We all know what food is, but what about ethics? The word may sound rather forbidding or only relevant to experts or the specially committed, but in fact we all regularly make ethical decisions about food.

Here are four every day examples:


Some people are vegetarians; they have decided not to eat meat. If their decision was driven by the simple fact that they don’t like the taste of meat, it is not an ethical position. If they follow a vegetarian diet because they think that meat-eating involves unacceptable suffering for the animals which are reared for food, then their reasons are ethical reasons. They think that it is wrong to eat meat.


Some people are committed to eating ‘organic’ food. They believe that industrialised farming methods, involving widespread use of chemical pesticides and artificial fertilisers, wipe out wildlife such as birds, insects and wild flowers, destroy the soil, and are unsustainable in the long run. This concern to protect the natural environment is an ethical commitment.


Many people are increasingly worried about the rising levels of obesity  and other harmful effects which they attribute to the consumption of processed foods and additives. Theirs is an ethical concern, not just for their own health but for the health of people generally, especially that of the young. They may advocate stricter regulation or clearer labelling to tackle the problem.


A high proportion of our food and drink is produced by farmers in other parts of the world whose standard of living is much lower than ours and who are struggling to survive and to lift themselves out of poverty. Many people think it unfair that such a small proportion of what we pay for our food finds its way back to the primary producers, and they support certification schemes which provide an assurance that farmers receive a fair price for what they produce. They have taken an ethical position.

Many people do not take any of these positions. They may have various reasons for not doing so. For example, they may:

  • Dispute the facts about animal suffering, and argue that good animal husbandry can ensure that animals raised for food have good lives.
  • Argue that modern industrialised farming methods are essential to feed an ever-growing world population and promote human well-being.
  • Contest the need for regulation and argue that people should be free to make their own choices about what they eat.
  • Claim that ‘fair trade’ is not really fair – that farmers and workers in developing countries do not receive enough of the benefits; or they may believe that fair trade entrenches inefficient farming practices, and a free market economy is more likely to raise people out of poverty in the long run.

These too are all ethical positions. So we cannot avoid ethical choices, even if we make them unthinkingly.

What makes these choices ethical choices? They are defined by our values (what we think is good) and our principles (what we think is right), in order to redirect our thinking.