Food Ethics and Theory

he theoretical underpinnings of Food Ethics are varied and idiosyncratic to disciplinary tradition and background. However, a common collection of theories, frameworks and concepts can be identified. While there are important overviews and anthologies that summarize the theoretical basis of food ethics (Pense, 2002; Pojman, 2011), this section focuses on the primary texts. As such the entries in this section may not be of relevance to all readers. However, we suggest that these entries are essential for researchers and teachers wishing to understand the theoretical underpinnings and basis of policy, practice, and interventions in the production, distribution and consumption of food. We have divided this section into four sub-sections: Theories, Frameworks, and Concepts.
by rjp218 Mar 20, 2015


Theories most commonly used in the ethical analysis of food are drawn from the Western tradition of moral philosophy. Among the most significant works in Western philosophy is Aristotle’s Ethics, which outlines his ‘virtue ethics’ and influenced a variety of disciplines. Immanuel Kant’s deontological ethics and J.S. Mill’s utilitarianism are the dominant theories in discussions of how individuals should act in relation to others. The philosophy of Jeremy Bentham has been significant in advancing the moral significance of animal suffering. While John Rawls’s theory of justice and Amartya Sen’s critical engagement with Rawls have been important in shaping the discussions over how to organize a just society.

Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by J.A.K. Thomson, revised by Hugh Tredennick London: Penguin Classics, 2003.

This work provides the most sophisticated account of virtue ethics from the ancient Greeks and introduces the mechanism of the ‘the mean’ to determine ethical conduct. In contrast to the principled approaches of the Enlightenment, virtue ethics is concerned with developing the individual’s character such that they act virtuously as a contingent situations requires.

Bentham, JeremyThe Principles of Morals and Legislation. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988.

First published in 1789, this text outlines Bentham's 'greatest happiness principle', which holds that seeking pleasure and avoiding pain serves to determine moral action. In addition to influencing Mill (1996) and the development of utilitarianism, Bentham's emphasis on pleasure and pain has been widely used in debates over the ethical treatment of animals, most notably by Singer (2002).

Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. Translated by Arnulf  Zweig. Edited by Thomas E. Hill Jr. and Arnulf  Zweig. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002

Written in 1785, Kant attempts to examine the ultimate principle of morality and discover the universal laws that govern human experience. Examining duty, the ‘good will’ and moral law, Kant advances his categorical imperative: ‘Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.’

Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism, On Liberty, Considerations on Representative Government. Edited by Geraint Williams. London: Everyman Publishing, 1996.

This collection contains two key texts from Mill: Utilitarianism (1863) and On Liberty (1859). The ‘harm principle’ and the ‘greatest-happiness principle’ provide two key principles for discussing the ethics of production and consumption, particularly in conflicts between individual and societal interests.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Rawls outlines his theory of ‘justice as fairness’, and seeks to develop a principled approach to distributive justice through social contract theory. Rawls attempt to reconcile individual liberty and social equality, providing an alternative theory of justice to utilitarianism.

Sen, Amartya. The Idea of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009.

Sen argues that theories of justice, particularly Rawls 1999, operate with binaries and are removed from the contingencies of political and social contexts. In this work, Sen outlines his theory of justice as a continuum within the realities of institutional and social interactions.


The ethical analysis of food does not always adhere to a specific theory, such as deontology or utilitarianism. Rather particular frameworks are adopted that provide a wider and more flexible analytic lens. Environmentalism (Sandler, 2007; Thompson, 1995) is a significant framework that enables analysis of the impact of food production and agricultural practices on the environment. Bioethics (Mann, 2010) provides tools to examine the impacts of food on health and influence corporate ownership of GMOs. The Precautionary Principle (Sunstein, 2005) is a problematic yet widely used framework for policymakers in addressing the potential of future and indeterminate harms. A Feminist (Tessman, 2009) lens is significant in addressing the burdens and systemic injustices faced by women in the production and preparation of food. While Aesthetics (Delville, 2007) allows for the critical analysis of taste as it relates to ethics. These frameworks are not exhaustive, but are influential approaches in addressing the ethics of food.

Delville, Michel. Food, Poetry, and the Aesthetics of Consumption: Eating the Avant-Garde. New York: Routledge, 2007.

