Henrik Lagerlund is an affable man who loves to eat and drink. He also thinks deeply about our relationship with food. A professor of the history of philosophy at Stockholm University, Sweden, Lagerlund has taught a course on the philosophy of food for over a decade and has published widely. He pioneered research into the ethics of food during the Middle Ages, a time when society was governed by the virtue of fasting and the vice of gluttony—one of the seven deadly sins.

Today, as Lagerlund explains via Skype, our appetites have led to an existential crisis posed by both a rising population and an increasingly despoiled environment. “Things will only improve,” Lagerlund says, “if more of us start to seriously think about food, develop a better understanding of the food system, and change our behavior accordingly.” He likes what he hears about the research and development of alt meat and fish, and says these products (both plant-based and cellular) are being created on far more solid ethical ground than the food produced through animal agriculture or industrial fishing.

But change won’t come easily, Lagerlund says. Western cultures can trace the roots of our relationship with animals to the Bible’s Old Testament, which grants humans dominion over every being that creeps upon Earth. Although this view has shifted over time, it’s one that’s still deeply entrenched. It underpins the widely held and recently debunked belief that fish cannot feel pain, or that wild fish are simply there for the taking.

He proposes committing to “an examined life in relation to our daily food choices.” This can mean saying no to foods that might be traditional or convenient but are unsustainable or contribute to injustice. It’s often difficult in our globalized food system to adhere to our chosen values, Lagerlund says. But we owe it to ourselves and our children to make the effort.

“Moral philosophers often say that culture is not an argument,” Lagerlund explains. And so it is with the ethics of food. Just because an individual, family, or culture has done something for a long time doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best way or the right way to do things. When we attempt to broaden our value system, we’re often surprised by how it changes our habits and choices, he says. And in the long run, it might also make us happier.

Given the variety of sustainable, plant-based foods available to most of us in the West, and the growing availability of alternatives to meat and fish, is it ethical to continue eating animal products?

The meat industry is not sustainable, Lagerlund says. Nor is industrial fishing. “That in itself is enough of an argument to say, no, we should not eat meat or fish. But the question is obviously not so black and white.”

“I don’t want to tell people what to do. I want people to become more rational and more reflective. … Ask yourself what kind of person you want to be and what kind of world you want to live in.”

This is one way, he says, philosophy can change the world.

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