Occasionally I end up with unhealthy food items like sweets, snacks and ice cream. As I am trying to live a healthy life, I avoid these foods in general. However, I also don't want to throw them away.

Our workplace has a pantry where snack items are made available communally to employees. We can add our own snack items to the collection and we can free consume those added by others.

I do not consume the snack items from the pantry as I consider them unhealthy. However, I added the snack items I ended up with to the collection. Others in the workplace are consuming them.

Is it unethical for me to add such items to the collection? Or is it perfectly OK when there are others wanting to consume such items?

On the same note, is donating unhealthy food snacks to charity unethical especially when you limit yourself to healthy food? Or is it OK if you're helping feed the hungry?

Please note that no poisonous food items are being added or donated. That would clearly be abhorrent and immoral thing to do. The term "unhealthy" as used here strictly refers to food that is safe to consume but can generally be harmful to long-term health.

  • Do you view the category "unhealthy foods" as separate and distinct from say "poisonous foods"?
    – virmaior
    Sep 5, 2014 at 7:45
  • Of course! Need you ask? I'm not actively trying to poison people. :)
    – ADTC
    Sep 5, 2014 at 8:00
  • 5
    Then there's no reason you can't donate "unhealthy food" or food that is unhealthy for you or in your judgment. All food is "healthy" under the right set of circumstances -- e.g. french fries ain't good for the obese but are helpful to those who are underweight. Macadamia nuts are good for some but would kill my wife. Unless you equate unhealthy with poisonous, there's no problem -- but also no philosophical question.
    – virmaior
    Sep 5, 2014 at 8:24
  • 1
    It is reasonable that personally you find it important to eat healthy. But other people may have other priorities like "tasty". That is a question of personal choices, and there is no "right" choice there. If someone decides to eat the unhealthy food you donated, then that may be due to the fact he likes it. Maybe he would reject healthy food because he doesn't like the taste.
    – Einer
    Sep 5, 2014 at 8:24
  • 1
    Yeah, lots of the Stack Exchange sites are a poor fit for Stack Exchange. Umm, so most adults choose healthy eating options some of the time, and unhealthy options some of the time. That's why food shops tend to stock both. How could it possibly be wrong to allow adults to make adult decisions about what they want to eat? (Yes, I know that I'm committing the Stack Exchange sin of including an answer in a comment). Sep 6, 2014 at 18:54

9 Answers 9


Underlying your question are some mistakes.

First, whether eating a particular food is healthy depends a lot on the context. If somebody spends a lot of time doing physically demanding activities, then it may be good for him to eat high calorie foods. The person may be doing manual labour on a building site, or training for a sporting event or something like that. And if a person has a low paying job and there is no fridge available it may be that the best food he can take with him is food you would regard as unhealthy. So you actually don't know whether you are helping or harming the person who takes the food out of the pantry with respect to his health. So from that perspective it is okay for you to put the food in the pantry.

Second, a person may choose to pursue values other than health and you should not presume that you know better than he does how to live his life. Even if the person is doing something extremely unhealthy like smoking, it doesn't follow that you could make his life better by forcing him not to smoke. The only thing you should use to get him to stop smoking is argument, e.g.- pointing out the health effects, pointing to better alternatives, proposing solutions to his problems. And you should give such arguments only if the person is interested and you should want him only to follow a course of action if he has no objections to it. To do otherwise is to expect him to act on ideas of which he has criticisms, which is irrational. One implication of this is that if you put food in a pantry, you should not presume to know that the person who took it shouldn't have taken it. So unless you're willing to spend a lot of time solving another person's problems it might be the case that the best you can do to help him is put your "unhealthy" food in the pantry.

A third problem is that you are implicitly not treating the person taking the food from the pantry as a moral agent. You are acting as if you are responsible for his choices. You're not. His problems are not your problems unless you choose to make them your problems. If putting the food in the pantry is a convenient way for you to get rid of the food, then you should do it. What other people do with that food is not your problem.

Another concern is that you say you "end up with" food items you don't want. You should look for ways to avoid getting stuff you don't want. If somebody is giving it to you, then perhaps you should say you don't want it. If you win it in a raffle you could leave the "prize" unclaimed (or don't enter the raffle).

