St. Peter, Minnesota
Submitted July 05, 2007
By profession, I'm a philosopher, and I write and teach the philosophy of food. I begin from the assertion that philosophy is the study of meaning and value in human life, and that food is one of the most concentrated sources of meaning and value we have in our lives.
Food carries this weight because it unavoidably connects us (perhaps more than any other single substance, any other single aspect of human life) to a wide swath of beings, living and nonliving. Our eating inevitably involves us in the lives of people, animals, plants, and the soil. We cannot opt out, nor can we exercise full control over all these connections. But rather than seeing this as a burden, I suggest that we see it as one of the most significant opportunities with which we are presented.
While I can offer a laundry list of the particular kinds of decisions I make about what to eat and why I make those choices, what is most important to me is that food be understood to be such an opportunity, a chance to make value choices. Its potential as a source of meaning and value must not be overlooked. It is a locus for moral, ethical, and political reflection.
I sometimes fear that the various alternative food campaigns that we launch in this country end up amounting to a kind of moral litmus test. "To be morally praiseworthy, you must eat vegetarian/eat organic/eat local/eat biodynamic/eat fair trade/eat...." I applaud these efforts to transform our agricultural system; I do not applaud our tendency (as Americans?) to reduce our moral lives to a set of rigid choices we make that can "make us good people."
Michael Pollan speaks of eating being a vote we cast several times a day; I would broaden and deepen this to suggest that activities involving food (growing, procuring, cooking, eating) give us the opportunity to engage in ethical and social reflection numerous times a day.
To make some observations about what I actually do: in all my shopping, cooking and eating of food, I try to ask "to whom or to what does this activity connect me? Can I make these connections as productive of growth, as productive of thriving of those beings as possible?" Unfortunately, the answer often seems to be "no," because frankly our choices are limited in very problematic ways in an industrial food system. But I think this is a good question to try to ask, and to try to answer.
I think I tended to be a "litmus test" person, say, twenty years ago or so (when I became a vegetarian and when I started writing about food). Now, I tend to be much more inclined to think that reflection upon choices is the important thing. I tend to think much more contextually and systemically—and to make my choices not according to a set of principles, but by examining a set of relationships.
For me, the ethical must always be considered in connection to the sociopolitical when one talks about food. Justice is always an issue. Right now, in the midst of the local food boom, it seems like issues like farm workers' rights, and the working conditions of factory laborers aren't very interesting or cool. But unless and until we connect these various issues, we don't really create the conditions for a just food system.