The Public Humanist

Food, Relationships and Morality: The Ethics of Eating



Norman Rockwell “Freedom From Want” (1943)

Thanksgiving is fast approaching. Close your eyes and picture this scene: you and loved ones sharing food and memories, creating new ones, talking, laughing, lifting a glass of wine or a forkful of pie to toast love, camaraderie, blessings. Thanksgiving is my FAVORITE holiday because it is about food and friends and family and does not involve costumes or presents! Sure, sometimes the turkey is overdone, often family tensions rear their ugly heads, and the leftovers and dishes can seem more daunting than welcoming but no matter where I am on Thanksgiving or who I am with (over the years this has included being in the US and in France, eating chitlins working a day shift in a shelter, and at my family home with Mémère's tourtiere) what resonates is that Thanksgiving is about relationships. On that one day we seem to recognize that sharing a meal is a reflection of and a vehicle for relationships. But do we think of that same meal as a moral issue? I want to suggest that we should.

Because of a new class I’m teaching this Thanksgiving season I’ve been reading a lot about food and food policy. In the past month my reading has increasingly focused on the way in which what we eat engages ethical debates and of all that I’ve read on the topic the idea that has stuck with me most is from a wonderful essay by philosopher Roger J.H. King in my new favorite book Food and Philosophy*. King’s gentle, thoughtful essay “Eating Well: Thinking Ethically About Food” has made me stop and think…and think some more about how my food choices are in fact moral concerns. They are certainly economic issues and political issues and environmental issues as well, but at their core King argues, they are moral issues. Why? Because eating brings us into and highlights our relationships with many members/parts of the human and animal and natural worlds. (For a superb reflection on one man’s experience of these connections see Caleb Rounds’ recent post here at The Public Humanist). It is this focus on relationships—especially human relationships—that I find compelling.

Food, Relationships, Moral Questions

According to King, to understand that eating is a moral act we must recognize first and foremost that eating creates and/or disrupts relationships. In his words “These relationships may be narrow and local or of a much broader scope, but how we eat unavoidably links us to other people, animals, habitats and soils and to our own sense of personal identity.” (178) We are connected by vast networks to the animals that we eat, to the land that nourishes those animals and all plants, but most critically, we are connected to the people (seen or unseen) who grow, harvest, prepare, move and in many cases go without so that we can eat what we want, when we want, in the ways that we choose. In this way of thinking/seeing my choice to buy organic foods or genetically-modified foods or industrially-produced foods or local foods or foods from thousands of miles away or…each of these choices has an impact others. How so? Consider this set of questions:

If I choose to buy/eat “X"


• Who (or what entity) receives payment from money I spend?
• Whose land is being polluted or preserved?
• What is the impact other people’s access to certain foods?
• Do farmers have more or less control their own growing practices?
• Which men or women or children go hungry or are malnourished?

To come to think about eating in relational and moral terms we must see our food differently than we do now according to King. When we consider the progenitors of food (animals and land and plants) from a moral and not and instrumental approach we begin to think beyond the notion that a cow is just beef waiting to be eaten, that an acre of land is just open space waiting to grow me food, that a farmer or farm laborer or retail store worker or chef is just a person providing something that I want. We are able now to see these animals and plants and people as nodes in our webs of relationships and we can begin to apply moral reasoning and tests to our food choices.

Note: In case we were wondering, King makes clear that ignorance of all the webs of relationships and persons that our eating connects us with does not absolve us from the moral obligations we have.

The recent high-profile appearance on the market of the first genetically modified (GM) salmon allows us to apply of King’s approach. From what I have heard and read and seen (limited I know, but perhaps representative) much of the discussion among and with the general consuming public about this new fish has focused on their feelings about the health benefits or fears associated with eating or feeding their families this genetically modified animal. Another line of discussion has touched on the economic implications this new salmon would have on existing fisheries and fishermen. In both of these cases the same issues can be reframed as moral questions: how does this food impact existing relationships with members of our families who will eat the fish and with the workers already in the salmon business? How might this fish damage these relationships? Or damage the relationships between the families or fishermen and others in their relational webs?

These questions are powerful. These questions are important. King’s essay has gotten me thinking.

But how might this approach impact policy discussions?

Why might King’s approach matter in the policy arena? For a variety of reasons. But certainly it matters because relationships and their attendant moral obligations transcend political parties and economic predictions and the culture wars. The good thing is that raising moral questions about eating does not lead to pre-determined answers. Raising moral questions about eating leads to a widening of the discourse and the discursive space. Our policy discussions could use room to expand.

The need for a new way of discussing and determining food policy was hammered home to me just a few days ago driving home from work listening to my regular dose of NPR news. The hosts were reporting on a recent NY Times article which examined the apparently oxymoronic position of the USDA on cheese. One arm of the organization is encouraging cheese consumption (arguing, among other things that it is healthier than previously thought) while another is cautioning against cheese consumption—for nutritional reasons. While this is an exceptionally dramatic example of the scattered and competing agendas in the food consumption arena, it is perhaps more typical than it first appears. It is illustrative of the type of opposing and complex views/ arguments about a range of food stuffs and food policies found on conservative vs. liberal websites and from one policy group to the next and in fashion and health magazines and in the literature in the fields of medicine, economics, environmental sustainability and poverty studies to name a few. Just such heated and often opposing arguments are common in discussions across the nation about what can and cannot be purchased with SNAP assistance (formerly known as “food stamps”). So too do they often rear their heads in local debates over zoning for large supermarkets in urban areas.

What is lacking is a human scale to the debate and a common way into or out of the morass. Too often it seems to me that large-scale cultural, political, nutritional or economic concerns drive policy discussions. Page after page of documents and policy statements aggregate data and produce numbers and graphs and spreadsheets about “typical” or “optimal” or “median” or “best return” policies. This approach in turn leads to policy decisions that often flip-flop with each election or financial cycle. With King’s claims in mind I offer up the proposition that this current/standard way of approaching food policy limits the nature of the discourse and circumscribes is boundaries. It most certainly tends to obscure any regular reminder about food as the product and creator of human connections.

To combat this we might resurrect that great anthem of the Farmer-Labor movement of the late 19th c.“The Farmer is The Man” and sing it boldly with aplomb. It certainly makes the case that what we eat is connected to others scattered far and wide. But we might also be advised to shift our seeing and our thinking about food. Perhaps (and here I am an unabashed optimist) if each of us began to look at the food we eat through King’s lens and think of the question “what’s for dinner” in light relationships and thus as moral question we might be able to move beyond binaries and let go of established arguments – and really begin to see and think and talk deeply and authentically about what we eat. Why? Because to do so will be to talk about relationships not numbers, not abstractions, not calories or micronutrients, not profits. And if we talk about it perhaps those in policy positions will too. (A teach-in with Congress anyone?)

I will be talking about all of this at my Thanksgiving table. Will you? Let the conversations begin. Bon Appétit!

*King’s essay appears in Fritz Allhoff and Dave Monroe, eds. Food and Philosophy. (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2007)

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