do I owe to others? How much of it? It is less important to settle these questions than to note how effectively they can be addressed within the framework of rights, duties, and self-development. This moral language is not only commonplace but exceptionally strong rhetorically.
Food virtues. Another part of the landscape of ethical theory is the discourse of moral virtue. Virtue ethics is less concerned with moral rules and principles than character traits and dispositions. The key question to ask is not “what should I do?” but “what kind of person should I become?” The answer is given in terms of virtues a person should aspire to, such as “integrity,” “courage,” “magnanimity,” “wisdom,” and so on. The heart of our ethical life is rooted in character traits, relationships, and communities. Virtue ethics (and care ethics, alike) challenge uninspiring, improperly legalistic moral frameworks. Ethical life is about being a good citizen not following rigid rules.
Philosophers have focused their attention on three food virtues: hospitality, temperance, and table manners. The virtue of hospitality, or hospitableness, is the virtue of sharing one’s accommodations, food, and drink with friends, strangers, and guests. In so doing, we recognize in another our common vulnerabilities and needs. A good host provides warmth and community and, above all, something to eat and drink. By contrast, the virtue of temperance is less concerned with how one feeds others but rather how one moderates one’s own pleasures of eating and drinking. It is best understood in terms of its vice: gluttony. A glutton eats and drinks excessively: too much, too soon, too quickly, and too voraciously. A glutton is weak willed, self-indulgent, and lacking restraint. An overly temperate person finds no enjoyment in food or drink. That person is abstemious and ascetic.
Like temperance, table manners are about appropriate eating and drinking behaviors. They regulate a wide range of conduct – down to the minutiae – when eating, especially when dining with others. Manners are fundamentally social traits that aim to foster health, enjoyment, and community. The list of do’s and don’ts is not trivial. Manners regulate the appearance of the table, the cleanliness of the diners, the placement of the hands and feet, the usage of utensils, the manner of eating (including chewing, licking, and swallowing), regulation of the eyes, conversation topics, and belching. All cultures have rules that govern eating practices even if tables and utensils are not used. Even within a culture, different contexts and settings involve different virtues (for example, when eating in a restaurant or at home). The discourse of moral virtue is particularly well suited for food ethics given the vast and nuanced range of activities involved in eating and drinking.
Vegetarianism and animals. Humans have moral obligations to animals. Even proud meat eaters appreciate that there are some things humans should never do to animals, like torture them for fun or eat their neighbor’s pets. Raising animals for food is, of course, more debatable. There are two main philosophical approaches to this issue: deontological (rights-based) and utilitarian (consequence-based). Deontological approaches affirm the rights of animals, hence the obligations of humans to respect those rights. Animals, like humans, have inherent value and interest in self-preservation and thus enjoy the same fundamental right as we do not to be treated as mere thing. That implies the obligation not to eat animals or disregard their interests. Other rights theorists maintain that the legal ownership of animals is unjust and, therefore, any use of animals is unjust regardless of how humanely they are treated. This abolitionist theory of animal rights affirms veganism, not just a vegetarian diet.
Other rights theorists contend that only humans have rights because only humans have obligations. Animals cannot tell the difference between their interests and what is the right thing to do. Without that distinction it makes no sense to say that an action is performed on the basis of duty; there has to be a choice between acting out of obligation and acting from desire. Those who argue against animal rights do not necessarily endorse eating meat; they merely challenge a rights-based justification for vegetarianism.
Utilitarian (or consequentialist) approaches argue that animals (like humans) have no fundamental rights. Rather, they have the capacity to experience pleasure and to suffer and are thus no less morally significant than we are. Utilitarian approaches require that we give equal consideration to the interests of humans and animals alike. Equality of consideration is prescriptive, not descriptive. It is a moral idea, not an assertion of fact. The strength of the animal welfarist appeal is, however, the obvious fact of animal suffering and animal cruelty. Most arguments for ethical vegetarianism and veganism are based on animal welfare and the need to give animals moral consideration. Another set of arguments focus on different consequences, such as the vast amounts of fuel and water used in ranching, the greenhouse gases produced, wasted food on feeding animals rather than people, and increased risk of heart disease from eating meat. These are among the many good reasons for not eating meat.
Consequentialist arguments can, of course, be marshaled in defense of meat eating. Some typical arguments includ that the suffering of animals is offset by the economic benefits to people whose prosperity would be destroyed were we all to stop eating meat; the special dietary needs of pregnant and breast-feeding women require more protein than a vegetarian diet can supply (and that poor people cannot afford or do not have access to dietary supplements); or that long-standing customs and rituals trump animal suffering.
