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Food for Thought

A Look at the Ethics of Eating

After Michael Pollan's blockbuser bestseller "The Omnivore's Dilemma" was published, the debate over vegetarianism reached new levels.


Sheila Eppolito

Asst. Philosophy Prof. Carol Hay’s classes sometimes include subjects relating to the ethics of food. We talked with her about vegetarianism, the debate over animal rights and other timely topics. She brings philosophical analysis to bear on issues relevant to students’ daily lives.

Michael Pollan’s book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” set off a firestorm of philosophical debate. Why?

Pollan’s book examines how we humans sustain ourselves through industrialized food, organic food and even the nourishment we gather for ourselves. More importantly, he does it in a way that’s accessible to many readers ߝ not just serious students of philosophy, so many more people have taken note and started to ask themselves questions about what they eat, and why.

Like what?

Take the notion of industrialized food. Not so many years ago, cows roamed land, ate grass and were then killed for food. Today, cows often live in industrialized factory settings nothing like a pasture. They’re squished in for maximum efficiency, and fed foods they wouldn’t eat in their natural settings.

This is bad for the cows, bad for the environment, and, ultimately, bad for us. We end up eating too much meat, and meat that’s of very poor quality.

Most consumers are content to drive up to a window on the edge of a building, grab a bag of food that’s made more in factories than in nature, and drive off with no particular thought to where it came from, what it’s made of or how it was treated when it was alive.

What about Darwin and survival of the fittest? We’re smarter than other animals, so we’re the boss, right?

Depends on whom you ask. We all know we can dominate other animals. The question is whether we ought to.

Philosopher Peter Singer, author of “Animal Liberation” expands on the utilitarian notion that the right thing to do is whatever results in the greatest good for the greatest number. Singer applies this logic to humans’ treatment of other animals, and basically evens out the field - dismissing the notion that our needs always supersede other animals’.

He argues that any creature that has the ability to suffer has an interest in not suffering. And animals are just as capable of suffering as we are. This means that we can’t in good conscience ignore the suffering that is built into the way we raise and slaughter animals for food. So, Singer thinks we should become vegetarians. Pollan, on the other hand, thinks we can still eat meat, but only if we completely restructure our practices so we stop torturing animals for cheap meat.

How do students react to the debate?

They have been intrigued.  We’ve had great, thoughtful discussions about the rights and interests of humans and other animals. Another hot topic has been the sexual objectification of food and the similarities between the way animals and women are portrayed and treated.

Sexualization of food? Huh?

It’s everywhere. Philosopher Carol Adams (“The Pornography of Meat,” “The Sexual Politics of Meat”) has led the debate with her analysis of food being sold as sex. Examples range from the blatant — think Hooters — to the more subtle, like an ad for Nutrigrain bars with the tag line “respect yourself in the morning” featuring a woman’s behind as cinnamon buns.  If we make the woman, and the food, into nothing more than objects, we can feel okay treating them in whatever manner we want.

So is there a right way to eat?

My goal is never to preach to students about any opinions or beliefs I might have. In fact, I prefer to stay out of it. If students come away from my class more thoughtful, more aware of the choices they make, and why, then I’ve done my job.