Is Obesity Immoral?

In his recent column, Michael Medved raises the interesting question of whether America’s increasing rotundity implies, given the ethic that our political leaders should “look like us,” that more of them should be obese. Indeed, Medved suggests the amusing implication that in that case some 30 senators would have to be obese, and most of the rest would have to be visibly overweight.

But Medved also broaches the touchier issue of whether obesity is a mere harmless preference, and thus properly within any individual’s range of free choice, or whether it is an effect of immoral choices, and thus properly the object of moral condemnation. Some will argue that as state governments and the federal government assume responsibility for more of their citizens’ health care, bad health care choices on the part of citizens therefore become the business of the government; being obese would then be an imposition on the state as well as an imposition on one’s fellow citizens. Hence being eating cheeseburgers would be both unpatriotic and possibly criminal.

The easy and obvious way to deal with that problem is for the state to stop assuming responsibility for its citizens’ health care, to let people assume responsibility for it themselves and thus themselves bear the costs and enjoy the benefits of their choices as the case may be. But that ship has sailed. So I understand that that is coming–the “food police” are most certainly on their way, just as the “green police” are.

But the growing sense that obesity is immoral suggests the interesting phenomenon of what Steven Pinker has called “moralization.” The idea is that we have a range of moral sensibilities that can switch on and off, in a process of “moralization” and “amoralization,” so that what at one time was considered a matter of moral weight becomes considered a mere preference, and vice-versa. In his book The Blank Slate, Pinker gives several examples of behaviors that were once in America considered immoral but no longer are, including “divorce, illegitimacy, working motherhood, marijuana use, homosexuality, masturbation, sodomy, oral sex, atheism, and any practice of a non-Western culture” (p. 275). In contrast to those newly “amoralized” behaviors, we have also recently “moralized” a whole range of things that were once a matter of indifferent preference, including everything from disposable baby diapers to Barbie dolls to fur to IQ tests to spanking to . . . fast food (p. 276).

Pinker argues that whether these things affect others is not the issue; everything affects someone else somehow or other. Whether they have bad consequences is similarly irrelevant; many or most of them might. The question, rather, is whether they are best understood as moral issues, instead of matters of good or bad taste, of reasonable or unreasonable risk, of cost vs. benefit, and so on.

I think these examples show how surprisingly sensitive our moral sensibilities are to our local culture, and how changes in our peers’ assessments can so quickly and so deeply change our own assessments. This might, on the one hand, cause us to reconsider the origin of our moral sentiments. Perhaps instead of deductions from first principles or intuitions of the Divine will, many of them are the result of interactive negotiations with those around us about what we like or don’t like, giving rise, unintentionally, to a larger, emergent orders or patterns of moral sensibilities. (Maybe Adam Smith was right about that.)

In addition, however, I think this should also cause us to reconsider our rush to enact current sensibilities into laws and regulations. “Live and let live” is not just an attractively humble motto: It might also constitute a recognition that many of our own moral intuitions and sensibilities are far more subject to fashion and peer pressure than we might like to suppose, and that they may well change over time.

To return, then, to the issue of obesity, my recommendation would be to resist the urge to ‘moralize’ it. People’s dietary choices may be imprudent (for them), they may be costly (to them), and they may not be what you or I would choose. In a free society, however, we should allow people to make choices about things like that even when their choices are not what you or I would make.

7 thoughts on “Is Obesity Immoral?

  1. Jim, my sympathies are of course with your recommendation to resist “moralizing” obesity in this way. But that can’t be the right conclusion, because we should also keep in view that there is a significant moral problem with imposing unwanted externalities on others. So which description we choose of the condition in question determines whether or not to think of it morally. Obviously, the real problem lies in the policies which allow others to impose those externalities on others. But given those policies, it’s hard to see how to avoid the moralizing. Precisely the problem with the policies is that they have that effect.

    The Pinker strain is an interesting thread here, because it introduces a reflective element into a process which (I take it) Smith thought was largely unreflective. Suppose Pinker (and Smith) are right. Then we’re in position now to think in different ways than before about the implications of our choices and in some ways to think about how we want to cultivate our sentiments. That makes the need for good tools for doing so all the more important.

  2. “Live and let live”

    Ok that clears up the whole conservative slate:
    Drug war, abortion, gay marriage, racist violence,etc.

    Are you seriously comparing the liberal moralizing efforts on Barbie to conservative moralizing efforts on abortion? They friggin’ killed Tiller (and others!) They kill gays. They put pot dealers in overcrowded prisons.

    How about that damn Al Franken, trying to moralize against the previously neutral practice of corporation-sponsored rapes!


    Moralizing is the province of conservatives (motto: more god, less taxes). Liberals would GLADLY, in a heartbeat, remove moralizing as a reason behind formulating public policy. We actually use science, too. Maybe you’ve heard of it.

