Morals from the Mouth

By Travis Weisse

Food is more than a sum of its taste, presentation and nutritional label.  In this week’s Sawyer Seminar, we explored the edible as a function of morality, looking at topics from vegetarianism to organics, from ethical choices to moral judgments.  Though our discussion could have evolved in any number of directions, the main thrust focused on the notion of ethical consumption developed and criticized in James Carrier’s editorial in Anthropology Today, “Ethical Consumption.”  Carrier reproduces the central irony of the ethical consumption movement and its opposition to capitalism for us when he identifies the central goal of the Fair Trade system as defetishizing products by re-establishing the link between producers and consumers.  This is ironic, because fair trade largely ignores international labor migration, commercial processes and market relations, which serve to re-fetishize those very products.  In other words, fair trade seldom opposes the market capitalism it so fiercely rejects.

We found that the moral food landscape was littered with these types of contradictions as we progressed into other topics.   In “Vegetarianism: A blossoming field of study,” Matthew Ruby shows that vegetarianism is a difficult topic to research, because vegetarians are a non-natural type.  Motivations for eliminating animal products from the diet vary so starkly among vegetarians that it is hardly meaningful to categorize them together.  Vegetarians and vegans who adopt a plant-based diet for health reasons are less militant, judge the choices of others less harshly, and eat animal products more frequently than the famous moral vegetarians in animal rights groups.  The question we came to was to what extent is vegetarianism a moral choice?
To answer this question we moved into the third of the day’s readings, “Moral Overtones of Food: Judgments of Others Based on What They Eat,” by Stein and Nemeroff.  Though this was an older paper, from 1995, the cross-cultural exploration of moral judgments about food served to illuminate our previous discussions.  They showed that people patrol one another, following the rule of magical contagion, “Contact causes influence, via the transfer of essence.” This was useful to explicate the motivation of the moral vegetarians and people who purchase fair trade or organic.  People who eat meat, purchase products of child labor, or consume GMO produce, are seen as carriers of evil essences to members of respective social groups, much as female fatness is evil in American society generally.  But, in discussion we considered the opposite point, namely, whether unhealthy eaters are the only ones subjected to stigmatism. Perhaps healthy eaters are subject to critical public reception as well.

It seems that breaking social norms subjects one to moral judgments regardless of the healthy or unhealthy nature of the behavior.  Some class members suggested that social pressure was an important driving factor behind some of these moral choices, especially for women.  Many food choices are gendered, for instance, the consumption of meat as a marker of masculinity.  Ultimately, it seems that an individual’s food choices are severely restricted by the members of the eating community and the standards and taboos that crystallize as a result of the normalization of their collective choices.

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