An Ethic of Food = An Ethic of Care

May 2, 2016

“A movement toward ethically responsible eating is a means of directly subverting the industries of capitalism that perpetuate injustices upon humans and nonhumans alike.  Choosing to opt out of the conditioned mode of unconscious eating is a position of ecological activism.”

Third Spaces

I recently read an intriguing article — “Process Theology and Food” by Leana Rosen and Jay McDaniel — that discusses the concept of “third spaces,” or liminal spaces that allow the cohabitation of seemingly conflicting worldviews, religions, ideologies, etc.  Rosen and McDaniel explain that sharing a meal can act as a third space, creating a trans-religious ground upon which people with moral differences can open to one other and even internalize aspects of the so-called “Other.”  Perhaps it is simply sharing mealtime in conviviality, as Rosen and McDaniel offer in their piece, that cultivates this place of merging and tolerance: “People can agree or disagree on doctrines and moral codes, but they can still eat together, and in the very eating they establish relationships of trust, and sometimes even joy, which become springboards for mutual care.”

While I love this idea, and agree that sharing food can certainly dissolve boundaries and unify, it seems to me that the two parties, say an atheist and a Christian, must acknowledge some sort of trans-religious ethic or belief about the meal in order for the third space to work its magic.  For a meal of food that does not represent a transparent ethic of care and awareness, should likely not be (and perhaps cannot be) the foundation upon which the third space is constellated.

In other words, while a global multiplicity of philosophical, spiritual, and cultural beliefs is both natural and healthy, I want to stress the importance — within the third space — of some universal agreement(s) upon which this diversity may intercommunicate and thrive.  And in this case of sharing a meal, an ethical agreement regarding food is essential.

An Ethic of Food

One of the main reasons that I decided to create this blog was to explore an ethic of food comprehensive enough to include the well-being of humans, non-humans, and the biosphere at large.

When considering a largely uncontested universal value to lay the foundation of an ethic of food, compassion or “mutual care,” comes to mind.  Despite disagreements among the various cultural and religious belief systems of modern times, most support compassion as a primary virtue.  Of course, there is no certainty that this ideal will become an applied reality.  Compassion is tricky — it must first be experience to be believed.  While all human beings are likely born with some innate sense of empathy, the cultural conditioning that most Westerners receive today all too often substitutes a spiritual container of compassion for the values of capitalism (e.g. competition, greed, power, and individualism).  The inherent disposition for care is carved out and filled with an incessant drive for needless success and progress.

“The world doesn’t need more ‘successful people.’ The world desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of all kinds.”  ~Dalai Lama~

When compassion is lost to a myopic capitalist vision of endless growth, it becomes easy to accept practices that objectify nonhuman animals for the sake of business and convenience.  When funneled into an economic system that values profit above all else, what are they beyond commercial goods and commodities?

I have a rather sad story that reflects the influence of capitalism and its subsequent affect on compassion in the modern Western psyche.  For a year and a half, I frequented Tilden Regional Park just north of Berkeley, CA.  The trail heads began just beyond a nature center that sat adjacent to a small farm, aptly called, “Little Farm”.  Before a long hike, I would visit the animals: cows, goats, pigs, chickens, and ducks, spending time with them and trying to understand their situation.  Sure, they’re much better off than livestock in a factory farm, but I couldn’t help wondering if they were happy in their fabricated role as pseudo-farm spectacles for the entertainment of the human onlooker.  Innocuously confined at a glance, but how did they feel about their cages and pens?

What arrested my attention, however, was not so much the state of the farm but the behavior of the onlookers.  As I gazed curiously at a large sow grazing the cement for remnants of fallen grain, I heard a startling call from across the pen, “Hey! Get over here, you big piece of bacon!”  My head swung in a flurry to the source of this rather scowling remark.  A little boy, no more than eight years old, feverishly beckoned the sow to come to him at once.  I was astounded.  The first thought this child had of the animal was of her objectified status as a piece of bacon for eating, not as a living being with thoughts, emotions, sensations, and a family…

The child, of course, cannot be blamed in this case, as he is simply reflecting a modern worldview of anthropocentrism and existential alienation that has largely forgotten the inherent beauty of not only ourselves but of nonhuman beings and life in general.  This disconnection from life is supported by (and perhaps grounded in) a dearth in spiritually compassionate narratives that situate ourselves and our animal brothers and sisters in a caring cosmos.  By and large the main story that guides modern civilization is one of neoliberal capitalism, which provides little in the way of morality or a compassionate acknowledgment of other beings and our inextricable connection with them.

Without this awareness, it is no surprise that we often treat life with such unconsciousness carelessness.

Moral Obligation & Ecological Harmony

Holding respectfully the array of diverse worldviews, we need to agree upon a fundamental ethic of care that extends beyond oneself to other humans, to plants and animals, and to the planet.  The applicability of this unifying ethic of care is so obviously possible in our shared relationship with the foods we choose to consume.  We can start caring for the earthlings of this planet immediately by changing how we relate to food… We can share meals grounded in an ethic of care that allow the magical merging state of the third space to open around us.