  3. Mark, perhaps you could elaborate on the “reflective element” you think Pinker’s position introduces. If you can articulate it, you might be moving toward an as-yet elusive explanation of cultural change.

    Highlyverbal, I’m not sure where the heat and condescension in your response comes from. I said nothing about “conservative” or “liberal” in my post. Your roster of complaints, which you apparently take to be objections to me, indicates that you don’t know my position. In any case, there is an awful lot of moralizing that goes on on both sides of the political spectrum, and, I might add, an awful lot of selective use of “science” as well. So I think the superiority you assume your own behalf and on that of your side is premature.

    1. Jim, what I’m thinking of here is the general phenomenon that what options are open to us change when we become conscious of having to choose. (I take it that’s what opens up the normative dimension of life generally.) Suppose I ask you if you have good reason to think it’s raining. You look outside, see the rain, and think you do. Then I say, “Are you confident that’s not just an effect of the rain-appearance drugs that the CIA has been tricking you into taking?” Probably you are, but my point would be that your reasons for thinking it’s raining after you have to set aside the CIA conspiracy plot are different than they are before you have to take it seriously (at least initially) as undercutting the warrant for your belief.

      Similarly, it’s one thing for us to make changes unreflectively in our moral natures and unreflectively shape our sensitivities as we are inclined, to do; another to do the same thing once we know that that’s what we are up to, as Pinker is reminding us. There are Aristotelian threads here that seem promising to me to think about, but I don’t have any sort of general theory about how it occurs, and I think it’s tricky. I think this is precisely where the Scottish Enlightenment (Hume and Smith both) go awry, and Hayek as well.

    2. “I said nothing about “conservative” or “liberal” in my post.”

      True, but the absence of these terms does not guarantee they become irrelevant.

      If you truly did not know that the Michelle Obama, the current first lady, had embraced an anti-obesity stance that was subsequently over-criticized as moralizing, I owe you a gigantic apology! My bad, I totally overreacted in that case. Also, no need to read any further in this post…

      … but assuming you knew about this, please understand that the moral tone to all these public statements is a form of Kabuki Theatre for the masses that is required in today’s political climate. So that leads naturally to the thought of how that climate was created… conservatives are drawn into things if they made major contributions to this climate! Mrs. Obama, et al, might be given a pass for the exact rhetoric she must employ in approaching the issue of obesity, especially if her current critics failed to ensure a hygienic rhetorical climate.

      For Obama’s first year, I was quite disappointed on his ability to offer anything fresh or transparent or hopeful in politics, despite his grand promises. Given the current climate of acrimony and obstructionism, I have started given him a pass. I expect any and all previous forms of Kabuki to continue to be upheld, from moralizing to Supreme Court nomination process, etc. Tilting against those windmills will have to come at a time of detente.

      The point is, OF COURSE neither of us wants public policy based on moralizing. However, why do YOU have to resort to such a moral, absolutist tone? (see last paragraph in your item) I much prefer to take a marketplace of ideas approach and just weigh the various ideas we are permitting and proscribing. To me, pot + masturbation + oral sex is pretty darn compelling; I’ll endure barbie and baby diaper* nazis any day. If there is any moral tone to this transition, it feels beneficial. If there is any way to quantitatively measure the amount of moralizing in the transition, it feels lower and less invasive. I find this transition to be worth celebrating. I don’t believe in some Platonic ideal of absolute non-moralizing in public policy (and I’d wager that Pinker doesn’t either); at the very least, it is not an option at any current decision point.

      So I feel there are 2 compelling reasons to break out moralizing into liberal/conservative… 1) to assess the exact level of blame to assign to a specific obesity Kabuki moralizer and 2) analyze if we are moving in the optimal direction with respect to Pinker’s behaviors.

      * One disclaimer: to tell the truth, I don’t exactly know what the baby diaper issue is (perhaps cloth is reusable?) so if the baby diaper nazis are demanding something like adults must always wear diapers I reserve the right to switch my opinion (because that would definitely cut into the upside of being permitted oral sex or masturbation)

  4. I agree with Nigel Ashford. Fat people are evil. The state should make them buy treadmills and spend hours on them.

  5. Obesity has a very strong genetic component, so even if one were a believer in social engineering (which I’m not) obesity cannot be legislated away.

    Very interesting post. I interpret the fluctuating moral sentiments in society as an argument for reason and principles, not against them. (As I argued before, I’m all for principles, I’m just skeptical of any intellectual framework leading to the right set of principles.)

    Pinker, an interesting guy, is of course an advocate of a naturalistic/evolutionary view of morality (and everything else, for that matter), which I reject.

    And while you get to write about the morality of obesity, I’ve spent many long hours today and the past several weeks researching obesity, since I’m writing a paper on obesity and hosting a conference in a few weeks on the topic. I’m exhausted and (unfortunately) still obese.

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