Epistemic exuberance at the dinner table

(This is the accepted manuscript of a recently published paper in Gastronomica: The Journal for Food Studies 22 (3), DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/gfc.2022.22.3.78 | Image credit: Rachel Park via Unsplash.)

In “The ‘worst dinner guest ever’: On ‘gut issues’ and epistemic injustice at the dinner table” (Dean, 2022), Dr Megan Dean raises a number of provocative questions regarding not only the epistemic status of claims that eaters make regarding what they should (or can) eat or not eat, but also, regarding the moral and social obligations we should be cognisant of when inviting others to join our dinner tables in cases where they make claims relating to sensitivity, intolerance, or allergic reactions to certain foods.

The author focuses on food sensitivities for the most part, describing them collectively as “gut issues”, and proceeds to argue that gut issues allow for instances of “testimonial injustice” (where claims regarding gut issues are trivialised thanks to the perceived group identity of those suffering gut issues), and also “testimonial smothering”, where those who are subject to testimonial injustice are silenced, or at least inhibited in expressing their food sensitivities, in anticipation of their dietary concerns not being taken seriously by their hosts.

I agree with Dean that we should understand “gut issues” as a category that includes, yet goes beyond, food allergies. There is a broad consensus on certain known harms to humans, and on how to mitigate them and manage their consequences. Life-threatening allergic reactions to the consumption of certain foodstuffs should be taken into account – certainly as a matter of legal obligation, but also as a matter of moral duty, in that if a person is under our care as a guest, it should be safe for them to assume that we do not intend to cause them harm.

However, if we leave aside binary examples such as the unambiguous harms that can result from severe allergic reactions on the one hand, and the mere amplification or possible exaggeration of dietary preferences (with no serious health consequences) on the other, we would quickly encounter disagreement on exactly how significant harms must be before they are taken into account, how they should be taken into account, and whose responsibility it is to cater for them at all.

Dean, however, collapses these categories, even as she takes pains to differentiate them at various points. The second category mentioned above (summarised as “gut issues”) is premised on subjective judgments of harm – whether relating to actual (subjectively judged as minor or major) discomfort that is often foreseeable, though sometimes not; the fear of such; and then, the trade-offs we routinely make, in the sense that it’s not unusual to know in advance that while you will enjoy what you are currently consuming, you will later pay a physiological price for having done consumed it.

The fundamental issue is one of agency. Just as one selects a restaurant, and then a meal, in a way that accords with your preferences, and also your health imperatives, the same applies to tables in the homes of family and friends. One would typically not continue frequenting a restaurant with no vegetarian options if you were a vegetarian, and similarly, you’d quickly learn to reject dinner invitations from people who try to feed you things you dislike, or even, that might cause you harm (or even, discomfort).

To escalate these truisms to justifying speaking of “epistemic injustice” and “testimonial smothering” sets a fairly high bar, and it is a bar that is not met in Dean’s contribution, as it is unclear that any of the (largely anecdotal) evidence offered isn’t perhaps instead explained by miscommunication, insensitive hosts, or hypersensitive guests who are not taking responsibility for their own choices regarding the character and competence of those who they allow to feed them.

There are of course numerous distinctions that can be made when dealing with this set of issues, and I readily concede that for the most part, I pass them over here in favour of making broader points. One distinction that is important to be clear on, though, is that my concerns relate more to the nebulous category of “gut issues” than to allergies, because it is with regard to the former that subjectivities are more apparent, both in terms of what one counts as harms, as well as with regard to the responsibility of others to assist you in avoiding these harms. By contrast, there is a broad range of food sensitivities that we are aware of in advance, involve minimal menu adaptation, and that we can take responsibility for managing our choices regarding where and what to eat.

Furthermore, even for “gut issues” rather than allergies, the analysis relating to the epistemological weight of an eater’s expressed preferences appears to be a hypothesis in need of more evidence than the accounts captured in the paper and its source material provide.

Survey results differ, but as examples, a YouGov survey recently concluded that vegetarians consist of only 2% of the British population (YouGov, 2022), while for the USA, they comprise at most 10% of the population (Berg, 2021), although 3-5% is more commonly reported. For gluten intolerance or coeliac disease, a 2018 meta-analysis pegged coeliac disease as affecting only 1.4% of the population Worldwide (0.5% in North America, 0.8% in Europe) (Singh, 2018).