Delville’s text engages with key philosophers from the Western tradition (Plato, Kant, Hegel) as well as the contemporary work of Korsmeyer (2005) to provide a rich analysis of the aesthetics and poetics of food in the Western avant-garde.

Mann, Scott. Bioethics in PerspectiveCorporate PowerPublic Health and Political Economy.  Port Melbourne, VIC: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Mann broadens the usually narrow scope of bioethics to examine the ethics of social-structural determiners of health. Agricultural production and the global food supply are two areas addressed by Mann, providing a useful overview for students and researchers.

Sandler, Ronald L., Character and Environment: A Virtue-Oriented Approach to Environmental Ethics.  New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.

Sandler provides a theoretically astute and practically focused examination of virtue ethics and its use as a framework for thinking about environmental ethics. Sandler argues reflections and interactions with the environment can and should inform the development of an ethical character.

Sunstein, Cass R. Laws of FearBeyond the Precautionary Principle.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Sunstein critically assesses the Precautionary Principle, the idea that policymakers should take steps to protect against potential threats even in the absence of scientific certainty about the threat. This is an influential idea in environmental ethics and politics, which Sunstein critiques as incoherent.

Tessman, Lisa, ed. Feminist Ethics and Social and Political PhilosophyTheorizing the Non-Ideal. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, 2009

This collection brings together some of the most important contemporary feminist ethicists and scholars. While the essays do not directly address food practices, the arguments and analyses provide the analytic tools necessary for a feminist examination of gender and systemic inequalities in the production, preparation and consumption of food.

Thompson, Paul B. The Spirit of the SoilAgriculture and Environmental Ethics.  New York: Routledge, 1995.

In this rigorously researched text, Thompson critically examines industrial agriculture and argues that a philosophical basis of environmentalists is required in order to articulate the ethical aspects of agriculture’s interaction with the environment.


There are numerous concepts critical for understanding the ethical and political debates around food. Often these concepts are used in a manner that assumes a common understanding of their meaning. As these texts demonstrate, a concept like health cannot be assumed but requires clear articulation. In this section we isolate five concepts requiring specific attention: community, health, hunger, nutrition and taste.

Berry, Wendell. Bringing It to the Table: On Farming and FoodBerkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press, 2009.

Farmer and essayist, Berry has published numerous articles on American farming and communities. In this collection of essays, Berry discusses the place of farming and food in establishing and binding communities together.

Caplan, Arthur L., James J. McCartney, and Dominic A. Sisti. Eds. Health, Disease, and Illness: Concepts in Medicine.Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2004.

In this collection Caplan, McCartney, and Sisti draw together key philosophical texts on the concepts of health, disease and illness. The concepts of health and disease are often assumed in much the debate surrounding the ethics of food and its effect on health and wellbeing. A familiarity with the philosophical debates over these concepts will prove beneficial for researchers.

Castle, David, and Nola M. Ries, eds. Nutrition and GenomicsIssues of EthicsLawRegulation and Communication. Burlington, M.A.: Academic Press, 2009.

Castle and Ries offer a volume of essays addressing the ethical and legal issues surrounding nutrition and genetics. This is a helpful collection to introduce readers to the debates surrounding marketing practices, safety and regulation of nutri-genomics.

Korsmeyer, Carolyn. (Ed) The Taste Culture Reader: Experiencing Food and DrinkLondon, UK: Berg Publishers, 2005.

Korsmeyer edits a collection of interdisciplinary essays discussing the experience of taste and pleasure in food and drink, a concept that is often neglected from direct discussion in the food ethics literature.

Putnam, Robert D. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 2000.

While not directly related to food practices, Putnam provides an accessible discussion of community in the American context. Despite its date Putnam’s work is influential in discussions of community in a variety of disciplines.

Thompson, Donald, and Bryan McDonald. "What food is “good” for you? Toward a pragmatic consideration of multiple values domains." Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics (2012): 1-27.

The term ‘good’ is applied to food in marketing discourse, ethical discussions, nutrition advice and debates about the food systems. In particular the phrase ‘good for you’ is used to justify dietary recommendations and personal food choices. Thompson and McDonald offer a thorough analysis of the concept of ‘good’ in ethical, nutritional and political discourse.

Vernon, James. Hunger: A Modern History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.

A fundamental, yet overlooked concept in ethical discussion on food is hunger. Vernon analyzes the concept of hunger from a historical perspective, surveying the different perspectives used to understand and address hunger.