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.
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