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Why Socrates would go for a plant-based diet, and other insights into the philosophy of food

Unthinkable: Chasing maximum pleasure is counterproductive for the individual and the wider world

Do you crave a mid-morning coffee? Or does the thought of a chicken sandwich make you salivate?

10 years of Irish Times Food Month

Our tastes have a knack of taking control of our bodies. So much so that the idea of a lab-grown steak, a vegan sausage, can make some people recoil in disgust. But to what extent can you trust your own tastes?

Dietitians and food scientists have shown how environmental and cultural factors play a huge role in determining what we like to eat. The question has philosophical roots too as thinkers from the Ancient Greece to the Enlightenment have explored the logic of our food choices.

Dr Margaret Steele, a lecturer in the department of philosophy at University College Cork, is continuing this intellectual tradition. She is working on an EU-funded project, involving UCC school of public health and more than 30 other academic and community partners across Europe, called Feast, on food systems that support transitions to healthy and sustainable diets. It is trying to design a “win-win-win-win” food system that sees major gains for people, the planet, and the public and private sectors.


As Irish Times Food Month nears an end, Unthinkable invited Dr Steele to explain, when it comes to eating, what exactly does philosophy bring to the table.

Sustainable eating doesn’t sound very tasty. What do ancient philosophers have to say about it?

Margaret Steele: “For those of us who still love a non-lab-grown steak or a greasy takeaway, sustainable eating can be a hard sell, especially given the existence of a wealthy and powerful food industry that seems not only to meet our every culinary desire but to keep creating pleasures we didn’t even know we wanted. But the history of philosophy gives us reason to believe that eating sustainably is in fact a much more promising path to a pleasurable and happy life.

“In Plato’s Republic, Socrates tells us that ‘the first and greatest of necessities is food, which is the condition of life and existence’. When his friend Glaucon reminds him that food does more than just keep us alive, Socrates agrees readily that food should be not just nutritious but tasty.

“He cautions, though, that if we get caught up in the search for delicious, indulgent food and other luxuries of the body we will descend into sickness, strife and, ultimately, war. This is because ‘tasty’ can be managed with relatively few resources; delicious, by contrast, will put us at war with our neighbours as we each need more and more land, animals, money to meet our ever-growing desires.

“Trying to achieve maximum pleasure is a fool’s game: the harder you pursue it, the faster it recedes before you. On the other hand, if we are content with simple comforts, we can live well and avoid all this pain and heartache. This reflects Plato’s general suspicion of the temptations of pleasure, which he thinks have a worrying ability to bypass the intellect and act directly on our bodies.

“If this seems puritanical or pessimistic, think about how many of us, when offered a chocolate biscuit, say, or a drop of wine, find ourselves having one – or more than one – before we’ve even had a chance to think about it. There is something true in the idea that we are not always fully in control around the things we perceive as pleasurable.”

Can we trust our tastes?

“Some contemporary theories on how we could or should eat, such as paleo or ‘intuitive eating’, work on the assumption that, deep down, our bodies ‘know’ what and how to eat and that it is only some aspect of culture – perhaps consumer capitalism or diet culture and fatphobia – that has deprived us of this knowledge. Again, there is probably some truth to this: It seems plausible that our evolutionary history has significant bearing on what kind of food our body needs, and on how we are equipped to recognise and react to that need.

“But, as David Hume points out in his famous essay on taste, our preferences, be it for food or art, are inevitably affected by our culture and our experiences. ‘You will,’ Hume writes, ‘never convince a man, who is not accustomed to Italian music and has not an ear to follow its intricacies, that a Scotch tune is not preferable.’

“There is no such thing as culture-independent taste; it is only in the context of culture that we develop tastes. Rather than trying to get back to some mythical golden age before culture ruined everything, we must instead figure out what better food systems could emerge within and from the cultures we actually have.”

What do contemporary philosophers say about food ethics?

“In the 1990s Elizabeth Telfer discussed food as a form of art ... For many years now, feminist philosophers have been discussing the gendered nature of our ideas and expectations around food and body image ... Ethicists, too, have turned their attention to food and food systems. Almost 50 years on, Peter Singer’s utilitarian arguments for famine relief remain widely read ...

To change how we eat is to change how we live and perhaps even, in some sense, who we are. It is no small ask

“In earlier times, philosophers tended to emphasise individual virtue as proof against excesses of appetite. But current best evidence tells us that individual choices are largely shaped by the environment.

“One thing we know for sure is that lecturing people – individuals or industries – has not worked. As things stand, global food conglomerates make huge profits but everyone else – from consumers, to farmers, to fruit pickers, to meat packers, to public health systems and, indeed, our planet – all lose. The goal of FEAST is to figure out how we can build systems in which all stakeholders win.”

Some see moralising about food as an infringement on individual freedom, or somehow spoiling our pleasure. Are ethicists fundamentally killjoys?

“Efforts to get people to eat more sustainably often meet two related kinds of resistance. First, as Glaucon reminds Socrates, food is more than just physical sustenance ... To change how we eat is to change how we live and perhaps even, in some sense, who we are. It is no small ask.

“Moreover – and this is the second kind of resistance, though people do sometimes undertake such radical change – becoming vegan, for example – most of us don’t like the idea of having it imposed upon us. The notion that an external authority such as the government could stop us from having turkey and ham at Christmas, say, is alarming and even enraging.

If we can’t learn to be content with simple comfort, the worst-case scenario is not endless war but total annihilation

“Sometimes, though, we make the mistake of thinking that, as long as the government doesn’t intervene, we are free to eat however we want. This, of course, is not at all true. Our choices are already conditioned and constrained by our environment.

“Governments and related institutions of course play a role in shaping that environment, but, when it comes to food, their role is dwarfed by that of the giant global corporations that control vast swathes of the world’s food production, processing and retail ... They have a massive influence on what we buy and eat, but also on the state of the planet as a whole.

“Socrates warned that giving too much free rein to our taste for luxury would lead to war. But that was over 2,000 years – and one massive, global industrialisation – ago. Now, if we – especially those of us in the high-income countries of the world – can’t learn to be content with simple comfort, the worst-case scenario is not endless war but total annihilation.”