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Ethics of eating: Is it possible to eat with a clear conscience?

Is it possible to eat with a clear conscience?


While humanity has traditionally struggled to put any sort of food on the table, most westerners now live in a world today where our food choices are almost limitless. But as our food options multiply, so do the methods of killing, raising, transporting, preparing, and engineering food for our consumption. What we choose to eat may help perpetuate cruel or unjust treatments of animals, utilize natural and social resources that have a profound impact on the well-being of others around the world, and negatively impact the environment in myriad ways.

Is it possible to eat with a clear conscience?


  • Reading of suggested materials below
  • General understanding of the major issues in question:
    • The general number of animals killed annually for food consumption.
    • How these animals are typically treated by various types of food producers
    • The central issues of the debate on moral protections for animals
    • The cost of food that claims to be more ethical
    • The general impact of various eating choices on our health system
    • The meanings of popular ethcial eating labels used today (e.g. locavore, vegan, etc.)


The resources below are intended to give the reader an introduction to the problem that presents them with some of the major issues of the debate without going into much detail about any specific issue.

General Information:

Impact on the Environment:

  • Carbon 101 by Jocelyn C. Zuckerman, Gourmet Magazine (Sep. 17, 2009)

Impact on Animals:





Do: Ask students to think about and discuss the following questions:

  • Are most people faced with ethical questions about what to eat, or are these questions that concern only the well-enough for whom food choices have little financial impact?
  • The western world considers it immoral to kill or eat some animals (e.g. dogs and cats), but not others (e.g. cows and chickens). What is the underlying justification of such a view of our relationship to other animals? Is this a morally meaningless prejudice towards the cute and fuzzy, or do we have good reasons to draw this sort of line between the species?
  • What makes a living being worthy of some moral protections?
  • Are there moral limits to how we can treat the animals we raise to be killed for food?
  • What should one's primary concern when determining how to eat ethically?
  • What are some of the environmental implications of our eating choices? How do weigh these against the effects these choices have on animals and other people?


* For additional ideas on assignments and lesson plan you might develop with this material, visit our Suggestions for incorporating lessons ethics into your course page.