Arguments from the moral virtues are less common but make a similar appeal to animal suffering and to the character traits of those who either condone or oppose it. For example, an uncaring person turns a blind eye to animal cruelty; a compassionate person does not. The traditional virtues oppose things like the consumerism and insensitivity to animals that drives factory farming. Kant makes a similar claim when he argues that it reflects a poor character to treat animals poorly. We diminish ourselves in our acts of cruelty and become more likely to harm other humans. In other words, we should treat animals well less for their sake than for ours.
Virtue ethics can also be marshaled in defense of meat eating. This class of arguments typically finds support in the rich heritage of cultural or religious traditions that involve eating animals: ceremonial feasts, symbolic meanings, the virtues of respect and appreciation for nature’s bounty, culinary virtues, perhaps even the virtues of preparing and eating an animal stalked and hunted.
Agricultural and environmental ethics: Agricultural ethics deals with issues related to the farming of food, ranching and processing livestock, and the cultivation of crops for food, fiber, and fuel. Industrial agriculture, (farming based on the use of machinery, chemicals, and monocrops) although highly productive, raises moral questions about appropriate use of the land, pollution, and animals. The ethical concerns are typically consequentialist. Industrial agriculture produces a litany of harms, such as topsoil erosion, loss of biodiversity, water contamination, and health risks to farmworkers and consumers. Sometimes the moral appeal is made in the name of future generations, who would be adversely affected by actions in the present.
By contrast, sustainable agriculture and ranching is designed to avoid these problems while at the same time satisfying the world’s food needs. Sustainable production practices should enhance environmental quality, use resources more effectively, integrate natural biological cycles and controls, and improve the quality of life for farmers, ranchers, and societies as a whole. Sustainable practices are putatively more practically and morally defensible than industrialized farming and ranching. Advocates of industrial agriculture contend that sustainable practices cannot meet the world's food needs and are, therefore, practically and morally indefensible.
Another approach to questions concerning agriculture and the environment is to call into question the anthropocentric (human-centered) bias of philosophical perspectives, which have traditionally devalued the moral standing of the natural environment and its members. Since the early 1970s, the literature in environmental ethics has challenged the view that only humans have intrinsic value while nonhuman things have extrinsic value as means to human ends. Some environmental philosophers argue for new, nonanthropocentric theories of natural environments and animals. Aldo Leopold’s “land ethic” represents an attempt to argue that the biosphere as a whole has an integrity and beauty that deserves moral consideration. Nonanthropocentric, holistic (rather than individualist) approaches are best suited to make sense of our moral relations with the land.
A related approach to a land ethic is found in the American agrarian tradition. An agrarian philosophy stresses the role of farming and ranching in the formation of moral character and in preserving culture and traditions. By living a rural lifestyle connected to the climate and soil, we acquire a sense of identity and place that can only come about by direct contact with the land. Agrarian philosophy is critical of the social and environmental impacts of industrial agriculture. Wendell Berry, for example, argues that modern agriculture and exodus from farms to cities harms the environment, destroys communities, and eclipses the basic human dignity that comes from an agrarian lifestyle. “Eating,” he famously says, “is an agricultural act” (Berry, 1991). We are all involved in agriculture and our food choices affects how land is treated.
Food Technology (return to top)
Everything humans eat has been grown, raised, or processed in some way. Even the most ecologically attuned organic farming and ranching uses technologies to transform plants or animals into food. We use simple technologies for cooking, drying, fermenting, and slicing; complex ones for pasteurizing, freezing, irradiating, and flavoring. Some processing involves food additives and dietary supplements; other forms, genetic modification and nutrient enhancement. Everything we eat undergoes varying amounts of technological processing before reaching our mouths. Raw food (especially organically grown) is the least processed, then whole food (sometimes cooked), then natural food (no artificial ingredients), then conventional food (often with artificial ingredients). Perhaps the very idea of a “natural food” is dubious if all food requires the intervention of humans. Of course, food processing in itself is not such a terrible thing. The benefits are apparent: safety, availability, nutrient fortification, and convenience.
But some technologically processed foods pose real risks and raise philosophical questions. The main issues concerning food technology – other than industrial agriculture itself – are genetic modification, animal biotechnology, and functional foods. These matters not only raise concerns about health and environmental consequences but also questions concerning consumer choice, food labeling, and animal rights, as well as the very metaphysical status of what we eat.
