Arthur Dobrin

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?

The ethics of eating can easily become mired in being moralistic and exclusionary. Yet it is worth our attention because food—what we eat, how we get it, how it is raised, how much we consume, and how it is distributed—is central to our very existence. Because we simply can’t live without food it isn’t surprising that many religions place food in acceptable and forbidden categories, such as kosher and halal. And it is the reason why nearly every culture has rules of table etiquette, such whether to use cutlery or hands.

The Ethical Movement and individual Leaders have spoken about food but mainly this has been from the point of social justice. There have been resolutions to end hunger, for example, and we have taken part in boycotts against corporations that have put profits before people.

However, not much has been said about the individual consumption of food with the possible exception of concerns for healthy eating. Most Societies attempt to provide healthy food at the Sunday morning collation.

An argument can be made that because food is essential to human existence what we consume, how it is brought to the table, and how we consume it ought to guide our behavior on a personal level, as well.

Here I want to do a quick survey of how some religions and cultures laws and customs around eating and their reasons for endorsing or prohibiting some foods.

Perhaps most familiar of religious food taboos are found in Judaism. Acceptable and forbidden foods and their preparation are spelled out in considerable detail. However, there is no explanation as why shellfish, for example, are forbidden. Many contemporaries stipulate kosher laws reflect health concerns. Pigs roll around in dirt, for example, and carry deadly worms. So I was surprised to read in a book by the chief rabbi of Israel who said that kosher regulations were instituted to protect the integrity of the Jewish people by keeping its interaction with surrounding groups to a minimal. If Jews were forbidden to share food with others, the chances of inter-marriage were minimized. Islam also forbids the consumption of pork because it is so stipulated in the Koran.

Both Judaism and Islam specify the correct way to slaughter animals. This, presumably, is to mitigate the animals’ suffering, although some argue that, in fact, the ritualistic slaughtering increases it.

The indigenous religions of the Indian sub-continent also have food rules. Hindus won’t eat beef because cows are sacred animals. Hindus, along with many Buddhists, are also vegetarians, for a variety of reasons, only one of which is strictly moral. This comes from the Jain precept of “Do no harm.”

The moral question is, what does it mean to ‘do no harm.’ Jains take this beyond sentient creatures to include all living things, Jains, therefore, won’t consume root vegetables because taking them out of the ground kills them. As for Sikhs, they are forbidden to eat meat that is kosher or halal because it is part of another’s religious ritual.

The injunction to ‘do no harm’ resonates with Humanists. But where should we draw the line? Everyone excludes human beings from our diet. This is so obvious that it requires no justification. Beyond this, though, many Humanists find every other form of meat acceptable, provided it is raised and slaughtered humanely. Humanists also draw the line at dogs and cats, although why isn’t at all clear. About a decade ago I was in southern China where they say, ‘If it has four legs, we’ll eat it.’ I watched people slaughter dogs by the riverside and hang their carcasses next to ducks in the market.

Unless one makes no distinction between humans and other sentient creatures, some rationale must be found to exclude other mammals from our diets. Here it can be found on the basis of compassion and ethical consequentialist, which claims that morality demands that we strive to create a world that mitigates suffering. Livestock feel pain; dogs feel pain; fowl feel pain. These creatures have an interest in avoiding pain and suffering. Therefore, if health doesn’t demand that a person eat meat, we shouldn’t indulge their preference for meat because it causes another’s pain, even though the other isn’t human.

What about fish? If the line is drawn at pain, then fish can be considered fit for human consumption since their nervous systems are not highly developed. While that claim that fish, therefore, can’t feel pain is not settled, what is obvious is that a fish thrown on the deck of a boat flops around madly trying to get back into the water. Is it suffering? Is this simply a reflexive instinct? While fish may not feel much pain, it certainly seems to have an interest in preserving its own life.

Humanists agree that compassion should be a guiding value, but we don’t agree upon who or what should be drawn into the circle of compassion. Jains argue that onions should be. But why stop there? Bacteria are alive, too, but only saintly Jains will starve themselves to death. If this seems arbitrary, isn’t feeling bad for harp seals also arbitrary because they look so cute, whereas rats elicit little sympathy.

My point isn’t to argue for or against a particular ethic regarding what is morally justifiable to eat. It is to say that as Humanists we aren’t at all agreed where the line should be drawn regarding the relation between humans and other animals. Given this ambiguity, it seems that if guidelines about eating habits were adopted, this would necessarily exclude others who in good conscience, and with strong arguments, draw their line in a different place.

If we want to lay down some behavioral requirements (or at least guidelines) for being an Ethical Humanist, I’d begin with matters more related to human welfare, such as stipulating a percentage of one’s income going to a social change cause; requiring a certain number of hours devoted to volunteer work; setting aside a period of time each day for self-reflection; having a congregational meeting to remember the dead; and starting each business meeting with a period of silence. All of the requirements I suggest are open-ended, leading to deeper involvement with the human community, whereas establishing requirements around food is closed-ended and places some Humanists outside the circle.