I spend a lot of time thinking about food in various ways. Mostly it’s in a ‘What am I going to have for dinner?’ kind of way or in a ‘Oh bugger, we’ve run out of oranges’ kind of way. Lately, however, I’ve been thinking a lot about the link between food and morality. Which it turns out is quite a complex and messy topic.
In fact, I’ve debated about writing this post for months, although it’s only now – as I sit down to write finally actually write it – that I realise it’s about the morality of food at all.
In my head, this post was originally supposed to be about why I’m not vegan. I was going to methodically list the reasons – which stretch far beyond ‘Oh I just really like steak and cheese’ – with neat little subheadings. It was going to have a nice clickbait-y title to bring in the blog views. And, above all, it was going to be respectful and polite, so as not to incur the wrath of either meat-eaters or vegans – who can both be a little terrifying at times.
The problem with that post, however, is that it’s too formulaic. It’s neat and tidy, when in reality there is nothing neat and tidy about the relationship between food, eating, veganism, and morality.
See, vegans would like you to believe that the decision to go vegan is simply a decision to live a good, moral life. They tell simple stories of watching some documentary or other about factory farming, and deciding there and then to eliminate animal products from their diet entirely. Or else their stories consist of a gradual transition from meat-eating, to vegetarianism, to veganism.
The point is, their stories all have one thing in common: they knew that eating meat and dairy was bad for the environment, and bad for the animals involved, so they stopped. They decided to apply the same morality to their eating habits that they did to the rest of their lives. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The problem is that food and morality is – for me at least – about more than the ethics of killing animals.
See, I’ve spent a lot of years making moral judgements about my diet. In fact, I was so desperate to make myself moral and pure as a teenager that I was I nearly starved myself into nothingness. To this day I still struggle to stop myself applying moral descriptors to my food choices. I periodically still use food – or rather, a lack of food – as a punishment for other failings in my life. I still periodically punish myself for forgetting about the morality of eating momentarily, for thinking of food as simply food, and not Good or Bad.
So when you add veganism and vegetarianism into the mix as well, things start to get really complicated. When your entire personal morality is already linked to the food you eat, deciding that your food also has the power to save or destroy the environment is a little overwhelming. When you already find it easy to berate yourself for eating certain foods, giving yourself more reasons to be ashamed of your food choices is the final nail in the coffin.
I’m aware that many people have successfully managed to untangle this web of complexities – that plenty of people with a history of eating disorders and disordered eating manage to save themselves by transitioning into a vegan diet. And that’s great. More power to those people. Maybe one day I’ll be one of you.
But for now, suffice it to say I don’t need yet another reason to feel guilty about food.