In Defense of Mindless Eating


This paper offers a defense of the practice of mindless eating. Popular accounts of the practice suggest that it is non-autonomous and to blame for many of society’s food related problems, including the so-called obesity epidemic and the prevalence of diet related illnesses like diabetes. I use Maureen Sie’s “traffic participation” account of agency to argue that some mindless eating is autonomous, or more specifically, agential. Insofar as we value autonomous eating, then, it should be valued. I also argue that mindless eating can be substantively good: it can help us achieve valuable ends, like creating and maintaining community. Acknowledging the agency and value in mindless eating has both practical and ethical benefits. I contend that it can help us preserve the value in mindless eating while suggesting more effective ways to change it, and, by offering a new narrative about mindless eaters, may be less damaging to agency than popular narratives.

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  1. 1.

    Many authors have noted that this is the most, or one of the most, common ways of thinking about eating in contemporary mainstream Western culture (Saguy 2012; Kukla 2018; Coveney 2006; Crawford 1994; Brownell et al. 2010). It is deeply linked to what Susan Wendell calls the “control myth,” a stubborn belief that we can control our own health-status by controlling relevant behaviours (including eating) (Wendell 1996).

  2. 2.

    Mindful eating, which is not identical to intuitive eating but shares many of the same practices, promises to “interrupt” and “de-automatize” the processes that lead to mindless eating (Forman et al. 2016, 176–77) through the practice of “nonjudgmental awareness of internal and external cues influencing the desire to eat, food choice, quantity of consumption, and the manner in which food is consumed” (Fung et al. 2016, 1081).

  3. 3.

    See Szende’s work for discussion of some of the controversy over the phrase “food desert” (Szende 2018).

  4. 4.

    Note the ableism here.

  5. 5.

    This is a controversial account of reasons, and defending it is outside the scope of this paper. See Sie 2015 for her detailed discussion of the account.

  6. 6.

    This account of reasons allows for good or bad reasons vis-à-vis the relevant aim (Sie 2015, 230). There could be social expectations about traffic—say, that I merge in a particular way—that do not actually enable the smooth, efficient flow of traffic. Therefore, those expectations constitute bad reasons to act.

  7. 7.

    I read Sie as invoking a Strawsonian model of moral responsibility (Strawson 2008). We do, in practice, hold each other responsible for many of our unconsciously-led actions through our reactive attitudes. From a Strawsonian point of view, one of the reasons we would exempt people from responsibility for their actions and temper our reactive attitudes toward them is if their actions are out of their control or they cannot do differently in the future. In the case of the unconscious actions Sie is interested in, then, our ability to shift to conscious control, or “conduct” and redirect our unconscious actions is part of what makes it appropriate for us to be held responsible for them.

  8. 8.

    Politeness norms can also be a way of reinforcing problematic respectability politics or social hierarchies. Stohr (2018) suggests that when politeness is used in these ways, it is actually counter-productive given the moral aim of politeness, and so would count as acting for “bad reasons” on Sie’s account.

  9. 9.

    If mindless agency is as ubiquitous and valuable as Sie suggests, we may find some of the aforementioned strategies more attractive than others. For example, aiming to consciously, deliberately control all of our eating may be impossible and even undesirable on this account. Sie’s work also suggests a new strategy: we might take advantage of our ability to conduct and redirect our mindless actions in order to “mindlessly eat better”; like learning to leave more room between ourselves and other cars and check the rearview mirror more often after a fender-bender, we might retrain our mindless eating to be more in line with our goals.

  10. 10.

    For more on the relationship between narratives and agency, see Lindemann (Lindemann Nelson 2001a; 2001b) and Scully (2008), and on food narratives in particular, Beth Dixon (2018).

  11. 11.

    It is important to note that damage to agency does not necessarily take the form of diminished, undermined, or non-existent agency. It can also take the form of limits or roadblocks to particular ways of enacting one’s agency or being an agent, as work by scholars like Nabina Liebow (2016) and Alisa Bierria (2014) argues.

  12. 12.

    This is of particular concern for those who may be assumed to be frequent mindless eaters because of their appearance and presumed health status; namely, fat people. I use “fat” here in a neutral sense, in line with Fat Studies scholars.

  13. 13.

    Those already subject to narratives ascribing compromised agency may be particularly vulnerable to this sort of intervention, including fat people, adolescents, disabled people, low-income people, Black people in white supremacist contexts like the United States, and those at the intersections of these identities.

  14. 14.

    I have argued elsewhere for two further types of damage to agency that can be caused by understandings of eating and eaters: distorted action and blocked identities (Dean 2018). These two are less pertinent in the case of mindless eating and eaters than in the case of, say, “unhealthy eating” more broadly.

  15. 15.

    In a 2018 paper, Kate Nolfi suggests that we should subject mindless eating to moral evaluation. She argues that mindless eating is particularly reflective of our moral characters: “the segment of our moral characters on display in our morally unreflective and non-deliberative food- and diet-related actions and choices is a segment of our moral characters the quality of which is particularly significant with respect to evaluating an agent's moral worth qua moral agent” (Nolfi 2018, 692). While my argument is sympathetic to Nolfi’s in certain respects, I hesitate to endorse this claim. It is not clear to me that mindless eating is a good reflection of individual moral character, especially if the eaters in question have not had the opportunity to critically reflect on and effectively “redirect” that eating if desired. I worry that the potential value of mindless eating will be overlooked in these moral judgments, and that mindless eating too easily categorized as a sign of moral hypocrisy. I also worry that the criteria used to judge the morality of eating too often rely on problematic assumptions about health and weight rather than defensible ethical criteria related to the suffering of non-human animals, environmental degradation, workers rights, and so on.


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Thank you to Nabina Liebow, Trip Glazer, Keith Underkoffler, the 2016 Learning, Planning, Agency seminar at Georgetown University, as well as participants at meetings of the Canadian Society for Women in Philosophy, Feminist Epistemologies, Methodologies, Metaphysics, and Science Studies, and the 2019 Food Justice and Morality workshop for their comments on earlier versions of this paper. Thanks as well to two anonymous reviewers and the editors of this special issue for their helpful suggestions.

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Correspondence to Megan A. Dean.

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Dean, M.A. In Defense of Mindless Eating. Topoi (2020).

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  • Food ethics
  • Mindless eating
  • Agency
  • Dieting
  • Eating