is eating inherently unethical?

Consider this: The act of eating, by simple definition, is the incorporation into the eater of the autonomy of the eaten. Through the collection, preparation and mastication there is no other way to describe it, this is a violent destructive act of that living autonomy.

If the consumption of any matter requires the taking of life, is it impossible to eat ethically? Is it possible to subsist on a diet of ingredients that were never alive to begin with and whose destruction doesn’t have a negative impact on living organisms?

Regardless of your worldly socioeconomic position, it is fairly safe to assume that we are all bound by a set of rules — be they symbolic, traditional or value based — that surround our consumption.

The great majority of these rules have traditionally been handed down and bound by the evolution of historical or geographical memes in the form of religious or cultural guidelines.

Even in this modern day western world where political correctness and an embracing attitude exist, relatively few consumption guidelines are based on laws. Of those laws that do exist, the greatest majority are focused on the governance of public safety, sanitation and, (increasingly in this modern age) sustaining or protection of ecological resources.

Be this as it may, it effectively means that no form of dietary philosophy can provide a symbolic refuge to those who care about the moral choices they make along with their menu selections.

In short, there is no such thing as dietary righteousness.

Is the morality over what we eat given any form of ranking? Are individual beliefs greater than community benefits? Should one life have a greater moral weight over another? How does one provide a ranking to such factors?

When it comes to the question of feeding an ever increasing global population, do these questions even matter? Would there be far greater factors than a matter of personal choice? Would the goal of egalitarian global satiation be a matter requiring a political-economic reorganisation?

Is the choice between respect for animals and plants, whilst in pursuit of the elimination of hunger, a false one? They are, after all, determined by highly ideological considerations. What judicial weight do we apply to other factors such as agro-capitalism, for example?

Ultimately, is not the common root of artificially created scarcity and violence against life (human and nonhuman alike) corporate entities? Are there not greater harm caused to environment and life — whether vegetal or animal — in the pursuit of maximizing corporate profits? Not the actions and menu choices of individuals as utilitarians would want to make us believe?

Perhaps a shifting of our thinking away from ‘economic efficient’ systems of food production that create monocultures and CAFOs needs to be part of the equation? A form of ‘welfarist production’ that does not exclude a mode of cohabitation – nutritive not excluded – with other living matter?

The complexity of the question should not be a matter of despondency. Nor should it be taken as reluctant support for the indiscriminate consumption of any living matter whatsoever. On the contrary, it should assist us to clarify the choices we make and rank the aspects of value (e.g. ethical) assignment we place upon the food production we support as well as stimulate further thinking about what we actually do when we choose what we eat.

No food is without guilt. So what choices do we make? Can we lessen the ethical impacts? Do we draw arbitrary lines based on complexity of life? On waste? Do we consider environmental impacts? When your choices are made – do they trump the choices of others?

All eating is unethical. We simply choose a level we are comfortable with.

[Originally published on MEDIUM 23.07.13]

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One thought on “is eating inherently unethical?”

  1. Thanks for writing this, you expose some interesting thoughts and questions.

    My take on this is that your definition of “ethical” is not in line with reality. Ethics is about “systematizing, defending and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct” (wikipedia). It’s not about “[not] hav[ing] a negative impact on living organisms.” The fundamental truth that I believe you have exposed is that the quality of your conduct is measured not by how little harm you do, but by the grace with which you balance necessary harm and desired benefit, and the courage with which you balance self and other. So it’s an interesting article which I think talks about a real and complex dynamic which is at play, and thank you for writing it, but I reject the headline notion that if harm was done to any living party, the action is unethical, and that therefore “there is no such thing as dietary righteousness.”

    I think you come much closer when you ask “Is the morality over what we eat given any form of ranking? Are individual beliefs greater than community benefits? Should one life have a greater moral weight over another? How does one provide a ranking to such factors?” – my answers to these questions are “Yes, depends on who you ask, depends on who you ask, and you have to decide for yourself.” In other words, as with all complex tradeoffs, I boil this down to my personal framework for moral responsibility:

    1. It is each individual’s moral responsibility to make the choices that they believe will lead to the most joy
    2. It is each individual’s moral responsibility to mindfully balance self and other to the best of their ability when making choices
    3. It is each individual’s moral responsibility to mindfully balance short and long-term consequences to the best of their ability when making choices
    4. It is each individual’s moral responsibility to feel as much joy as possible in whatever situation they find themselves in

    I think the main correct assertion in this article is “there are negative impacts to the choices you have to make.” Then there are a lot of questions about how best to balance 2 and 3 (which is an individual choice, and if done well a constantly re-optimized choice, and I’m always happy to discuss various bits of my current optimizations, though we can spend a lifetime doing so). The article barely gives lip service to 4 (” The complexity of the question should not be a matter of despondency”), which I think is a mistake, as I believe that’s actually our biggest impediment culturally, because as a society we’re in a guilt/shame avoidance cycle which prevents us from continually optimizing steps 2/3, and sometimes even from acknowledging that we’re making choices at all.

    Again, thanks for the thoughts, and I’d be interested in your take on my view.

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