Freshman Seminar: What's For Dinner?: Eating Well and Doing Good

What's For Dinner?: Eating Well and Doing Good

Autumn 2009

When and Where: 2nd-5th Mondays of the quarter (5 October, 12 October, 19 October, 26 October), 10:00 a.m. to 11:50 a.m., in Humanities and Social Sciences 8025. Note: no meeting 28 September.

Instructor: Jonathan Cohen ( (omit text in caps, which reduces automated spam))
office: (858) 534 6812

Office hours: Tuesdays 10-11:30, in H&SS 8072 (and by appointment; please feel free to call)


Our choices about what to eat have crucial implications for our stomachs, the welfare of animals, the natural environment, the arrangement of our society, our pleasure, and our health. So a lot is hanging on our decisions about what we eat. Moreover, these are not merely hypothetical ivory tower cases: every one of us typically makes these decisions (or has them made on our behalf) several times daily!

Should we, for example, become
vegetarians? Vegans? Freegans? What are the pros and cons of organic food? Should we be locavores? Is it ethically acceptable to eat fish? Or only some fish?

Unfortunately, these are not easy decisions. There are many factors to consider, and they often pull in different directions. Moreover, while there's an huge amount of information out there that purports to guide our decision-making about what to eat, much of it is unreliable, confusing, comes from transparently self-interested sources, or is otherwise suspect. Finally, the sheer avalanche of information is overwhelming.

In this freshman seminar we'll be asking how, in the face of these problems, a rational and ethically sensitive person should decide on what to eat. Issues to be discussed include the positive and negative effects of various of our food choices on (among other things):

We'll organize our discussion around Peter Singer's and Jim Mason's The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, Rodale, 2006. This book is available from the UCSD Bookstore, amazon, and lots of other places.

Course Expectations

Students will be expected to read the assigned chapters, come to discussion, and participate in discussion.

In addition, every student will be required to bring a written question (maximum 4 sentences) raised by the reading to every session after the first. These will form the basis of the class discussion, so it is essential that they be handed in every meeting.


All freshman seminars are graded P/NP. You must hand in written discussion questions at every meeting (after the first one) to receive a P in the course.

Tentative Schedule

Date Reading
5 OctoberIntroduction, planning; no reading
12 October Singer and Mason, intro and part I: Eating the Standard American Diet (introduction, ch 1-5)
19 October Singer and Mason, part II: The Conscientious Omnivores (ch 6-12)
26 October Singer and Mason, part III: The Vegans (ch 13-18)