Dietary peculiarities (in a purely statistical sense) might thus appear to be more widely distributed than they in fact are, thanks in part to confirmation bias, given that we typically have no need to report (and by extension, remember) the fact that our guests are happy (or at least, willing) to eat whatever we serve them.

One might then say that we perhaps know in advance that claims related to dietary preferences outside of the norm are likely to be overstated. Or rather, that they can perhaps refer to sensitivities that people report as “gut issues”, even in cases where the honestly-reported dietary reactions might be better explained by the diner having eaten foods that they enjoy, but that have negative (yet foreseeable, and thus avoidable) consequences, where the diner chose to defer their concerns regarding those consequences in favor of some other perceived benefit.

Argumentative prudence, in cases such as this, does not obviously merit ascribing to “epistemic injustice” something that seems more easily explained by “regretting your choices”, plus, perhaps, choosing better friends, who might be more attentive to feeding you things that you’ll possibly enjoy just as much, but without the negative consequences in terms of “gut issues”.

To put the same point more plainly: Many diners with dietary sensitivities could (arguably) expect to have at least one satisfactory option at any given restaurant, and would then simply choose to not go back to that restaurant if it could not accommodate their preferences.

The same should be true of social occasions, in that your hosts might simply be unsympathetic to your preferences, rather than doubting their existence; or treating you as an autonomous agent deciding for themselves which tables to join. For this to be regarded as “epistemic injustice” – rather than a case that simply exposes a context unsuited to a diner – would require establishing and justifying a right for preferences of these sorts to be taken seriously, and that case is not made in Dean’s piece.

To present unsympathetic, perhaps even rude, people as committing the violations Dean does could perhaps be read as a critique resulting from an epistemic exuberance or inflation, in that it’s not made clear that they have committed the violations in question; that these are significant violations at all; that affect a significant number of people; and where the people affected are not perhaps the beginning and the end of the story in most cases, given that those people have agency regarding where they eat, and that we all routinely make choices with known costs alongside their benefits.

Again, restricting the discussion to “gut issues” alone, and recognising that we do have agency with regard to where and with who we choose to eat, what would the obstacle (on Dean’s reasoning) be to treating being subjected to small-talk that you find tiresome to be a form of injustice? It is an assumed element of our social engagements that we make self-harming choices of varying levels of severity, and we have neither the skill, capacity, nor obligation to manage these choices for our dinner guests (again, besides the obligation to not poison them, as would be the case with allergies).

Epistemic humility on the part of dinner hosts is certainly desirable, as Dean notes in her concluding sections. However, the case for the things like epistemic injustice and testimonial smothering in the piece in question relies on anecdotal self-reported data which, when combined with the continued existence of dinner parties where we muddle through our trade-offs between physical discomfort and an evening of fun with friends, suggests that intellectual prudence would lead one to suspect that things are being needlessly overcomplicated.

In short, Dean’s paper defines what is arguably a non-problem; using subjective data in furtherance of a substantial epistemic conclusion; in a context were we already have background knowledge that people both overstate their dietary concerns; and also routinely and voluntarily eat and drink things that they know cause them discomfort, or at least, regret.

If Dean were simply arguing that we should choose better friends, then I’d agree, but that conversation would perhaps be too banal to merit featuring in these pages.


Berg, Jennifer, and Chris Jackson. 2021. “Nearly nine in ten Americans consume meat as part of their diet”. Accessed May 8,2022. https://www.ipsos.com/en-us/news-polls/nearly-nine-ten-americans-consume-meat-part-their-diet

Dean, Megan. 2022. “The ‘worst dinner guest ever’: On ‘gut issues’ and epistemic injustice at the dinner table. Gastronomica: The Journal for Food Studies 22 (3): 59-71

Singh, Prashant, Ananya Arora, Tor A. Strand, Ciaran P. Kelly, Vineet Ahuja, Govind K. Makharia, et al. 2018. “Global Prevalence of Celiac Disease: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis.” Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology 16 (6): 823-836. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cgh.2017.06.037

YouGov. 2022. “Dietary choices of Brits (e.g. vegeterian, flexitarian, meat-eater etc)?” Accessed May 8, 2022. https://yougov.co.uk/topics/lifestyle/trackers/dietery-choices-of-brits-eg-vegeterian-flexitarian-meat-eater-etc

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.