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Abstract:

We use moral terminology when talking about food; we judge it “good” or “bad” and apply moral terms such as “sinful” to it.  While food varies in nutritional value, using these terms without qualification falsely implies that nutrition is the only determiner of value. I follow Aristotle in arguing that goodness has to do with function and showing that food has many other functions besides keeping us alive.  Food provides emotional sustenance, aesthetic pleasure, and can fulfill ritual or communal purposes.  Multiple uses for food lead to multiple goods.

The rhetoric surrounding food ignores this plurality.  This generates problems, particularly since we judge the eater, not simply the food; we see people eating “bad” foods as themselves bad.  This has unacceptable social ramifications, since we risk labeling entire cultures and social classes as bad for consuming foods our society disapproves of.  Moreover, such absolute judgment is inconsistent with our treatment of permissible risk in other arenas; a food which poses a threat to our health should not invite special moral condemnation beyond that usually applied to risky activities.  No food is good or bad absolutely; our rhetoric to that effect is misleading at best and potentially harmful at worst.