In a recent blog for the Independent entitled ‘Eating Ethics: are some foods morally bad for you?’ Kirk Leech concluded that ‘[f]ood should be seen as pleasure and not penance; something that brings happiness and joy rather than anxiety’. Food, he said, is an amoral issue.
I was somewhat surprised that Leech managed to reach this conclusion after he had alluded to various moral issues in his text. In a brief exploration of food issues that could be causing ‘anxiety’, he asked: ‘[a]re you the kind of person who lets your children eat junk food? … Would you let an animal suffer so you can eat or cheap chicken? [sic] Do you eat endangered blue-fin tuna and cod? Do you choose sustainable, more ‘humane’ foie gras alternatives?’ Some of these sentences are loaded with moral terms, making the blogger’s conclusion somewhat hard to grasp.
Terms such as ‘endangered’, or ‘suffer’, have particularly overt moral emphasis. Endangered, for example, is a term that contains emotive as well as descriptive meaning. It has come to be synonymous with a situation that is critically bad. It describes a state of things that the majority of us recognise as being undesirable and as having moral implications. The same is true of the word suffer. It communicates a situation we seek to avoid or minimize – not to promote. In fact, the term ‘suffer’ plays a critical role in one of the most influential moral theories of all time, Utilitarianism, which holds that promoting pleasure or happiness is morally good, whereas pain and suffering are morally bad.
In light of these moral terms, Leech’s conclusion seems groundless. Not only does he negate the responsibility of the consumer, but he also fails to give any defensible justification to the idea that food is an amoral issue. His argument seems to rely purely on the merits of enjoying the pleasures of a good meal, yet, if this is the case, he should have no qualms about tucking into a roast side of human. If the only factor that matters is taste rather than issues of origin, Leech should have no problem with cannibalism – after all, if we don’t care where it came from, how it suffered, whether it was endangered or how it was killed, why should we care if it was human?
Food is a moral issue and although I don’t wish to promote ‘anxiety’ over eating habits, what we eat, where it has come from, and how it has been treated, is important. Eating endangered tuna, for example, means we contribute to the extinction of a species. Eating a cheap chicken means we have promoted a cruel and inhumane industry. Trying shark fin soup contributes to an illegal mafia, as well as condoning the brutal deaths of a threatened species. Eating meat has implications on climate change, food security, and human famine. If these issues aren’t moral, what are?
Although Leech attacks these moral sensitivities as being ‘an example of western cultural narcissism’ with ‘little interest in influencing the wider public’, I believe they are nothing of the sort. Although being morally aware can, occasionally, be flouted by the egocentrics among us, eating ethically demands sacrifices and hard work that are rarely outweighed by public praise or adoration. I am also a strong believer in changing the world one step at a time and, while I am interested in influencing the wider public, I have never imagined that I would succeed by not practicing what I preach.