Eating Ethically
Free Inquiry, 25, no. 4 (June-July, 2005), pp. 18-19

Stealing, lying, hurting people-these acts are obviously relevant to our moral character. So too, most people would say, is our involvement in community activities, our generosity to others in need, and-especially-our sex lives. But how about what we eat? Though eating is even more essential than sex, and everyone does it, usually more than once a day, most people don't see it as raising ethical issues. Try to think of a politician whose prospects have been damaged by revelations about what he or she eats.

It wasn't always so. Michel Foucault, the French historian of ideas, has pointed out that in ancient Greece and Rome the ethics of what we eat was considered an important topic, at least as significant as sexual ethics.1 In traditional Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, and Buddhist ethics, too, discussions of what should and should not be eaten occupy a prominent place. In the Hebrew scriptures, for example, some animals, though edible, are "abominable," and Jewish law prohibits their consumption. (For a witty take on this, see, which aptly mocks fundamentalists who use the Bible as a weapon against gays.)

In the Christian era, however, interest in the ethics of what we eat faded away. Jesus deliberately rejected the Jewish dietary laws, saying, according to Matthew's account, "What goes into a man's mouth does not make him 'unclean,' but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him 'unclean.'"2 As Hub Zwart, who has researched the history of food ethics, comments, "What is so striking in the food ethic proclaimed by Jesus, is the basic atmosphere of carelessness it conveys. All of a sudden, food intake seems to have become completely insignificant, from a moral point of view."3 Even the later Roman Catholic tradition of avoiding meat on Fridays and during Lent was not intended to suggest that there was anything wrong, in general, with eating meat. True, gluttony is one of the seven cardinal sins. That means that there are ethical concerns about the quantity that one eats but not about what is eaten.

Perhaps the deliberate decision of Jesus and his followers to rebel against the ethics of the Pharisees by repudiating the Jewish dietary laws has led, as such decisions often do, to an opposite extreme, one that goes too far in its disregard of the moral significance of what we eat. Nobody seriously disputes that eating human flesh-at least if you have killed human beings in order to eat them-is wrong. So at least one kind of food is ethically prohibited. In the West, we also disapprove of eating dogs and cats, but that restriction is a minor one and so widely accepted that it scarcely strikes us as an ethical constraint. With the exception of a few ethical vegetarians, and those who observe religious prohibitions on what they put in their mouths, eating has, until recently, been largely an "ethics-free zone."

Over the last thirty years, however, there have been signs of significant change. Many people show some concern for the treatment of animals in their food choices-avoiding veal because they don't like what they have heard about the treatment of veal calves, or avoiding all factory-farm animal products, or being vegetarian or vegan. Others seek out organically produced food, because they don't want all those pesticides and synthetic fertilizers getting into their bodies or-and here is the broader ethical concernour land and water. Sales of organic food in America are now growing at about 20 percent per annum, as compared to only a 3 percent rise in food sales in general. That makes organic food the fastest-growing sector of the food market. Then there are trade issues: fair-trade coffee, bought from small growers at a price that assures them a living wage, is increasing its market share. There is a "buy local" movement that points to the fossil-fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions required to bring lettuce thousands of miles to your plate. Surveys in several countries have found that more than half of the population claims to have declined to buy something because of conditions under which it was made.

Many Americans are disenchanted with voting because money seems to matter more than votes, and politicians repeatedly fail to live up their promises. By bringing ethics into their shopping, they have a political impact that is otherwise denied to them. A consumer who switches from buying conventionally produced fruit to buying organic fruit is giving an incentive to organic producers to maintain or increase their production-and, at the same time, they are diminishing the resources available to the conventional producer. The message does get through to the producers. In a survey of the biggest U.S. farmers, agribusiness executives, academicians, and environmental leaders taken in the summer of 2003, animal welfare was identified as the seventh "megatrend" out of twelve facing American agriculture-entirely because of consumer concern.4

When we eat-or more specifically, when we pay for what we eat, whether at a farmer's market, a supermarket, or a restaurant, we are taking part in a vast global industry. Americans spend more than a trillion dollars on food every year. That's more than double what they spend on motor vehicles and also more than double what the government spends on defense. Food production affects every person on this planet and untold billions of animals as well. It is important, for the sake of the environment, animals, and future generations, that we see our food choices as raising serious ethical issues and learn the implications of what we eat.


1. Michel Foucault, Histoire de la Sexualité 2: L'usage des Plaisirs (Paris: Gallimard, 1984a) [The History of Sexuality, Volume 2: The Use of Pleasure, reissue edition (New York: Vintage Books, 1990], I owe this reference to Hub Zwart, "A Short History of Food Ethics," Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 12: 113-126,2000.

2. Matthew, 15:11-17, New International Version.

3. Hub Zwart, "A Short History of Food Ethics," Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 12 (2000): 117.

4. Jerry Perkins, "Kinder, Gentler Food," The. Des Moines Register, March 7, 2004. Available at business/stories/c4789013/23731755.html.

Utilitarian Philosophers :: Peter Singer :: 'Eating Ethically'