In a Starving World, Is Eating Well Unethical?

Except that food is of a different order. It’s a necessity, and recognized as such in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states in Article 25, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food.” Humanity made it to the end of the 19th century without gas-powered automobiles and, as of 2015, while 88 percent of American households owned a car, in China, the world’s second-biggest economy, only 17 percent could say the same. Not having a car is a hindrance; not having food can be fatal, in the short or long term. Lack of it impairs cognitive development in children. Access to only inexpensive processed food, low in nutrients, has been shown to contribute to chronic disease.

According to United Nations estimates, in 2020, 2.37 billion people, close to a third of the world’s population, experienced periods of going without food or were unable to consistently access nutrients, and 22 percent of all children under the age of 5 exhibited stunted growth. To think of food as just another product, then, whose price is set by the market, buoyed by the whims of demand, not need, is to accept that some people will go without, and will sicken or starve. To permit it.

SO THERE IS a crime: People are starving or undernourished. But we still have not established a correlation between one person’s indulgence and another’s suffering. The Times restaurant critic Pete Wells has noted “a small pit of shame in my gut” when he eats exorbitantly expensive meals. It feels wrong to spend freely on something so ephemeral as a fancy dinner while others languish in hunger, but is it? And if so, why, beyond a sense of common decency and solidarity with those less fortunate?

Claiborne, in responding to his readers’ fury, resisted the premise of their condemnation. “I would like to ask those who were not amused if they seriously believe that as a result of that evening I have deprived one human being of one mouthful of food,” he wrote. “If the meal had not occurred, would one more mouth have been fed, one more body been nourished?” His defense, essentially, was that his was at worst a victimless crime. He stole from no one; his profligacy did not deepen the miseries of others.

One could quibble with this. “The connoisseur cannot be both knowledgeable and innocent,” the American philosopher Carolyn Korsmeyer writes in her 2012 essay “Ethical Gourmandism.” She suggests that we are implicated morally in how the food we eat is produced, since “one cannot cultivate a taste for foie gras without cultivating a taste for fatty liver of a force-fed goose.” We might extend this to the experience of dining out itself, including the role of high-end restaurants in gentrification; the industry’s track record of exploiting labor through wage theft and abuse; and the fetishizing of ingredients that were once staples for ordinary people, who now can no longer afford to eat them as a regular part of their diet, as with lobster in New England and caviar from species of sturgeon in the Caspian Sea that are now among the world’s most endangered. As the British food writer Ruby Tandoh puts it in a 2018 essay, “Who has the freedom to eat for pleasure, and who does not?” The more of the world that becomes a playground for the superrich, the more the poor are pushed to the margins and the more difficult their lives become.

Still, it’s a bit of a deflection to put the onus on the individual to solve, through abstinence from particular pleasures, what is, in fact, a systemic problem. To be within a system is, to some extent, to be complicit in it, but choosing not to patronize a high-end restaurant won’t necessarily improve anyone’s life, unless you donate that money to charity. Which, of course, from a utilitarian perspective, is exactly what you should do: Take the money you would’ve spent on foie gras and distribute it in a way that maximizes the number of people who benefit.

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