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UC Davis Students Line Up For Course On “Ethical Eating”

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(Davis, CA)
Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Professor Allison Coudert teaches the Ethical Eating course at UC Davis, which covers food taboos, food symbolism, religious food laws, eating bugs -- even the ethics of food advertising. On this day, Coudert is discussing the ethics of eating animals.

"We're really dealing with issues here that are not only complex but icky in many ways," Coudert tells her class of about 180 as she draws a think line on the blackboard.

Dressed in slacks and a casual sweater, Coudert conducts her lesson in a classroom that feels like a stadium.

"I would suggest to you that what we've got is a spectrum of views."

The class quiets as Coudert tells students that morality evolves, even with food.

"The way a society eats and the way a society produces the food that that society eats, tells you a great deal about that society," she explains.

Most students in the class are not Religious Studies majors.

Ian Haydon signed up for Ethical Eating even though his double-majors are biochemistry and molecular biology. 

"I'm interested in ethics. I'm interested in a lot of things. Biology and genetics play a major role in today's state of food," says the third year student.

In writing his final essay, Haydon drew on three issues to illustrate what he gained from taking the Ethical Eating course.

"Number one is transparency," he says. "That's our biggest issue now with food. Two is sustainability, where the sciences WILL influence the ethics. And third point was strictly ethical --- food being a natural right, not a privilege."

Tanzi Jackson, a sophomore, took the class because Ethical Eating ties in with her major -- Environmental Policy.

"The way that a lot of our food is produced in this country, it's unethical in my personal opinion," says Jackson.  "It's cheaper that way, and sometimes people just would rather have the cheap food than the well produced food."

The class had such an effect on Jackson that she now questions her own eating choices.

"I'm thinking about becoming a vegetarian," she says with a chuckle.

Coudert doesn't think contemporary vegetarianism is particularly ethical. She calls it "urban," saying meat avoidance is for people disconnected from the land, where animals and plants ought to co-exist.

"It's become a kind of substitute religion," claims Coudert.  "There is some sense of superiority about not eating meat."

Coudert is pleased her course on Ethical Eating poses conflict for her students. After all, she says, the three topics with the most ethical volatility are sex, politics and food. Add religion, and Coudert gives students a potent mix.

"These things are absolutely connected," says the professor. "We want them to see that these things shape all facets of life, whether they are specifically religious or not, they can't escape from a community that has a moral and ethical system."

But what's ethical for one person might be unethical - or taboo -- for another.

"There are certain societies where it is considered perfectly ethical to eat the brains of a monkey whose head has just been cut off," explains Coudert.

Are the industrial farming practices Coudert and many of her students deplore a taboo of the future? If so, food won't be cheap. That's another ethical dilemma. Coudert knows the poor already can't afford a $20 organic chicken.

"Poverty's an incredible issue," she says.  "That's in the Old Testament, the Hebrew bible, and it's in the gospels. It's in every religion. Should the rich be able to eat all they want without giving any away to the poor? We could subsidize healthier food and not subsidize the crap that goes into the 99-cent hamburger."

It seems few topics are too provocative to be addressed by Professor Allison Coudert in her Ethical Eating course. This year's final lecture is on cannibalism.


Professor Allison Coudert requires the following books be read by all students enrolled in Ethical Eating, offered in the Department of Religious Studies at UC-Davis.


"The Omnivore's Dilemma," by Michael Pollan

"Being Good," Simon Blackburn

"Speciesism Today" by Peter Singer

"Tomorrow's Table: How Genetic Engineering and Organic Farming Can Both Help Make Agriculture More Sustainable," by Pam Ronald and Raoul Adamchak


"The McDonaldization of Taste" by Leon Rappaport

"Champagne slippers, the Twinkie Defense, and He-Man Diets," by Leon Rappaport

"Towards a Psychosociology of Contemporary Food Consumption," by Roland Barthes

"The Sweetness of Far: Health, Procreation, and Sociability in Rural Jamaica," by Elisa Soba

"The Abominations of Leviticus and Deciphering a Meal," by Mary Douglas

 "Why Animals Do Not Have Rights," by Carl Cohen

"Cannibalism in the Minds and Imaginations of Early Modern Europeans," by Allison Coudert

"A Modest Proposal," by Jonathan Swift
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