University of Southern Indiana

The Philosophy of Food

By Garret Merriam*

It’s always interesting to note people’s reactions when I tell them I’m a vegan. Some are curious, some are surprised and more than a few look at me like I’m some exotic species of bird. But, the reaction that interests me most is when people get defensive. They seem to assume that my dietary choices are a judgment upon theirs. Maybe they assume I’m looking down on them because they’ve made different choices than me. Maybe they don’t like being reminded how horribly animals are treated in the factory farms that produce 99 percent of our meat, dairy and eggs. Maybe they don’t want to think about it. 

I don’t blame them. I didn’t want to think about it either, but once I started thinking about it I couldn’t stop. I was 15 years old when it dawned on me that the substances I’d so thoughtlessly put in my mouth had once been living, thinking, feeling creatures. I couldn’t reconcile professing to love my dog and cat—Kismet and Flash— while, at the same time, participating in the torture and killing of pigs, chickens and cows. Those animals were, in all morally relevant ways, the same as the four-legged members of my family. So I decided to become a vegetarian. 

My parents didn’t understand. They assumed it was a rebellious phase and that I would grow out of it. Many years passed before they stopped furtively putting meat on my plate when I wasn’t looking. By the time I left for college they realized it was likely to stick. In graduate school, I decided to pursue my Ph.D. in philosophy. My food convictions had grown stronger, and I decided to do my dissertation on Aristotle and animal ethics. 

Philosophers are a contentious bunch, both by disposition and by training. Yet, despite hardly ever agreeing on anything, there’s a broad consensus amongst moral philosophers that the way we treat animals in our food system is not just immoral, but morally indefensible. Despite hundreds of articles criticizing factory farms, there are scarcely any defending the practice; and, no scholar takes any of those seriously. 

While the percentage of vegans among moral philosophers is higher than in the general populous, an animal-free diet is still far from common. Even those of us who specialize in understanding morality don’t do a very good job at abiding by our own self professed moral standards. That goes for me as much as anyone, which again is why I don’t condemn others for their choices. I’d known for years that the treatment of dairy cows and laying hens was just as torturous as that of pigs and beef cattle. My own moral standards committed me to giving up not just meat, but dairy and eggs, too. Still, I consumed dairy and eggs.

Aristotle taught me that becoming a better person is about learning better habits; conditioning myself to do a little bit better every day. I gradually phased animal products out of my diet and learned to replace them with non-animal-based products. 

I made the full switch from vegetarian to vegan, giving up dairy and eggs, when I married my wife. She not only encouraged and joined me in my decision to give up all animal products, she also became an excellent vegan chef. For my part, I got a lot better at shopping. I learned how to read labels and where to find the best vegetables. I sought other like-minded people in the area to foster a support network. I became a faculty advisor to the vegetarian club at USI where I help coordinate veggie potlucks and other related events. 

I’m still far from living up to my own moral standards. I do occasionally eat cheese, or products made with eggs. Sometimes this is by accident, but in full honesty, sometimes I do it knowingly, when I just lack the time or energy to find a vegan alternative. Many people, regardless of their own dietary standards, think this disqualifies me from owning the label “vegan.” They may even suggest the alternative label of “hypocrite.” 

And I suppose that’s only fair. But I doubt that any of us truly live up to our own moral standards 100 percent of the time. For me, being a vegan isn’t about some unattainable standard of purity or moral perfection. Rather, it is about trying my best to make my decisions align with a simple principle, one which I think almost all of us share: I don’t want any living creatures to suffer just so I can have a few moments of pleasure. I honestly don’t see how anyone could reject such a principle, nor do I see how that principle can but help to commit us to a cruelty-free, animal-free diet. 

Plenty of people will tell you that, given the size and scope of institutionalized moral problems such as these, no one person can make any real difference to the world at-large. Perhaps they’re right. I really don’t know, but neither do they. This kind of thinking is not a reason but an excuse, one that allows us to do something we know deep down we shouldn’t. There’s already far too much pain in this world. None of us need to add to it any more than we already do. 

Whether or not you can change the world is uncertain, but it is undeniably true that you can change yourself. You can refuse to make excuses. You can refuse to be a party to the unimaginable cruelty involved in transforming emotionally sensitive creatures into products, into things, into meat. You can choose to cultivate better habits. You can try eating a little less meat, a little less dairy today, and a little less still tomorrow. Before long, you’ll find you’ve given it up entirely and you’ll be surprised that you don’t really miss it. I know I was. 

*Dr. Garret Merriam is an associate professor of philosophy who came to USI in 2008. He teaches Introduction to Ethics, Bioethics and Business Ethics, as well as Philosophy of Religion, Philosophy of Science and the History of Philosophy. He received the 2013 USI Foundation Award for Outstanding Teaching by New Faculty and is the 2014 H. Lee Cooper Core Curriculum Teaching Award winner

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