Ethical eating in a diverse world; the taboo: to define identity by exclusion (part 4 of a series)

There might be as many taboos as people

A taboo food is a food from which people abstain for cultural or religious reasons. As the common meal is an important way to share common humanity, the food taboo is an important way to separate “us” from “them”. While the laws of hospitality join everybody around the table, the food taboos strengthen the inner circle by excluding the other. Strict adherence to food taboos makes reciprocal hospitality impossible.
Cannibalism might be the oldest taboo. It seems  that cannibalism was practiced by different groups at one stage, although direct testimonies are rare. It was mostly something told about “those people over there”. Now cannibalism is taboo in most cultures. This might be originally a health prescription and not a real taboo: diseases transmit easily by eating flesh of deceased specimen of your own species, with Creutzfeld-Jacob as a grueling example. Slaughtering healthy humans for their flesh doesn’t make you a lot of friends neither in an environment where life is nasty, brutish and short.
Taken together as a group, the religious taboos are mainly proclaimed for their power to exclude “the other”, the unfaithful. Indeed, the essence of a religious taboo is the confirmation of prejudices and often apparent illogical rule. Humans should not question the divine law. Afterwards, people weak in their faith,seek a post facto rationalization, although second guessing a Divine order is always risky. The sometimes quoted health reasons for religious taboos suffer from confirmation bias: most foods have positive and negative effects on health. Looking for an explanation for the taboo only the negative is highlighted. Indeed pigs can be carriers of illness, but in most era’s of human history the health benefits of having a decent meal with (fried) bacon were higher than the risks carried by contagious pigs.
For the nomadic early Arabs and Jews it was easy to forgo pork: hogs, due to their physiology, need water and don’t support traveling. It was the domestic animal of the sedentary farmer and the city dweller: them, not us. Moreover, there is good reason to accept that the taboo was “cast in stone” in a period of increasing water shortages in the region. Some go as far as stating that Islam has been spread mostly into regions where pigs don’t thrive anyway. Meanwhile in regions where Islam and pigs thrive, a more tolerant form of Islam with small scale pig farming is often practiced. The animal of the arabic peninsula, the goat, is meanwhile instrumental in deforestation, desertification, and making the ecology more hostile to pigs and agriculture, more prone to nomadism.
Another well known religious taboo is the vegetarianism practiced by Jain, linked to an ethical choice for non-violence. The taboo on beef-eating in Hinduism could also be explained by environmental factors: Cattle is too precious providing milk and power, to have it slaughtered for meat. In traditional agriculture, the surplus of calves for slaughter is limited. In Hindu and Jain vegetarians do eat other animal products, such as milk. Non-religious Vegetarianism and its modern pendant, veganism are discussed later.
Some cultures extend the cannibalism taboo to “friendly” species. In the Anglo-Saxons don’t eat companion animals like horses and dogs while they savor drought oxen  without impunity. This has nothing to do with flavor or nutritional aspects, it is an ethical judgment. Frogs are too prince-like to eat for the English, while the French eat them without regret.
A special form of cultural taboo are the fake health recommendations: suddenly a food gets labeled with a health risk, with little or no scientific basis. Before you know, it is conventional knowledge. A kind of nutritionist political correctness. Examples abound: carbs, fat, etc. I mention these taboos here, as they are part of a sub-culture and not really health concerns.
Some people stop eating a certain animal or plant because of the risk for extinction or the damage to the environment caused by the culture. Notorious examples are the eating of turtle eggs, eating whale meat, or the consumption of soybean or maize grown under over-fertilized monoculture. These are not really taboos, as the reason for not eating is ethical and not cultural nor religious,.

The ethics of taboos

For ethical purposes, four main groups of taboos can be identified:
  1. Private taboos, which are kept in the home. E.g. some subcultures have a taboo against soft drinks, but when they organize birthday parties or eat out the taboo is not community  enforced. This kind of taboo is ethically neutral, as it clearly considers the importance of community acceptance higher than the enforcement of the taboo. A lot of people abide in this way to religious taboos too.
  2. House rules are linked to the family: the taboo is not enforced when going out in the community, while it is expected from the others to abide with the house rules when visiting the home. This kind of taboo is coherent with the laws of hospitality. It accepts diversity, and forces everybody to face the diversity (when in Rome, do as Romans do).
  3. Missionary taboos impose themselves on the environment. The aim of the taboo is to separate oneself from the community or to proselytise the  community change its ways. The missionary taboo demands respect, but it is not respectful itself. Most strictly enforced religious taboos fall in this category. The taboo is seen as an absolute value, higher than the other values in the community. Worse: the community is defined as those accepting and following the taboo.
  4. Personal taboos: while the individual always abides with the taboo, no behavior change from the community is asked. An example can be the consumption of alcohol.

At what point do bad manners turn  into unethical behavior?

Private taboos and house rules pose in general little ethical problems, as long as the taboo does not lead to child malnutrition, health costs for the community, or degrades to a form of psychological child abuse.

Some religious leaders have taken a strong stance against missionary food taboos: “It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man (Mathew 15:11).” Indeed, the general effect of a missionary food taboo is its divisive impact. It separates us from them, and attaches a moral superiority to the followers of the taboo. The taboo goes nuclear on the shared meal, bringing division at our table. Moreover the taboo diminishes freedom of choice and food diversity for an individual. By limiting the access to diversity it is limiting the development of a person to its full humanity. Due to these negative properties, the balancing positive properties of a particular taboo must be very convincing in order to be acceptable.

In a modern ethos most religious taboos are difficult to defend as a missionary taboo for their limited advantages to mankind, and the divisiveness they bring. As they have scant rational basis, their enforcement on the community as a missionary taboo is at least a show of bad taste.

Refusing to eat some food because of the negative impact on the environment is on a stronger ethical foundation. It is however, not really a taboo, as the reason for not eating it nor cultural nor religious. However, the scientific basis for these choices is often shaky. Some of these taboos are just a sign of black and white thinking or environmental myths, without attention for the nuances of reality. In this case, they are food taboos as they are a sign of adherence to a sub-culture an not a science-based ethical choice.

This aspect will be addressed in the part on farming systems. When is an environmental effect so important it should be law, when should it be “the right thing to do” and when is it just individual lifestyle choice?  When is this taboo just not important enough to go nuclear on our shared meal? What is the effect on the environment of eating meat just only once at the shared table, compared to the use of a car? In the chapter on veganism some of these elements will be further explored.

The taboos against eating animals emotionally close to us seems to have little objective ground, but the attitude of respect it shows for companions is important.

By Sam Gardner

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