Yesterday’s “Science” section in the New York Times has an essay by Carol Kaesuk Yoon on the morality of eating meat as compared to the morality of eating plants. During a period when she was a vegetarian, Yoon said she struggled with the question of why she thought it was moral to eat plants, but not animals:
…I couldn’t actually explain to myself or anyone else why killing an animal was any worse than killing the many plants I was now eating.
Surely, I’d thought, science can defend the obvious, that slaughterhouse carnage is wrong in a way that harvesting a field of lettuces [sic] or, say, mowing the lawn is not. But instead, it began to seem that formulating a truly rational rationale for not eating animals, at least while consuming all sorts of other organisms, was difficult, maybe even impossible.
— “No Face, but Plants Like Life Too,” Carol Kaesuk Yoon, New York Times, 15 March 2011, p. D4.
This is a classic moral problem, and it has been resolved a number of different ways. At an extreme, there are fruitarians, those humans who will eat only ripe fruits, nuts, and seeds that can be used without killing plants; and some fruitarians won’t even eat seeds or nuts since they destroy potential life. Following that, different groups of humans may draw the line in different places. A rough list of moral stands on eating various organisms, in decreasing order of strictness, would look something like this:
- Fruitarian — eat only fruits whose harvest won’t damage plants
- Vegan — eat no animal products at all (incl. no milk, honey, etc.)
- Strict vegetarian — eat no animal flesh or eggs (may eat milk)
- Ovo-lacto-vegetarian — eat no animal flesh (eggs and milk OK)
- Non-strict vegetarian — “eat nothing with a face”
The above list is based on moral stands against taking life. There are, of course, other moral considerations that may affect food choices. The list below has some of these other moral stands, listed in no particular order:
- Self-sufficiency — eat as much food raised by self as possible
- Locavore — eat local foods as much as possible
- Sustainable foods — eat foods raised organically, biodynamically, or under some other criteria for sustainable production
- Global food security — eat foods that maximize yield per acre (e.g., Diet for a Small Planet, etc.)
- Healthful foods — eat so as to maintain the health of one’s own body (e.g., no refined sugar, etc.) (Thanks to Steven.)
- Unprocessed foods — eat foods that have been processed as little as possible
- Non-corporate foods — eat foods not produced by the handful of major food processing corporations (i.e., Nestle, Kraft, etc.)
Obviously, being able to take any of the above moral stands presupposes that you are in a position to make decisions about what food you eat — i.e., you have enough income to be able to make choices, you live in a place where you have food choices, etc.
I’d love to hear from you about whether you take any of these moral stands. And let me know if I’ve missed any important moral stands on food. Then in later posts, I’ll look at some moral stands on food more closely.