  • You have good info, but you are not touching on the core question.
    – ADTC
    Sep 5, 2014 at 9:23
  • I have edited it to add more commentary specific to the question.
    – alanf
    Sep 5, 2014 at 9:41
  • This seems to miss the point that there is a big moral difference between "forcing him not to smoke" and "supplying him with free cigarettes". The question was more like "Should I give away unwanted cigarettes?", not "Should I force someone not to smoke?".
    – bain
    Sep 5, 2014 at 13:36
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    Giving someone cigarettes may be a highly moral thing to do if that will help them stop using meth. Craig Ferguson (the comedian) has a great monologue where he discusses a moment in his life where someone getting him to drink (he was a crashing alcoholic) kept him from killing himself. Sep 5, 2014 at 14:05
  • 1
    Probably no one in your workplace is trying to quit meth :). But also consider the less well-paid single mother who is able to take a candy bar home as a treat for her son because you put it there. Sep 5, 2014 at 14:07


To eat healthy or not is a personal, not a moral decision. It is not ethically wrong to eat unhealthy food. It's a choice you can make. Both decisions are just as good or as bad as the other one, or more precise: they are not in the realm of good and bad things, like dressing all in pink or listening exclusively to the music of Elvis Presley. Someone who likes to dress in pink is no better off if you offer him a blue shirt. Offering him yet another pink shirt would probably make him happy and it would make some room in your closet.


  • If there is enough food for all the needy without you contributing to it, you are just offering more pink shirts to chose from (to stick with this metaphor). No-one who does not want a pink shirt has to take one (there is enough food) you are just enhancing the variety.
  • If there is not enough food for everyone if you don't contribute to it, some people will go without a shirt. It doesn't matter if they prefer pink shirts or any other color: They will be without a shirt. They were better off, if you had offered your pink shirt.
  • If there is not enough food even with you contributing to it, even more people will go without a shirt. But thanks to you one more guy will have a shirt. Maybe he'd preferred a blue one, but pink is better than nothing.

In every possible scenario it is better if you part with your pink shirt - morally and fashionably.

  • "To eat healthy or not is a personal, not a moral decision." The question is not about eating healthy (which I agree is a personal decision). It's about making unhealthy food available to others when you want to dispose of such food.
    – ADTC
    Sep 5, 2014 at 10:03
  • @ADTC I am aware of that. I hope I addressed that question with the metaphor of making pink shirts available to others when you want to dispose of them.
    – Einer
    Sep 5, 2014 at 10:05
  • I suppose the Charity section does, but the Workplace section doesn't. Anyway, thanks.
    – ADTC
    Sep 5, 2014 at 10:06
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    I think starting off with the ethical correctness of "eating healthy" made it difficult to relate to your answer, since the question is not asking about it at all. But I get your point.
    – ADTC
    Sep 5, 2014 at 10:11
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    The "pink shirt" metaphor does not work, because wearing a pink shirt does not increase the probability of the person becoming physically ill, whereas eating unhealthily will significantly increase the risk of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attacks, stroke, etc.
    – bain
    Sep 5, 2014 at 13:42

I can't give you a clear cut answer to your question, but I'd like to point out a few of the considerations that pertains to it and show how you could argue for and against.

To begin, let's start by looking at responsibility in terms of unhealthy foods. Alanf in the currently top voted comment takes the individualist stance that your colleagues are responsible for their own actions and that you can't be blamed for their bad choices. This is a valid ethical stance, but from the other end of the spectrum you could equally well argue the opposite.

Imagine if you have a colleague who is trying to lose weight but struggling with dieting sitting next to the pantry, and you have 20 boxes of twinkies that you would like to get rid off. While Alanf would argue that you are within your right to deposit the twinkies in the pantry, somebody else would probably argue that you would put your colleague in a situation that would make it harder for them to make the right choice, and in this sense being responsible for the twinkies they eat.

It's worth considering if you find yourself somewhat obliged to help other people eat healthy or if you think of it strictly as a personal matter. Both stances can be valid depending on the reasons that inform your own choices. Say you are eating healthy because of a societal concern that obesity is costly to society in terms of medical expenditure. In this case your motivation for eating healthy are not tied to your own consumption, but for society as a whole, and it would be counter productive to provide other people with unhealthy food. On the other hand you might have found a diet that makes you feel healthy in which case your own choices have nothing to do with those of your colleagues.

What it boils down to, is a discussion between your responsibilities towards other people versus your respect for other people's individual choices.

As a society we try to outlaw crack cocain, and most here would probably agree that it would be unethical to put crack in the pantry for common use. At the same time you might be convinced that wearing blue on Tuesdays causes cancer but most people would be upset if you started telling them what color clothes to wear. At some point we collectively draw a line between what we can impose on others and what they have the right to decide for themselves. Putting unhealthy food in the pantry lies somewhere close to that line, but how we decide which side it lies on depends on our outlook on society.

A libertarian would probably move the line as far towards individual responsibility as possible and would be convinced that there was nothing ethically wrong with offering your coworkers unhealthy food. A socialist (in lack of a better term) would most likely argue that our interests as a society is likely to trump the free will of the individuals in it.