Once you become aware of the massive impact our food choices have on nearly every aspect of life on Earth, it becomes irrefutably clear that we desperately need a revitalized moral conscience when it comes to our eating habits.  Because nourishment by food is shared by not just all humans, but literally all beings of life, I believe that a solid ethic of food could be both revolutionary and unifying, creating a foundation for a third space that holds a diversity of belief systems.  A movement toward ethically responsible eating is a means of directly subverting the industries of capitalism that perpetuate injustices upon humans and nonhumans alike.  Choosing to opt out of the conditioned mode of unconscious eating is a position of ecological activism.

And how might we bring some semblance of moral obligation into our daily food choices?  Too much of how we eat is driven by addiction, unconscious patterning, or an inaccessibility to proper food education (a reality that necessitates the support of under-served and marginalized populations of the planet — check out my post “Food & Privilege” to read more).  The planet and its endless panoply of interweaving streams of life are not considered in our day to day food choices.  The sloth, on the other hand, need not consider moral obligation, as he lives in ecological harmony — in the enmeshment of the third space — embodying an innate respect and symbiotic reciprocity for his planetary environment.  Harmony.  Perhaps as beings of this world we have a moral obligation to ecological harmony.

“We can share meals grounded in an ethic of care that allow the magical merging state of the third space to open around us.”

Next time you sit down for a meal, consider the beings (animal or plant) that went into the food you are about to consume.  Imagine the lives they led, their families, and how they may have left this world to end up on your plate.  Consider all the combined processes that were necessary for this meal to exist and their subsequent impact upon the health of the planet.  Is it just another unconscious decision, or is it a meal ethically grounded in compassion with the capacity to foster a third space, honoring, supporting, and encouraging the diversity of life.



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  • Reply Matthew D. Segall May 3, 2016 at 1:51 am

    Thanks for your powerful post, Sam. The shift from a market cosmology based in an ethics of greed and selfishness to a panpsychic cosmology rooted in an ethics of care and reciprocity can’t happen fast enough.

    You write: “an atheist and a Christian must acknowledge some sort of trans-religious ethic or belief about the meal in order for the third space to work its magic” — Yes, but maybe that trans-religious or spiritual ethic is hidden (both to most Christians and to atheists) within the Christian sacrament of Eucharist? The rite is supposed to be an enactment of the fact that bread and wine are not just “symbols” of the flesh and blood of Jesus; rather, they *actually are* the incarnate body of the Cosmic Christ. If the atheist’s belief system requires denying intrinsic value and meaning to the nonhuman world (i.e., that “Christ is in all things,” that even grape vines and wheat stalks are expressions of spirit), then they will most likely refuse the possibility a the third space. So there’s a sense in which Christianity (and all the world religions in their own ways) may in fact be protecting some of the most effective ways we have of transforming our eating practices.

    One last comment about “ecological harmony.” I’m not so sure we can justify an ethics of care upon the possibility of returning to some natural harmony. There would seem to me to be just as much chaos and discord in the evolutionary history of this planet and the wider universe as there is harmony. There have been five mass extinctions on planet Earth prior to industrial civilization’s inauguration of the sixth. Cosmogenesis seems to me to be less “balanced and measured harmony” and more bipolar creative genius.


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    • Reply Plant Alchemist May 3, 2016 at 5:40 pm

      I appreciate your thoughts, Matt. I’ve often thought about the Christian rite of communion and how it might find significance and accessibility in the secular domain. A grounded, horizontal version of this is how I offer gratitude before each meal, receiving the food as Earth’s holy sacrament and recognizing its divine nature. Having grown up in a heavily religious environment (Episcopalian), it’s beginning to seem rather hypocritical to imbue so much divine importance on the Eucharist’s offering while still so much unconsciousness surrounds our daily meals. I have not, however, considered the possibility of world religions inadvertently “protecting” this sacred relationship (if I understand you correctly) from those that choose to disagree with their belief systems (e.g. atheists). Even if an atheist denies “intrinsic value and meaning to the nonhuman world” (thus rejecting the recognition of divinity within food), I don’t believe this negates their ability to feel compassion and empathy. Compassion is perhaps more accessible than an ethic requiring a belief in spirit within nature (although I would support this, too). I think a Christian and an atheist can meet on common ground through a meal representative of humanity’s compassionate nature, thus creating a foundation for a third space of tolerance and conviviality. I do also believe there is perhaps an even higher level of transformation achievable through conscious eating if we can acknowledge the metaphysical nature of food (i.e. food as one of many density levels of aggregated energy that we input and output through our bodies — breathing, pheromonal exchanges, and electro-magnetic field transference being possible others). Maybe there is a lock on the sublimation of our eating habits for which Christianity and other world religions hold a key, but beginning with compassion is a good first step.

      In response to your comment about ecological harmony, I do agree that there is no “returning” to such a state; but there is clearly a need for more awareness around the dynamism of our planet’s ecology and how humanity can most healthily participate in Cosmogenesis. If we as a species are evolving (or have evolved) into a primary force of nature on this planet — akin to weather patterns and the Earth’s living systems — than perhaps we need to incorporate a more compassionate approach. And yet, I don’t want to negate the entropic reality of our situation — that we may not be moving toward an inherently compassionate end, but simply one of greater and greater complexity. Maybe compassion is the grease that affords better reciprocity, communication, and fluidity through an ever-complexifying, creative, bipolar madhouse.


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