Moral decisions about eating, pt. 1

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:

  1. Fruitarian — eat only fruits whose harvest won’t damage plants
  2. Vegan — eat no animal products at all (incl. no milk, honey, etc.)
  3. Strict vegetarian — eat no animal flesh or eggs (may eat milk)
  4. Ovo-lacto-vegetarian — eat no animal flesh (eggs and milk OK)
  5. Non-strict vegetarian — “eat nothing with a face”
  6. Omnivore

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.

7 thoughts on “Moral decisions about eating, pt. 1”

  1. Roald Dahl’s marvelous short story about screaming plants notwithstanding, I think it unlikely that a lettuce is distressed by pain and death the way a cow is. Therefore, eating a cow raises moral issues that eating lettuce does not. There are moral issues regarding lettuce, definitely (e.g., how are the farmworkers treated?), but not around the basic act of ending the plant’s life.

    Even if there were, though, the fact is that if you simply want to kill as few organisms as possible in order to sustain your own life, you should probably eat as low on the food chain as possible.

    I am very inconsistent in that one can’t drink milk without taking responsibility for a lot of animal suffering (even if it isn’t factory-farmed), but I eat dairy. And I eat fish and shellfish, though I’m pretty sure they are aware of pain and don’t want to die.

  2. Eating healthy is one of those moral choices not mentioned. The standard is less sugar, less salt, less red meat. This is hard to do as well.
    I know someone who eats a low carb diet because of health problems – bringing up the question: is eating more meat to live longer moral or immoral?

  3. Amish-a-vore. Around here, good source of veggies, fruits, baked goods, etc. Their practices are pretty sustainable … but you do have to ask about what’s in the baked goods. Sometimes there’s a lot of lard. Ew.

  4. Amy @ 1 — The Times essay addresses the pain issue in some interesting ways from a scientific point of view:– while plants don’t feel pain they have a measurable response to stress; and some animals (e.g., sponges) have no nervous system, or a very rudimentary nervous system (e.g., jellyfish). Not that science is an adequate substitute for ethics, but science can provide some useful insights.

    Steven @ 2 — Of course, eating healthy should be on the list; I just went and added it in. (And I should know that option well, having spent a year working in a health food store.)

    Jean @ 3 — Good point: yes, the Amish have religious beliefs that indirectly affect their eating choices.

  5. Many are gluten sensitive–if not actually suffer celiac. We only started to eat enough grains to start evolving to eat such things about 10,000 years ago. Not long, evolutionarily, and you can prove it by the fact that the gluten makes so many ill. And from what I’ve been reading, we’ve made it worse by creating strains of grain that have lots of gluten–advantageous for baking, hell on our intestines (etc). Many more are affected by gluten than are aware of it–probably 10x (or more) as have any awareness of it.

    And then there are those of us who have serious sensitivity/allergy issues with corn. It’s not uncommon–and corn’s so ubiquitous in the American diet, in so many forms (often not labeled), that that is sheer hell.

    Is it moral to expect creatures to eat diets that are ethical, but which make them ill, and cause early death?

    We used to deny that children really felt pain. Particularly infants. We denied the reality of the pain of non-whites as real and equal. And that of women. And that of animals–they don’t really experience fear and pain like we do. And… and… so I’m very, very, very wary and dubious of claims that assert that any lifeform doesn’t experience fear or pain, and that its injury or demise is ok, because of that. How very convenient–for us.

    Part of life’s essential character is that it *wants* to live, and avoids (as it can) injury and death. Which leads to a very Buddhist crisis–all life is suffering. But is it moral to just starve oneself (or others?) to death to avoid being enmeshed in this moral conundrum?

    But that’s denying life at its most fundamental.

    It’s a paradox. I’ve chosen not to prefer one suffering over another. I’ve chosen to move in the direction of doing as little harm as possible–but not sacrificing myself to that. I wouldn’t try to feed a tiger on tofu. I’m looking to my own diet and my own body as the measure of what I can eat and should eat. And I’m seeking to do all this in ways that are as humane as possible, and as responsible to the long term health and well being of the planet and other species as to my own.

    Aware that it’s an ongoing process, riddled with errors and internal paradoxes. And that even the solutions have their own contradictions built into them.

  6. Patrick @ 5 — Thanks for bringing up the issue of food intolerances. I chose to avoid it in such a short post, but my own life is certainly affected by food intolerances — I myself can’t eat corn, soy, dairy, citrus, and several other types of food. I was a vegetarian for 15 years, and during that time developed a vitamin B-12 deficiency — turns out I’m one of those people who doesn’t process B-12 very efficiently, and it’s hard for me to get enough B-12 without either meat or supplements. And now I’m no longer a vegetarian because without soy or dairy, it’s pretty hard to get enough protein.

    Here we’re running up against the intersection of biology and ethics. Biologically, we humans want to eat a wide variety of food stuffs — when humans were hunter-gatherers, we ate far more different species of organisms than we do now, something like an order of magnitude more. By raising a small number of easily cultivated species, we have enabled a huge increase in the number of humans, but that comes with a cost — reducing ecological diversity, and forcing ourselves to eat a diet that isn’t good for us.

    There is no ethical possibility of reverting to hunter-gatherer ways and diet — we’d have to kill off some 6 billion humans to pull that off. Instead, we are left with several ethical quandaries, including moral decisions about eating.

  7. Thank you, Patrick, for bringing up the aspect of spirituality as it relates to food and life “ending”. There are five givens in life… Everything changes and ends, things do not always go according to plan, life is not always fair, pain is a part of life, and people are not loving and loyal all of the time. I personally identify as a flexitarian. I recognize the struggle that exists in doing what is best for self care, while doing what I can to eliminating the suffering of others.

    In my opinion, eating as low on the food chain as possible, buying local, growing what you can, utilizing community supported agriculture, and preparing whole foods at home, is something I’d like to see more of in our society.

    Understanding your relationship and connection with food, being mindful of cell integrity and your own mental, emotional and physical health is the best that you can do for yourself and for other living things. The awareness that will develop will help us evolve as spiritual human beings, as we must “take” life, in order to survive.

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