Genetically modified food. Genetically modified (GM) foods are plants and animals that have been altered using recombinant DNA technology, a technique that combines DNA molecules from different sources into a single molecule. The purpose of genetic modification is to produce new and useful traits otherwise unattainable through conventional techniques. Most often foods are genetically modified to contain their own pesticides or to be herbicide resistant, although a small percentage of crops are engineered to be nutritionally enhanced or drought resistant. Advocates of GM food maintain that they pose neither health nor environmental risks. They promise to increase yields, increase food security, and protect the environment.
Critics warn of unknown health risks and environmental damage. Since labeling is not required in the US, there is no way for most consumers to choose to avoid or to purchase GM foods. Critics also worry about the abuse of intellectual property rights laws that permit the privatization and patenting of life forms. For example, it is illegal for farmers to save and store GM seeds without paying royalty fees. Food security is then threatened as seeds become private property. At the very least, the privatization of GM seeds increases food dependence on industrialized nations by developing nations.
Animal biotechnology. Animal biotechnology applies recombinant DNA techniques to animals. The largest class of genetically engineered (GE) animals are designed to produce pharmaceuticals (also known as “agriceuticals”); another class is designed for industrial purposes; another for food. Livestock and fish are engineered to be disease resistant, have improved nutritional value, increased growth rates, decreased pollutants in their manure, or to produce antimicrobials that target E. coli and Salmonella. We have already encountered many of the arguments for and against animal biotechnology in the discussion of animal rights and GM food. Advocates cite the benefits of increased resistance to disease, productivity, and hardiness; GE animals yield more meat, eggs, and milk; and they provide more healthy food.
Critics contend that genetic manipulation violates an animal’s intrinsic value (or its telos, its natural function) and that mixing the genes of different species tampers with the natural order. Others maintain the more defensible position that we should not engage in practices (using biotechnology or otherwise) that make food animals worse off than they are now.
Functional foods. A functional food, or “nutraceutical,” is a food-based product that has added ingredients believed to provide health benefits. Such foods are designed to assist in the prevention or treatment of disease, or to enhance and improve human capacities. They include products like vitamin-fortified grains, energy bars, low-fat or low-sodium foods, and sports drinks. Functional foods eliminate properties from the food to make it more nutritious – even to replace medicine. The key moral issue is these foods' claim to function as medicine, blurring the boundaries between food and drugs. Manufacturers can produce food items that make general health claims (to promote health) so long as they make no specific claims (to treat diseases). There is no legal definition for functional foods in the United States, and neither premarket approval for safety nor proof of general health claims is required. The lack of regulation raises questions about the proper role of governments in regulating food and protecting public health.
Food Politics (return to top)
Food choices are inevitably political. Even our simple acts of eating have public consequences when aggregated. The choices consumers make ripple through the realms of food production, distribution, and consumption shaping the character of our food system. But perhaps even more important than individual choices are the political and economic realities that affect national and international food systems. Governments have tremendous power to make decisions over entire nations (and entire species). So do transnational corporations. We have already encountered several issues that have political dimensions, such as food safety, hunger, animal rights, and genetically modified food. (Any issue where there are “advocates” and “critics” is already politically charged). These issues are both economic and political. Some additional food issues that deserve to be mentioned are food security, global trade, marketing, and labeling.
Food security. Food security exists when people have access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food to live healthy lives. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 1 billion people suffer from hunger; another one billion from undernourishment. There are a number of reasons for chronic and temporary food insecurity. They include poverty, economic crises, poor governance, and poor agricultural infrastructure. People cope with food insecurity by eating less, selling assets, and forgoing health care and education. Women are affected worse than men; girls more than boys. Food insecurity traps people in poverty and poor health and it compromises basic daily activities. It is a matter of social and international justice.
In order to prevent food shortages, nations need to invest in agriculture and infrastructure and expand safety nets for short-term, acute situations. They need to create jobs and increase agriculture and local value-added food production. Small farmers need access to resources and technologies that allow them to increase productivity. Nations need vibrant agricultural systems and strong food security governance to increase production, distribute food to those in need, and protect citizens from both natural and economic crises.
As if the practical challenges aren’t enough, the philosophical challenge is to justify the claim that governments have the obligation to protect food security. If they have food duties is it because citizens have food rights? Do noncitizens? What do nations owe to each other? What role should markets and financial system play in protecting food security? What about NGOs, and consumer choice? In other words, what should we do about massive, remediable, undeserved suffering regarding food and to improve the lives of as many as possible using means that are just, fair, and culturally appropriate?
