Pleasure as a Right
“Pleasure is a human right because it is physiological; we cannot fail to feel pleasure when we eat.” Thus claims Carlo Petrini on page 50 of his Slow Food Nation (2007), while arguing for the importance of the hedonistic dimension of eating. Petrini’s position, which is exemplar of gastronomic hedonism, stands in direct opposition to gastronomic purism. Let’s see why that’s the case.
Hedonism has a bad reputation in most quarters and, with some reflection, it is even hard to understand why that is the case. After all, what is hedonism? It’s just the principle of conduct according to which the motivation for action is pleasure. Don’t you think that pleasure, rather than sheer duty, is often part of your reasons for undertaking an action? If you are hesitant on how you would answer this question, try and see if you don’t actually catch yourself in some hedonistic behavior.
Hedonism should not be confused with egoism, according to which the motivation for action is personal pleasure. While personal pleasure may motivate some actions, it need not be at the root of any action; or, at least, so one could think, although several Utilitarianists would have objected to it.
From hedonism we can define its gastronomic declination: gastronomic hedonism is the principle of conduct according to which the motivations for nourishment are the pleasures derived from eating. Sensory pleasures to the front of the line, although they may not be the sole kind of relevant pleasures (Epicurus had already taught about this long ago). As Petrini remarks, indeed, the pleasure we get from eating is first and foremost tied to our physiology.
We can devise also an egoistic variant of gastronomic hedonism, according to which the motivations for nourishment are the personal pleasures derived from eating.
The Challenge of Gastronomic Hedonism
Gastronomic hedonism is by all means the most widespread underlying philosophical attitude we take towards food. What motivates our eating is pleasure. Or, well, first and foremost there is hunger; but, hunger can be satisfied with a bent towards pleasure.
The fact that it is widespread, however, does not render gastronomic hedonism more ethically legitimate. Prejudice and error are most common too. Indeed, philosophers such as Plato have condemned gastronomic hedonism: if your goal is to gain insight into the most profound human affairs, you shall not rejoice in the pleasures for the senses; those cannot but be a distraction from more the highest form of truth.
As Descartes showed in the second of his Meditations on First Philosophy, we do come to understand what a piece of wax is not through the senses: those teach us that wax is cold, hard, and round; but then you place it next to the fire and, although the wax remains the same, it appears to the senses completely different – warm, soft, and flat. Only the intellect is capable of grasping that the wax can stay the same throughout change, and only the intellect is capable of grasping the infinite possible changes that a single piece of wax could undergo.
Food is no different under these respects: if you were to try and guess the calories of a food by its taste, you would be fooled all the times; if you were to use your senses to understand whether a food is poisonous, you would be long dead. There is no reliable knowledge that can be achieved through the sensual pleasures of food.
An yet, aren’t aesthetic experiences capable of converting us to better ethical standards or even to the quest for truth? In the movie Babette’s Feast, Babette uplifts the lost ethical standards of a small religious community by preparing a memorable dinner. In the same way that visual art or music have been seen as capable of redeeming the evil we find in the world, couldn’t food be the art of the twenty-first century?