Balphin Symposium: The Philosophy of Food, Helsinki, 2-4 May 2018


The philosophy of food is a relatively new and fast-growing area of reflection and discussion for professional philosophers. While questions surrounding in particular the ethics of eating or drinking have not gone unnoticed in the philosophical tradition, it is only in the last 20 years that the world of food as a whole has been thematized as a serious and worthy topic for philosophical analysis. In part, this is the continuation of a ‘practical turn’ in philosophy, started about 40 years ago with debates in bioethics. But it is also the result of social changes and widespread calls in favour of a more ethically responsible approach to consumption (of food and other goods), promoted for example by the vegetarian and vegan movements, whose philosophical inspirers have been influential thinkers like Peter Singer and Tom Regan. However, study curricula have not typically kept track of such developments, and rarely if ever is the philosophy of food made the single focus of any course.

The course aims to provide a unique opportunity to offer students a systematic study of philosophical questions regarding food. It will involve some of the best researchers from both philosophy and related sciences. It will cover a variety of topics: ethical ones, such as the significance of concepts like naturalness and authenticity, the ethical reasons for choosing a vegetarian, vegan, or carnivore diet, and the social consequences of individual consumer choices; psychological ones, such as the nature of the food appetite and the issue of food addiction; and epistemological ones, such as the problem of how we acquire knowledge on the effects of nutrition and of what constitutes good evidence for making population-level dietary recommendations.

Upon completing the course, students (1) will have a reliable and systematic overview of the main questions in the philosophy of food; (2) will be able to assess and appreciate the joint contribution of philosophy and related disciplines to the topics above, thus having a first-hand and successful example of interdisciplinary work; (3) will be in a position to express their views (and to challenge others’ views) on often hotly debated issues in a rigorous and well-argued way; (4) will be able to engage in seminar discussions with peers, gain some experience in conducting empirical research (including presenting results), and practice essay writing.

The course is well integrated with the partner institutions’ curricula. First, in their MA studies students will have gained enough familiarity with ethical theories to understand and discuss the ethical questions touched in the course. Second, philosophy of food integrates well with our MA curricula, which mostly have a focus on ethical and political topics. Third, for those MA curricula with an interdisciplinary tendency, this course will be a natural addition; for those with a single focus on philosophy, this course will provide a refreshing change of perspective.

The course is innovative in two main ways. First, its subject-matter: philosophy of food is rarely even mentioned in the usual curricula. So this is an excellent opportunity for students to delve into a topic of immediate interest and relevance. Second, as regards both topics and lecturers’ expertise, the course has a multidisciplinary profile often promised but seldom delivered in ordinary courses. Also, the chosen location is home to one of the most brilliant interdisciplinary centres in philosophy (TINT center for the Philosophy of the Social Sciences), to which some of the lecturers belong, thus making the University of Helsinki the ideal venue for the course.

It will be a three-day intensive course. Each day will include lectures and groupwork. Groupwork will include discussion of relevant texts, personal reflection on one’s food history, and empirical “fieldwork” such as research on labels and slogans in food outlets (supermarkets, restaurants etc.), and interviews on people’s eating habits. Required readings will include both philosophical texts and relevant support texts in the social sciences. A selection of documentaries on food production, consumption, etc. may also be screened. Required readings will be discussed during lectures, will form the background to groupwork, and will be briefly analyzed in “journal entries” by students. If needed, students will be split into smaller groups to ensure contribution from all. 


Assessment is based on (1) active participation in groupwork, (2) five reading journal entries (where the student briefly analyzes the main readings), (3) a written essay, to be submitted no later than one month after the final day of the course. The topic of the essay will be discussed and decided with teachers during the course. Depending on class size, lecturers may also choose alternative forms of assessment, such as small group presentations.

After successful completion of the course, students will be awarded 5 ECTS to be recognized at the student’s home institution.


  1. Day. Lecture: Pure, natural, and authentic? Food choices and values (Helena Siipi, Turku) – Groupwork – Lecture: What to eat? (Johanna Mäkelä, Helsinki)
  2. Day. Lecture: Food and addiction (Susanne Uusitalo, Turku and Helsinki) – Groupwork – Lecture: Ethics and epistemology of dietary policy making (Saana Jukola, Bielefeld)
  3. Day. Lecture: The ethics and rationality of dietary choice: does it matter? (Teemu Toppinen and Michiru Nagatsu, Helsinki) – Groupwork – Concluding session; discussion of final assignment


The course convenor is Michiru Nagatsu, a researcher at TINT who works at the intersection of philosophy, ethics, and policy-making. Teemu Toppinen is an expert in moral philosophy at Helsinki University. Helena Siipi runs a project on the Health Values of Food at the Turku Institute of Advanced Studies. Johanna Mäkelä is Professor of Food Culture in Helsinki and a well-established expert in her field. Saana Jukola is a researcher at the Research Training Group Integrating Ethics and Epistemology of Scientific Research at Bielefeld University, and at TINT. Susanne Uusitalo has published extensively on the ethics and philosophy of addiction. Francesco Orsi (University of Tartu) will provide teaching support such as assistance in seminar leading and student assessment, as well as coordinating the various parts of the course together with Nagatsu.

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