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Monday, November 21, 2016


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Great post, Bill, and timely for me, since I'm teaching a course on food next semester. One thing that shows up implicitly in your 4th and 5th paragraphs is the notion that there's not really such a thing as "food." Rather, all food is really "food *for*..." For example, grass is food for ruminants, but certainly not food for single-stomached creatures like us. There are natural matches between certain kinds of eaters and certain kinds of eatees.

This points to one way to clearly connect a "food for" claim with the "cats are four-legged animals" claim: if a given kind of creature has a digestive system that is clearly designed for a given kind of putative food, then this implies, at least prima facie, that the putative food is indeed food for that kind of creature. Additional considerations can come into play, such as the cannibalism point you mention. But such considerations would never, in real life, come into play if the putative food in question were clearly ill suited for the eaters in question. We don't have taboos against eating grass.

Since humans have digestive systems that are clearly designed for dealing with meat (I realize this claim, though obviously true, will be denied by some :) ), this gives prima facie reason to think that beef is food for us. Hence, as you argue, a claim that beef is not food for us looks to bear a pretty significant burden of proof.

Apologies for the extent to which this reply is more free association than actual response to your post.

Thanks, Patrick.

True, our stomachs can handle meat. But can you show that humans need to eat meat to flourish? If you can show this, then beef's being food for us would have a natural ground and not be a matter of humans wrongly regarding beef as food.

Do you agree that if stuff S is edible by us, it does not follow that it is food? Whatever counts as food for us must be edible by us (as I defined 'edible' above), but not vice versa.

Bill, yes I agree that a thing's mere edibility doesn't imply that it's food for us. I don't even say that our having digestive systems clearly designed (evolved, whatever) for meat implies that meat is food for us. I say only that the match between our digestive systems and meat are strong prima facie evidence that meat is food for us. (So I grant space for the social construction of food as food, to some extent.)

But I don't think it's true merely that "our stomachs can handle meat". I think it's true, rather, that our digestive systems were clearly *designed* to handle meat. Part of what that means is that we humans function best when we're eating reasonable amounts of animal protein. I don't know if I would say we *need* meat in order to flourish (even taking "flourish" in a minimal sense, having to do with maintaining a decent level of physical health). But I do think that for all kinds of reasons it's obvious that in general we do better, more easily, by eating meat than otherwise. (A cat can often do nearly as well with three legs as with four.)

Why aren't children food? I accept there are legal reasons against it, as well as matters of delicacy and taste, but the fact remains that they can be eaten, and could provide sustenance in an emergency.

She says

(1) if someone asserts that beef is food, understanding this as a generic, it is tempting to accept the implication that there is something about the nature of beef (or cows) that makes it food.

(2) It is also tempting to suggest that cows are for eating,

(3) it is reasonable to block the implicature by saying cows are not food.

(4) She agrees that people do eat cows; Beef is served as food. ‘But this is not what cows are for, it is the result of optional (and, I submit, immoral) human practices. Or more simply, “cows are food, given existing social practices.” This I would not deny’.

I am not sure I can fault this.


Edible-for-humans is a merely biological concept. Food is not a merely biological concept. You admit the point in effect when you say that there is a legal prohibition against cannibalism.

The legal prohibition against cannibalism shows that children are not food for us.

W. C. Fields was once asked how he liked children. 'Well done' was his reply.

One thing I fault Haslanger for is assimilating the beef case to the sagging pants case.

Haslanger is a leftist who wants to deny that there is any biological basis to meat-eating, gender roles, and the greater criminality of blacks relative to whites. She brings up all this philosophy of language arcana in an attempt to defend a social constructivism with respect to these topics.

If women have been merely socially constructed to be more nurturing than men, these these constructs can be deconstructed.

You hold, don't you?, that there is something in reality beyond the social and cultural that grounds the truth of 'Women are more nurturing and cooperative than men.'

Haslanger appears to want to invoke justice and fight against the injustice of racists, sexists, carnivores, and other 'deplorables.'

But there is something paradoxical about her project. For isn't justice just another social construct? We conservatives construe it differently than she does -- so she has nothing to appeal to against us. For her there can be no absolute standard transcendent of the social-cultural.


Ought implies can, not the other way around, so it's not "obvious" to me why we "do better" (whatever that vague phrase means) by eating meat simply because we can. It would be easy to find counter-examples to this claim, as well.

I'm not a social constructivist, far from it, but I am a vegetarian who hasn't been convinced that eating meat is not morally deplorable. If that banishes me from the ranks of "we conservatives," then so be it. I try to eschew the collectivism of the left and the right.

So where is this going? I think I agree with her about 'cows are food'. Ergo, food is a social construct. But where does that leave us with race, or justice?

That is, you agree with her that cows are NOT food. For that is what she is maintaining.

I take it she would say that in reality blacks are not less intelligent than whites; they have only been socially constructed to be less intelligent.

Do I agree with her that cows are not food?
Here are some problems

1. Her argument about beef vs cows. She says that saying beef is a food merely disguises a harsh reality. But then their milk is a food, or a drink, because their young drink it as well.

2. Moreover, wool is a textile, although a sheep is not a textile. So is the difference between beef and cow rather like that between wool and sheep?

3. Domestic animals have been selectively bred over millenia for certain desired characteristics. Sheep for wool, pointers for pointing at game, horses for riding and racing etc. So at what point are we forced to say that their domestic function simply is their nature? Thought experiment: we genetically engineer animals so that they no longer have brains or consciousness. They simply take in nutrient and grow into meat, nothing else. Then clearly such an organism is food, and being that food is its very nature. Imagine if we could grow hamburgers from seeds! Then it is clearly true to say that this organism is food, and nothing else.

>> I take it she would say that in reality blacks are not less intelligent than whites; they have only been socially constructed to be less intelligent.
To take a less contentious example, clearly it is in the nature of dogs to love humans. They have been selectively bred to do so. But wolves do not have such a nature. So the nature of particular breeds (pointing, stalking, hounding, guarding etc) cannot be a social construct. To quote Mayr again:

There is a widespread feeling that the word "race" indicates something undesirable and that it should be left out of all discussions. This leads to such statements as "there are no human races." Those who subscribe to this opinion are obviously ignorant of modern biology.
Enough said.

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