Amanda Poppei

Ethical Eating: Should Ethical Societies develop explicit policies with regard to which foods are served at Ethical Culture activities? Moving Societies toward vegetarianism and veganism has been promoted, but how is this best done? How can policies be advocated while avoiding moralism or alienating those who hold different positions as to the predilections and values that guide their eating choices?

A few weeks ago I saw a headline shouting the news: agave nectar, long used by vegans as a sweetener instead of honey (so as not to disrupt bees), takes huge amounts of the rainforest to grow, and is therefore ecologically damaging. And I just thought: forget it.

Forget it. I’ll never be able to eat perfectly, I’ll never be able to ensure that each bite I take is good for the environment and came from a nearby source and doesn’t harm animals. Now, to be fair, I haven’t been trying that hard. I eat meat, although infrequently. I patronize my local farmers’ market when I can, but just as often I buy whatever green pepper is on sale that week. I buy organic for some food, but not for everything. I am, basically, a half-hearted ethical eater at best.

And I have to say, part of that is because I feel so overwhelmed by the prospect. There feel like so many different decisions to be made with each bite, each purchase. And I struggle with the self-righteousness and judgment that can sometimes accompany conversations about food choices, particularly when many of those choices are currently only available to the most privileged among us. As someone who roots my humanism in the idea that we are one human family, responsible for each other, I admit that I am more drawn to working against food deserts in historically marginalized neighborhoods than to efforts based primarily on animal welfare. It’s not to say that our treatment of animals doesn’t matter to me (and horrify me in its current form), but rather about how to prioritize my time and energy. Choices around food and eating feel so…complex.

I think, actually, that this complexity is part of the gift of trying to eat ethically. The choices aren’t clear cut, and we can do our best and still discover that there are unintended consequences to our decisions. This describes the moral life in general: full of unknown consequences and morally ambiguous choices. It also points back to that core part of humanism, for me at least: that we are deeply connected to each other. Felix Adler, the founder of Ethical Culture, imagined a kind of moral network, no one of us able to act singly and individually, but rather acting always in a kind of mutuality and connection. One of our core choices, I believe, is whether to notice that moral network, to understand that every action we take has an impact that may be in line with our intention, or may reverberate in ways we don’t fully understand or wish. That can be painful—but it’s also part of what it means to be human and part of the world.

Years ago, I heard a platform address from a young woman who grew up at the Washington Ethical Society, Maya Kosok. She spoke about ethical eating, building on her experience as an organic gardener (and her brilliant and thoughtful mind). She invited us, simply, to be intentional about our eating. To enjoy our food. To notice it. To make choices with consciousness—whether those choices always fit within our ideal moral code or not. Her words continue to resonate for me, to remind me that even as I struggle with decisions about what to eat and what not to eat, I can be awake to that struggle. I can be aware, and thoughtful, and in that way connected.

I will not always make eating decisions that align with my greatest hopes for the world—just like all the other decisions I make in my life. But I will try, as each bite comes toward me, to keep my eyes open and my heart aware of the web of the world.