Painting of a peasant wedding feast outdoors

The Ethics of Eating

Pieter Breughel the Younger, The Peasant Wedding, 1550s, oil on panel, 430 mm x 680 mm.

The Ethics of Eating

A First-Year Tutorial offered fall 2021, taught by John Fennell, professor of philosophy

Food is central to our lives. It is not only necessary for our survival but marks the rhythm of our day and reflects the seasons and the part of the world we are in. We socialize around food. We celebrate around food. We mourn around food. Certain foods are customary for certain occasions, others are required, still others forbidden. Food is expressive of our individual and national identities, our cultural practices, and our religious affiliations. For something so important, it is unsurprising that food is contested, and just about every aspect of the life cycle of food is contested: there are controversies over what food we should eat, where it should come from, how it should be grown, what technologies should be used in its production, how it should be distributed and consumed, etc. In this way, food issues are ethical and political issues, and our attention will be directed at several of these, such as: Should we eat animals? Should we eat local? Should we embrace genetically modified crops? How are our choices about what we eat related to global justice? Should we help address global malnutrition? Are we each individually morally required to take action to reduce global warming? What is the state’s responsibility to provide reliable information to consumers about the food they buy?

Why I’m Teaching This Topic

I was looking for a topic that might engage students on a personal and a moral-political level. Thinking about food — its conditions of production, preparation, consumption, and disposal, is inescapably both. It’s where personal choices and practices connect to broader economic, social, and ecological considerations, such as global justice, sustainability, biodiversity, human rights, animal welfare, and cultural identity. As such, I thought it could be a useful locus for investigating a whole suite of issues that are defining the current zeitgeist.

– John Fennell

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