At least in the western world, what we choose to consume is often thought to be a prime expression of our individual autonomy. Government attempts to regulate food are frequently thus decried as evidence of an objectionable ‘nanny state‘, that is, as standing in opposition to our autonomy.
But what exactly is food?
It is an objective fact that rocks are undigestible (and thus bad candidates for being food), however – as the recent scandal around horse meat shows – within the wide category of potentially nutritious stuff there is much cultural variation in what we actually do count as food. Rather than being merely a matter of individual choice, the question of what stuff is food appears to be a matter of what John Searle has called social fact. That is, it seems to be collectively up to us (as members of a social group) rather than up to me as an individual.
Social groups in this context may be defined by the boundaries of nation states but they may also be defined by the boundaries of economic status. For Searle social fact is a matter of collective intention and, from each individual’s perspective, something that is epistemically objective.
However, if we – as individuals – are not in the position to determine what counts as food what does this mean for our conception of ourselves as autonomous consumers? Examining the ontology of food will help us to understand general questions about the relation of autonomy to our social existence.