On the Moral Significance of The Moral Significance of Modern Food

A recent article in First Things likely garnered little attention, but I think—if you’ll bear with me—we should pay some attention to it. The article by John Kainer is titled “The Moral Significance of Modern Food.” Take a minute and give it a read; I’ll wait for you. Okay good. I want to start by noting that I agree with almost everything Kainer writes and that I think the article is almost entirely wrongheaded or perhaps, if I may, wrong-hearted. Let’s take a moment and consider why he is right.

I often joke about what I call ‘the kale-smoothie crowd’ and Kainer’s piece is a send-up of this very group. He pinpoints a feature of the kind of moralizing food consumption that so exhaustively occupies a segment of upper-middle-class Americans. Food has become an essential ritual with clearly demarcated patterns of what is right and what is wrong. Kainer writes, “‘Sacred’ foods are given monikers like ‘super-food,’ and are portrayed using the language of purity: ‘all-natural,’ ‘non-GMO,’ ‘sugar-free,’ ‘gluten-free,’ ‘fat-free,’ ‘top-ten-allergens-free,’ etc.” For Kainer, these categories grant the consumer the certainty of their public moral standing. He writes “Every meal is now an opportunity to signal one’s moral uprightness.” We especially signal this by posting our organic, gluten-free kale smoothie on Instagram.

Kainer is right. There is a lot of this going on, at least in a certain socio-cultural class. I think Kainer misses the most galling feature about this food consumption. Most of this food is priced in such a way that it is a luxury, which a certain class gets to enjoy thoroughly while patting themselves on the back for their moral eating habits. In the past, the gourmand might have felt a tinge of guilt at their luxury, now they get to feel morally superior to those who pay half as much for the eggs found in the Styrofoam cartons.

As I began to read the article, I found myself happily nodding along. “Ha,” I thought “those self-serving-kale-smoothie-drinking liberals really got told!” But this is the missed opportunity; this is the wrong-heartedness that fails to perceive an essential reality. Thomas Aquinas loved quoting Aristotle when he wrote “the good is what all desire.” Thomas thought that we always are aiming at some good when we act in this life. It may be a counterfeit good, but even counterfeits aim to what they imitate. To really understand what the kale-smoothie crowd is up to requires recognizing not only when and how they go awry but also recognizing the good they aim at especially when it is actually good.

Kainer might be right that food labels are “used by customers to signal their moral goodness to their peers.” But of course Augustine saw this long ago—not about kale-smoothie drinkers—but about religious people (us). The problem with pride is precisely that it is the sin that accompanies our good works. Augustine warns his fellow monks that “every other vice produces evil deeds with a view to doing evil, but pride sets a trap for good deeds as well with a view to destroying them.” I do good and pat myself on the shoulder for doing it and suddenly the good I do is no longer all that good.” Kainer is right that those he critiques probably delight in their moral rectitude and yet he seems unwilling to see that they might actually be aiming at a moral rectitude. Consider an essential example Kainer gives.

When someone says that he only buys fair trade coffee, we are led to infer that he cares about economic justice for producers and, therefore, that he is a good person. The claim that he only buys fair trade is meant to signal that the purchaser is fair and just—that he is concerned with the ‘right’ things and is worthy of our admiration

Kainer insists that the person drinking fair trade coffee is doing this so that he is perceived as fair and just. This might be so, although it does require perceiving what cannot be perceived: the interior intentions of other people. He seems unwilling to see that buying fair trade coffee is in fact fair and just. To do so is to claim that products should be made in such a way that is just to workers and good to the earth. The explicit intention here is to act justly. Kainer inexplicably claims of these figures that they “no longer hunger and thirst for righteousness, but for affirmation of [their] rightness.” But isn’t it possible that—with a swirl of mixed motives—they are hungering and thirsting for righteousness, for justice, and for a better cup of coffee?[1] This is to say nothing of labels meant to help those with genuine food allergies to things like gluten and lactose. the gluten-free trend is in part due to foodies but not only.

Kainer’s piece is meant to be a diagnostic criticism of what ails our secular times, and much of what it says might be true. But if we are to understand our brothers and sisters outside the church, we need to attend to the goods that they aim for. At times, this will be very hard. The goods aimed at will be murky and hard to discern but they must (if we uphold Catholic philosophy) be there. In Kainer’s piece, the goods aimed at are quite easily perceived. In fact, one must explain them away, negate the very good sought after.

Why is it so important to consider and recognize those goods? Why, fair reader, am I writing about reading about an article about food? My claim is simple. To fail to see the good that is aimed for makes it almost impossible to do the work of evangelization. When we discern the good in others, we can speak to them and show them that there are deeper goods further up and further in. We can also, at times, join them in the goods they pursue. Healthier food, more justly raised, is better. In joining them, we take down a small wall of separation between us. This allows us also to point out the way people aim wrongly or act sinfully. It isn’t all fair trade coffee out there but sometimes when we see virtue out there, we should be willing to identify it for what it is: virtue.

What I am proposing is a mindset that is a condition for evangelization. You must love those you are going to evangelize; you must see the goodness in their various practices and forms of life. Don’t ignore what is wrong and sinful but do attend to what is fair and just. This is what Pope Francis calls accompaniment. We are meant to join people where they are, especially when we can join them in their good practices. Importantly, we don’t just meet people where they are to leave them where they are. No, we seek to take them along towards Christ. Francis writes in Evangelii Gaudium, “Spiritual ac­companiment must lead others ever closer to God… to accompany them would be counterproductive if it became a sort of therapy supporting their self-absorption and ceased to be a pilgrimage with Christ to the Father.” I contend that this will be a little easier if we can see the flashes of closeness to God already present, the realities of goodness aimed at and even achieved. We might need to point out the self-absorption of being a foodie. However, we will be better at leading people closer to God if we see not only their failings but also the ways in which they pursue the good. “Becoming all things to all people” (1 Cor. 9:22) won’t include joining in sin but it certainly includes sharing a meal, especially from an ethically sourced farm.

A closing thought. Consider a young woman, who was raised Catholic but has not gone to church in years. Idly thumbing through her phone while drinking an organic kale and oat milk smoothie with chia seeds, she stumbles across First Things. She reads this article and sees a strange portrayal of herself in it. She finds that she is not a person who cares about quality, health, and the good of workers. She is merely self-righteous, an Instagram preener. She closes the tab reminded once again that Christianity is no home for her. It is, for some reason, the home of people who insist on low-quality food produced unjustly with enormous harm to the environment. She sips her smoothie and adds another reason not to go to church. And when she does so, reader, we have all failed her.


[1] Reader, I am neither right nor just, nor desirous of good coffee. I drink Chock-Full-of-Nuts that has been over-brewed in a percolator. This is to be consumed black while wincing.

Image: Adobe Stock.

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