Global trade. Trade and the globalization of agriculture are increasingly internationalizing the politics of food. Producers and consumers are often vulnerable to events that take place far away and subject to decisions over which they have little control. Transnational agribusiness and global financial institutions exercise tremendous influence over national and international food policies. It is debatable whether the current global trade system helps or harms nations. The transfer of technology for the most part helps, although industrial agriculture often reduces employment and drives farmers into cities and slums. Trade liberalization is good for farmers in industrialized nations but it too often creates poverty in poor countries as subsidized commodities drive crop prices down. Local farmers cannot produce food as cheaply as the imports forcing poor nations to become dependent on wealthier nations for food. Developing countries need to have the ability to raise tariffs on agricultural products to protect national food security and employment.
A further consequence of globalization is that traditional, local diets are being replaced by a “Western diet” and lifestyle: energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods with high levels of sugar and saturated fats, combined with reduced physical activity. Not surprisingly, global rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease continue to increase in both rich and poor countries.
The local food movement in wealthy nations is, in part, a response to the globalization of food. A “locavore” is someone who aims to eat only food grown or produced within a relatively short radius ofwhere one lives, typically within 100 miles. Local networks of small farms, community-supported agriculture, co-ops, and farmers’ markets are said to enhance relationships among producers and communities while also leaving a smaller carbon footprint.
Another response to globalized food production is the slow food movement started in Italy by Carlos Petrini in the late 1980s as a reaction to the spread of fast food. Slow food is premised on the conviction that locally grown food and traditional farming and food production methods protects regional culinary practices and lifestyles. Slow food proponents claim that such food regionalism not only enhances relationships among farmers, communities, and environments but also produces better tasting food.
Critics argue that farmers in the developing nations are harmed when consumers in wealthy nations eat locally. Our moral obligation to alleviate suffering abroad (probably) has priority over our obligation to mitigate environmental degradation. In addition, the environmental impact of transportation is often exaggerated. A more thorough environmental assessment also takes into account the amount of energy used in food production. Often the energy use in food transported great distances is less than that produced locally. Some suggest that a better alternative to food-provincialism is to support “fair trade” products. These are food items produced sustainably on farms and ranches that respect worker rights, worker safety, and that pay living wages. To receive a fair trade designation, the entire supply chain must be in compliance – from production to distribution.
Labeling and marketing: Consumers need information in order to make decisions about what to purchase and what to eat. We get this information from food labels and advertising. Arguably, we have a right to know about the ingredients and perhaps even the processing and packaging of our food. The risks of false information can be harmful – even lethal. Or, less gravely, false information compromises our ability to make informed choices. How can a person, for example, avoid sodium, support fair trade, or eat kosher foods unless products are labeled? Even if we deny that consumers have the right to information (and producers an obligation to provide it) a market economy is premised on the freedom to make informed choices. The most reasonable way for consumers to be informed is through food labels and advertising. And the only way that information is going to be made available is if producers disclose it. Granted, it is far from clear how much information is enough to inform consumers; what the limits of marketing and advertising are beyond not lying; or what kind of product liability is appropriate for food and drinks. These are legal as much as moral-political questions.
Food Identity (return to top)
Food and drink figure into our everyday lives in countless ways. A diet expresses ethnic, religious, and class identification; it prescribes gender roles; it is embodied in rituals and manners; and it relates directly to our aspirations to perfect ourselves. Food and drink tap our pleasures and anxieties, memories and desires, and pride in or alienation from our heritage. This connection between diet and identity raises a number of philosophical questions. Nothing we eat (short of poison) determines an identity. And yet dietary preferences are indeed a part of who I am individually, and who we are collectively. Sometimes the role of food is trivial (e.g., one’s idiosyncratic tastes and food memories), sometimes significant (e.g., sugar and the Atlantic slave trade, or Ireland and the potato in the 1840s). Either way, food is a marker of identity.
Gender is a particularly good example. Men and woman act out their identities, roles, and relationships through their very different relationships with food: different division of labor, access, and meaning attributed to eating. By mapping gender onto each stage of food production, distribution, and consumption we have a powerful lens through which to explain gender relations. Do the same with race or class and, again, we get a window into one realm of activities that manifests social relations. We get answers to questions to the “who?” questions: who farms, who trades, who eats, who cooks, who manages waste, who profits, and so on.
Why is this philosophically interesting? Because diet nicely manifests two basic philosophical topics: identity and justice. Any thorough analysis of these concepts cannot ignore diet. To put it noncontroversially: any personal or collective identity is formed in a (social and environmental) context. Food and eating are a crucial part of that context. Food does not make an identity, nor does it exhaust questions of justice but it is a key part of each story.