Lecture by Tracy Isaacs: “Kitchen Nightmares: When Ethical Eaters Come to Dinner”

Kitchen Nightmares


Food and eating are important parts of our social and cultural world.  We don’t just eat for sustenance. Almost every social event, from weddings to funerals, from birthday parties to office parties, from anniversaries to Thanksgiving to lunch dates with friends, involves food. And there are elaborate social conventions, manners, and etiquette surrounding dining with others.

But besides its social and cultural meanings, food is also for many people an ethical and political issue.  Everyone knows at least a few vegetarians or even vegans—I’ll call these people “ethical eaters”—who choose not to eat animals or animal products for moral reasons. Maybe they want to take a stand against what they regard as unnecessary suffering or perhaps they object to the environmental damage caused by factory farming. Either way, eating is not a morally neutral issue for them.

When these ethical eaters get together with people who consider food/eating to be morally neutral, it can be a nightmare all around.  The demands of etiquette make us all want to get along and be good dinner companions. If we’re hosting, we want to accommodate our guests. If we’re guests, we want to be gracious.

But ethical eaters aren’t just expressing a preference. They’re taking a stand on an issue they regard as morally important enough to change the way they eat.  How does the ethical eater be a good guest and at the same time have moral integrity?  And what about the hosts or dining companions who regard the eating restrictions of their ethical-eater friends more as an inconvenience than a moral issue?  They’re tough to cook for and they can make people uncomfortable with their moralizing about food.

In this paper I explore the way morality and etiquette clash when ethical eaters and those with a morally neutral attitude towards food come together.  I argue that the demands of morality do not erase obligations of etiquette and good manners. Ethical eaters are required to be good guests even when the people they are eating with do not uphold the same moral values.

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