The new priesthood of the kitchen
The authors of Eating want food to be an ethical issue so they can sit in judgement on us all.
Eating: What we eat and why it matters, by Peter Singer and Jim Mason, Arrow Books, 2006
The news that the Pope is thinking about abandoning limbo, the place to which the souls of unbaptised babies who have never heard the message of Christian salvation have been consigned over the centuries, must have been a big disappointment to Peter Singer, the philosopher champion of animal rights, and Jim Mason, his journalist collaborator.
Limbo would seem to be the ideal fate for the family from blue collar Mabelville, Arkansas, whose commitment to the ‘standard American diet’ is subjected to detailed analysis and withering moral scrutiny in Eating. They eat cheap chicken, meat, eggs and milk, shop at Wal-Mart and eat out at McDonalds. Their diet is judged to be damaging to their family’s health and to render them complicit in the cruelty of factory farming, environmental destruction, pollution and the exploitation of workers at home and abroad. But like those benighted pagans who never have heard the word of Jesus, these decent American citizens are considered to be in a state of primeval innocence: ‘nothing in the television they watch or the newspapers they read suggest that there is anything unethical about the choices they are making. Doesn’t all of America shop at Wal-Mart? How can it be wrong to do as everyone else does?’
If limbo is the destiny of the blamelessly ignorant, hell is for fat people, for whom there can be no escape from righteous condemnation. Singer and Mason demand the restoration of the ‘deadly sin’ status accorded to gluttony in the traditional catechism of the Catholic Church: ‘along with the old-fashioned virtue of frugality, the idea that it is wrong to be a glutton is in urgent need of revival.’
Purgatory would appear to be the appropriate place for the subjects of Singer and Mason’s second case study: a family of ‘conscientious omnivores’ from affluent Fairfield, Connecticut. This family buys organic food from local farmers’ markets and tries to use its consumer power to uphold ‘fair trade’ and ‘workers’ rights’. Though they eat meat ‘only when it satisfies certain ethical standards’, they are found to be at fault in buying seafood (which the authors consider should be avoided on the grounds of sustainability and cruelty – with the exception of sustainably obtained simple molluscs). But these earnest environmentalists are spared the wrath of Singer and Mason, who proclaim, with truly divine forbearance, that ‘it seems more appropriate to praise the conscientious omnivores for how far they have come, rather than to criticise them for not having gone further’.
Heaven is reserved for the vegans, such as the family living in the prosperous suburbs of Kansas City, who provide the third case study. Vegans, of whom there are more than one million in the USA, refuse all animal products, and are regarded by Singer and Mason as paragons of individual and environmental virtue. Their lifestyle ‘completely avoids participation in the abuse of farm animals’ and they act as beacons of integrity and incorruptibility in a world of moral turpitude. For example, if people inquire why they are refusing to eat meat, ‘that often leads to conversations that influence others, so that the good that we can do personally by boycotting factory farms can be multiplied by the number of others we influence to do the same’.
Sensitive to contemporary hostility towards fundamentalism, the authors conclude with a section entitled ‘ethical not fanatical’ which demonstrates their capacity to apply what appears to be a rigid doctrinal code with a spirit of flexibility. They are keen to reassure the faithful that ‘a little self indulgence, if you can keep it under firm control, doesn’t make you a moral monster’. (One is reminded of St Augustine: ‘give me chastity and continence – but not just yet!’) Combining the dogmatism and authoritarianism of old style Catholicism with the slack relativism of contemporary Anglicanism, Singer and Mason are the self-appointed high priests of the twenty-first century environmentalist cult.
‘We don’t usually think of what we eat as a matter of ethics’ declare Singer and Mason in their introduction. This is true: in the past, ethics has been largely concerned with questions of how we behave in relation to other people. Eating has generally been regarded as largely a matter of biological survival, an activity of some anthropological concern, but of little philosophical or political interest. The elevation of eating to become a major focus of individual and social attention implies reducing the scope of human endeavour to the level of biology. While seeking to raise the status of animals, by making the banal activities required to maintain the integrity of the human body the central preoccupation of personal and family life, these authors degrade humanity.
The elevation of a priestly hierarchy over a society of individuals preoccupied by the quest for basic biological survival should alert us that modern society is in danger of retreating into the clerical obscurantism of the pre-modern era.
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