How or What to Eat?

Photo by Josefina Capelle
Photo by Josefina Capelle

Food to eat and food for thought on food and eating. Although a very tautological sentence, this statement truly summarizes this year’s Annual Conference hosted by ECLA, where the word ‘food’ was put to use in its fullest sense. Although this topic seems to provide a variety of areas for discussion, I would like to focus my attention on food for thought.

The past days have provided us with a lot of issues to think about, from the theoretical to the practical. Nevertheless, if one were to ask the question as to why we are discussing food in the first place, especially from the “What shall we eat?” point of view, then Monday’s panel discussion with Roger Scruton on his essay “Eating our friends”, which makes an illustration of the relationship between humans and animals in the context of the food chain, provides a good starting point for answering this question.

One of the last remarks made before the closing of the discussion was that animals- although not moral agents- are moral subjects. I particularly took note of such a statement because it seemed to incorporate the two main diverging arguments expressed during the discussion. The first being in favour of vegetarianism and against the purportedly unethical action of eating and killing an animal (especially one with which you have a bond), and the second being against vegetarianism, denying the presence of an ethical issue in the first place. As a member of the audience, however, I was not able to say whether I agreed with either side by the end of the discussion. I found myself in the middle, partially relating to both arguments.

Although I am not a vegetarian I would certainly feel nauseated should I kill and then eat an animal which I had raised myself and to which I showed some kind of affection. On the other hand, I do not shudder when my meal is composed of meat and for the most part do not give so much thought to its prior existence.

From this perspective one can’t help but wonder how do people become vegetarians in the first place? I don’t think many of us have raised cows, pigs or chickens and therefore probably don’t feel any particular obligation to these animals, but is this what it means to be a vegetarian? To feel empathy only for the lives of the animals we can relate to, or on the contrary to all animals? And if indeed to all animals, is that because of the characteristics of the animal’s life as it is or because of the characteristics that we attribute to the life of the animal?

Going back to the idea mentioned earlier, about animals being moral subjects it would result that such feeling of empathy is a pure outcome of the projection of our own feelings onto the animals, but does this still mean that the emergence of such empathy is to make one a vegetarian or does it only make someone a selective meat eater? In fact it was interesting to see that the question as to why people choose to be vegetarians was never exactly answered during the discussion and the few arguments there were given inclined more towards aesthetic and sensory experiences.

However one would think that if eating animals was ethically wrong this would have to be so right from the start, simultaneous with the aesthetic and sensory reactions. Not to mention that even this sense of morality is not an exclusive feeling of vegetarians but as I already mentioned can be found also in the so called “selective meat eater”.

Therefore the underlying issue connecting both arguments seems to be that of the conditions of the animals’ upbringing.  But should we limit this issue to the upbringing of the animal in relation to us, or just to the upbringing in general? At this point it seems that the likeliest answer would be the upbringing in general. Being a carnivore does not mean being indifferent to the life conditions of the animal. However, if it is humans that attribute morality to the life of the animal– because in reality the latter’s life is not composed of it– then we should first try to look for this morality in ourselves.

Therefore the bigger question is that of “how shall we eat?” rather than “what shall we eat?”.  Meat-eaters will not become extinct, so the conversion to vegetarianism is not the answer, as it was pointed out during the discussion as well. Therefore the immediate matter is to try and work out with this reality, and refine the way we eat. It is a question of being educated on health and nourishment, learning what we need and on what amounts we need it. It is not the existence of carnivores that has brought about battery farms. It is the lack of awareness and excessive eating habits in a voracious consumer society.

In fact, the question of education and information seems to be a leitmotif to all of the dilemmas and problems related to food consumption that were discussed throughout the week. Therefore instead of insisting in transmitting to one another firm, pre-developed dietary options or beliefs, the more effective approach would be that of dispensing and making information available so that everyone of us could reach its suitable diet on its own conviction.

So, if there truly is a question of morality, I would say that it is first and foremost a question of morality towards ourselves, in the way we respect our own body and feed our appetite, because once we focus more on how we eat, the morality in what to eat cannot but follow.

by Blerina Fani (AY’11, Albania)

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