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Philosophy and consumer behavior: There is pleasure in sustainable food choices

News With the ancient Greek philosophers, we can reconcile pleasure and sustainable food choices. This is the central argument in a newly published paper in the International Journal of Food Design by Liselotte Hedegaard and Valérie Hémar-Nicolas.

Meat-filled BBQ’s, abundant buffets and lavish restaurant dinners. Things that many of us enjoy but are in contrast to the sustainable and healthy diets that authorities recommend us to follow.

Some would therefore say that if we are to eat sustainably, we must make do with less pleasure. In health and food policies, it is often assumed that pleasure is something we experience when we eat a lot and unhealthily. This shows in efforts to promote health, where the enjoyable is often described as something that should not be part of a healthy and sustainable diet.

But pleasurable and sustainable food choices do not have to be opposites. We can also find enjoyment in a meal, precisely because it is healthy and sustainable, says Liselotte Hedegaard, philosopher at Taste for Life and associate professor at UCL University College.

Based on the ethical writings of the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BCE), acting sustainably can be experienced as enjoyable. Pleasure can even be a tool for making good, sustainable choices.

We must be prudent

“Epicurean ethical writings contain instructions on how to live a good life and how pleasure is part of a good life. Here, pleasure is understood in an ethical context, not as excessive consumption. That doesn’t mean we have to write off the pleasure that lies in an extravagant meal. We must, according to Epicurus, let ourselves be guided by prudence. But it requires that we have the ability and willingness to choose in accordance with the overall ethical framework,” says Liselotte Hedegaard.

The ancient Greek meaning of the word prudence can be translated as "practical intellectual virtue" or “practical wisdom”. It is a term that both Epicurus and his contemporary Aristotle (384-322 BCE) used to describe the ability to act in in accordance with what is good – and for Epicurus also pleasurable. 

The arguments and concepts of Epicurus are presented by Liselotte Hedegaard and Valérie Hémar-Nicolas, associate professor of consumer behavior at the Université Paris-Saclay, in the recently published paper, Rethinking food well-being as reconciliation between pleasure and sustainability.

The paper is part of a special issue of the International Journal of Food Design, published in association with the Creative Tastebuds symposium. Here, the participants were asked how our sense of taste can guide us to new and better food choices.

Our inner motivation works better than prohibition

Epicurus describes how we experience pleasure by having and taking responsibility for other people, both present and future, and for our natural surroundings. Thus, we can find a direct connection between sustainable food choices and pleasure, says Liselotte Hedegaard:

“With Epicurus we are told that we do not achieve pleasure by constant and excessive pursuit of short-lived experiences of joy. We experience pleasure by making sensible and balanced choices. Pleasure thus contributes to sustainability to the extent that a balance is found that provides the most well-being and pleasure, also in the long term and for others.”

Liselotte Hedegaard and Valérie Hémar-Nicolas therefore argue that we should dismiss the idea that health campaigns have to be based on prohibitions and obligations. If we want responsible behaviour, it would be more fruitful to ask what personal traits of character can help us lead more sustainable lives.

"If pleasure is the driving force in consumers’ relationship to food, and it is governed by reason and self-discipline as Epicurus says, then inner motivation has a greater influence on our sustainable food choices than outer influences such as norms and prohibitions."

Mentioned in the article

Senior lecturer and researcher, PhD.

Liselotte Hedegaard is a member of Taste for Life’s management. She works as a senior lecturer and senior researcher at the UCL University College. She is the project manager of the work carried out by UCL in the context of Taste for Life.

Liselotte Hedegaard’s academic background is in Philosophy. Her research interests focus on sensory experience, primarily within the framework of phenomenological investigation. In the practice-related field she examines how sensory experience, in particular taste, might be integrated into a pedagogical and didactic framework.

Associate Professor

Valérie Hémar-Nicolas is associate professor of consumer behavior and management at Paris Sud University – Paris Saclay (France). She is a member of the RITM research center in economics and management.

Valérie Hémar-Nicolas is an expert in children's food consumption, focusing on food well-being, social interactions around eating practices and influences of food marketing.