I hope this helps

  • I love what you wrote! Welcome to SE/Philosophy!
    – ADTC
    Sep 6, 2014 at 3:51

To restate the question: against your will you have received some food that will be enjoyed by others but you consider to be too unhealthy for you to eat. So what is the greater evil: to destroy the food or to offer it those who will consume it?

We assume that there is not such a glut of food in the pantry that food is thrown away anyway.

This hinges on just how dangerous the food is to the consumer. To a starving person the food will be beneficial. To a person who eats a balanced, moderate diet then an occasional snack will be enjoyed and probably cause minimal harm. To a person who is eating themselves to death on fatty, salty, high-calorie food then the snack is dangerous to them, even if they will accept it gratefully.

On balance, into which of these categories do your colleagues fall? That is the judgement for you to make.


Do you believe your coworkers are unable to control themselves around unhealthy food?

If so, then it is unethical to tempt them into harming themselves.

It's only a problem if your coworkers lack agency and authority over their own bodies and actions. If they are neither addicted nor incompetent, then your question is moot.

  • Welcome to philosophy.se! I happen to agree with you completely! Nonetheless: Could you add some reasoning why free choice is the key factor here (as I think it is)? Philosophy.se has a hard time dealing with the SE criterion to deliver the right answer. But it surely is easier to build up reputation if you deliver a well argued one...
    – Einer
    Sep 5, 2014 at 18:04

No it is NOT unethical.

Reasoning: You can come to your own conclusion if you answer the questions below:

  1. Is what you are giving away, available to others by ethical and legal means through some other source(like a store)?
  2. Are you not consuming them because of a personal choice rather than real danger of the substance (if it were then you wouldnt be able to procure them legally in the first place)?
  3. Are you forcing others to consume them by donating those items ?
  4. Are you imposing your choices on others when others are capable of making their own choices?
  5. Would you be wasting a resource by not donating when someone could benefit from it?

A word: Larger problem is imposing your preferences on others rather than allowing others to choose when they are capable of making those choices. If you are still feeling guilty, you can inform the consumer that eating the items could potentially cause harmful effects (Of course, I would sue you for that if I was manufacturing those products :) )


I'd want to think about the question in terms of economics.

If the pantry is regularly re-stocked (e.g. at the start of each week by your office manager) then it's unlikely that by not contributing to it you will reduce the overall quantity of 'unhealthy' snacks; if you didn't fill it up it would be replenished anyway. The easy availability of unhealthy food - and any ill effect that may have on your colleagues - would be largely independent of your actions in saving or binning the snacks you get but don't want.

If this is bugging you, why not encourage the office to contribute only healthy stuff to the pantry?

  • Any philosophical reason for thinking about the question in terms of economics?
    – virmaior
    Sep 5, 2014 at 14:19

It is not unethical to make available to others food that you don't want to consume, regardless of the reason for making it available. The reason for this is that the other person(s) has the choice to consume it, or not.


Feeling bad about throwing away unhealthy food is the anomaly to explain in this situation. You should have no qualms about dropping a dozen freshly baked doughnuts into the trash even though the baker worked hard to make them just right.

You should not feel remorse by taking a 2 liter bottle of coke, pristine and new, hot off the line and tossing it into the garbage. Garbage belongs in the garbage, the phenomenon where you feel bad about insulting the cook who worked hard to make it is an error.

Passing along the bad food to other unsuspecting parties is taking the evil and sending it along to harm someone else. The ethical thing to do is to not push this evil on the next guy, and to stop the propagation of evil.

Tossing garbage into the garbage is what smart people do. The smart person does not feel terrible about offending the party who made the garbage. The anomaly to explain is the manipulation by the people trying to get you addicted to addictive and unhealthy foods for personal gain. The focus should be on how the drug dealers feel when the addicted refuse to play the drug dealing cycle game.

Refusing to smoke cigarettes offends the person who offered you cigarettes. Even if the person offering cigarettes does so with pure and well-meaning intentions, then "looking the gift horse in the mouth" and offending them is ethical. It corrects a defective unit propagating evil.

  • 1
    You seem confused about what "bad food" means in your 3rd paragraph. It's also preposterous to see relatively unhealthy food items as parallel to drug dealing. All food is built on calories and other things we need. What makes food "bad" is when it is unbalanced compared to our needs.
    – virmaior
    Sep 5, 2014 at 14:21
  • The mistake you're making is treating consumables as distinct categories instead of as a gradient with a property 'howaddictive'. There are no such thing as things. Food and drugs are things consumed by humans with an addictive property. Objects go in, and they cause the critter to eat more of it which causes suffering and death later. Just because some foods are lower on the addictiveness scale doesn't immunize it against the morality of whether or not to give it to others. Your irrational opinion of 'food' as distinctly separate from 'drugs' was bought at a heavy price by advertisers. Sep 5, 2014 at 15:24

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