Eating Ethically

Religion and Science for a Better Diet

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Jonathan K. Crane
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , December
     2017.
     256 pages.
     $35.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780231173445.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Eating Ethically: Religion and Science for a Better Diet seeks to define and fill a lacuna in a growing discussion about the ethical dimensions of food. While some books deal with what is on the fork (the food) and others deal with how it got to the fork (food systems) or its cultural implications (foodways), Jonathan K. Crane focuses his gaze on “what it means to eat and to be eaters” (5). Crane’s relentless orientation toward “you who eat” (15) is perhaps the defining feature of this book’s unique voice. As a scholar of Jewish studies specializing in modern Jewish thought, Crane explores his theme by adeptly engaging Western thinkers from Aristotle to Emanuel Levinas, and a range of classical religious sources in all three Abrahamic traditions (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism), especially the Hebrew Bible. Further, he seeks to interpret these sources sufficiently for us to engage them at the pragmatic level of everyday decision making. 

The book will therefore especially reward at least two kinds of readers. On the one hand, it will especially reward those already well read on broader ethical concerns in our food system who want to take a more philosophical look at the ethics implicit in eating as such. For these readers, this book may open an entirely new dimension of reflection on the ethics of eating. On the other hand, it rewards the seeker who, whether new to the topic or as a veteran, is looking for a responsible and entertaining guide to help her engage diverse traditions of religious and philosophical thought to make real life decisions. Crane’s final advice–“Go ahead, eat and refrain”—is pithy, but the delight and value of the book is the wild and thought-provoking ride that Crane takes us on to get to his core argument for moderation in eating. His seemingly thin advice has resonance and power by the end of the book. 

Crane’s first chapter, “Full of Ourselves,” functions as an introduction to the volume as a whole, introducing the book’s scope and its focus on restraint before describing the book’s five-section structure. In the remainder of part 1, “Eating Unwell,” Crane asks “what is poor eating?” and defines his notion of “adaptive” and “maladaptive” eating alongside a discussion of the twin enemies of moderate eating, “Deprivation and Gluttony” (also the title of his second chapter). In part 2, “I Eat Therefore I Am,” Crane works to situate his own project within larger discussions of food by moving respectively through a focus on the eater in chapter 3, to the eaten in chapter 4, to his own focus, the act of eating in chapter 5. Part 3, “Eating Well” begins in chapter 6 with an emphasis on the existential stakes of questions about food and a consideration of why multiple ancient sources emphasize moderation, before going on in chapters 7 and 8 to explore what these ideas might mean in the contemporary moment. Part 4, “I Eat Therefore I Am Tasteful,” broadens Crane’s focus on moderation by tying it respectively to the virtues of savoring food in chapter 9, “sacrificing unbounded consumption” in chapter 10, and sharing and commensality in chapter 11. The fifth and final section concludes the book by returning to and defending its main argument for moderation. 

Crane’s book successfully identifies a dimension of ethical reflection on food—namely, reflection on the phenomenon of eating and being an eater as such—that is rarely engaged outside of academic settings. Further, he helps the reader engage this dimension in dialogue with both ancient sources and more contemporary thinkers who, like himself, have recently inquired about eating at this most fundamental level. As a scholar, there were times when I found myself wanting more depth or rigor. For example, Crane seems to occasionally overgeneralize about internally diverse religious groups or time periods, and he engages less with secondary literature than I would have liked. At the same time, the book succeeds in covering an enormous breadth: while engaged with contemporary scientific understandings of eating, Crane gives considerable attention to a range of thinkers from the ancient, medieval, and modern Western canon, including scriptures from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. 

Perhaps Crane’s biggest accomplishment is that the book effectively helps the reader think in new ways about the basic existential meaning of being an eater, while still genuinely remaining a book about the pragmatic choices we make in humdrum life. The book enters deep philosophical territory by asking questions about the small assumptions and decisions about food we make daily, and the result is rewarding to read and as habit-challenging as it is thought-provoking.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Aaron Gross is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of San Diego and the founder the the non-profit advocate agency, Farm Forward.

Date of Review: 
July 9, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jonathan K. Crane is the Raymond F. Schinazi Scholar in Bioethics and Jewish Thought at the Emory University Center for Ethics. He is the author of Narratives and Jewish Bioethics (2013); editor of Beastly Morality: Animals as Ethical Agents (Columbia, 2015); and coeditor of The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Ethics and Morality (2013).

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