Obesity

In my recent post where I show how Suzanne Franks wants to find sexism where it doesn’t exist, I skipped one important point because I didn’t want to derail the specific topic at hand. The truth is that my concern over her post stems in part from a disdain for active obesity. But that term needs explaining because it just begs to be misinterpreted.

By “active” I mean obesity which is still receiving contributions, if you will. People who are obese and do nothing about it are immoral. Here’s the way I get to that conclusion.

If it is agreed that one ought to treat humans with respect and a certain level of care, then that principle should be extended to one’s self (henceforth referred to as “the self”). No convincing reason exists for why the self should be excluded from generalizations of how one ought to treat humans. Afterall, a human is a human is a human.

This then means that if overeating can be considered a mistreatment of a human being (and I think it can), active obesity is thus immoral. But just to be sure there are no misunderstandings, this is not to say that merely being overweight or obese is inherently immoral. Plenty of such unhealthy people do things to improve their health. No one expects them to be perfect at it; it’s a struggle. But the fact that they have put forth a reasonable effort brings them into morality.

Now, there are a huge number of caveats to this and I won’t be able to address them all. Are obese kids immoral? On the whole, no, because blame can generally be placed upon the parents (not to mention the inherent short-sightedness of being a child). Those with disorders or disabilities? Presuming a reasonable effort is being put forth (which may be well less than what an average person can do), then of course not. Should one expect a perfect exercise and diet regiment in order to call a person moral? Here I would appeal to a utilitarian perspective where it is necessary to maximize pleasure. Whereas overeating inherently undermines pleasure for most (because it increases the likelihood of death, not to mention all the other displeasing things that come with obesity), living an anal retentive life of absolute health will probably also not make one very happy. I don’t think an exact point of balance can be drawn for anyone, but it is possible to find a reasonable balance of a healthy lifestyle and still having fun. And the caveats go on and on.

So when I see that picture on CNN (see my post on Franks), I see a somewhat justified objectification. Active obesity is a bad thing and should not be respected. Now, there’s no way to know if the obese people in the image are trying to correct their behavior or not (hence the phrase “somewhat justified”), but it is obvious that most overweight and obese people do not put forth an honest effort. (In fact, even thin people don’t put forth much of an effort.) We should roundly denounce that and actively tell them to take care of their bodies. And, again because misinterpretation is begging to happen here, that doesn’t mean we ought to mock and belittle the overweight and obese. Personally, I favor doing what I can to help. In my own life, I will often discourage others from eating crappy food (provided they do it as a routine, not a rare treat). I don’t go too far, however, because I am careful not to tread on their personal choices. Unlike the bigots who have so often made marriage a privilege for heterosexuals, I do not believe my ideas of morality should be imposed upon others.

Finally on an aside, all this philosophy originally comes from a consideration of why suicide might be wrong. I always had a fascination with the laws many places have which make suicide illegal, so that naturally raised the question of why it ought to be illegal. Ultimately, I concluded it was equivalent to homicide based upon the principle embodied in “a human is a human is a human”.

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7 Responses

  1. You have a serious amount of exceptions and caveats to your argument, making it hard to address holistically. I disagree with you, and I’ll try to frame my disagreement on what I believe to be the whole of your argument.

    The claim you’re making is that active obesity is immoral. To make this point, you make some distinctions as to what active obesity is and isn’t. One example you note is kids. Kids are short-sighted, influenced by the dietary habits of their parents, etc. Therefore, obese kids are not to blame. But the literature overwhelmingly shows that obese kids become obese adults. You pointed out that it’s hard to lose weight. You’re right: less than 5% of successful dieters manage to keep their weight off for more than 5 years. So if you can’t blame kids who become obese, and these kids become obese adults who can’t help their situation despite their best interests, who can you label immoral?

    Ultimately, the force of your argument falls on a very small population of individuals who are obese, plan to stay obese, and actively make the wrong choice.

    However, no one has a perfect attitude toward health. Despite losing 70 pounds myself, I sometimes make unhealthy choices. You can consider that being actively obese.

    If you carry the impact of your argument toward its logical extreme, everyone is immoral. Even if I interpret in your favor, the impact of your conclusion is impossibly small.

    Let me know if I got something wrong.

  2. I’m not trying to blame the kids once they hit some degree of maturity because they’re fat. That would be fundamentally unfair. The blame is laid upon them when they have the presence of mind to act against their obesity but refuse, even exacerbating it without any concern. This could also apply to thinner young adults.

    Isn’t this fair? Presuming one can agree that individuals should care for themselves, then can’t blame be assigned for not participating in this care at some point?

    Ultimately, the force of your argument falls on a very small population of individuals who are obese, plan to stay obese, and actively make the wrong choice.

    In the United States this population is growing (no pun intended – and actually it looks like U.S. obesity is starting to plateau). Of course there are people who want to become healthy. And then there are people who even put forth some effort, but ultimately stop caring. It’s easy to do, I know. I dread exercising most nights and I’m not perfect. But I do put forth a pretty strong overall – and continual – effort.

    However, no one has a perfect attitude toward health. Despite losing 70 pounds myself, I sometimes make unhealthy choices. You can consider that being actively obese.

    Like I said above (and in the main post), I know no one is going to be perfect about it. Lapses will happen. People do what they know they shouldn’t. But a good effort can always be made over a long period of time.

    And congratulations on the weight loss. How did you do it?

    If you carry the impact of your argument toward its logical extreme, everyone is immoral. Even if I interpret in your favor, the impact of your conclusion is impossibly small.

    It’s true that this argument has to ultimately come down to each action of dis-health being immoral. That’s why I coupled it with a utilitarian perspective. I think it was Mark Twain (though I may be wrong) who said a man who has never had a drink or a smoke or gone gambling in his life has not really lived. Some of those ‘bad’ things are really good. But in moderation.

  3. We can make a thin person obese… overeating won’t do it. It might put a little padding on their bones, but their body will adjust. A similar proportion of thin people already overeat as obese people, and they don’t necessarily exercise more, either.

    No, to make a thin person become obese the trick is to put them on a diet and make them exercise in an attempt to lose weight. In five years they will weigh more than they did, because their body neither knows nor cares what its owner’s intentions are, all it knows is that it’s gone through a prolonged period of deprivation, of using more resources than it’s taken in. It reacts the way bodies tend to react under these circumstances, in the manner that untold generations of natural selection have favored: it clamps down. It holds onto every morsel of energy it takes in and spends it out only grudgingly.

    Do this often enough and voila, one obese person.

    On the other hand, nobody has yet found a reliable way to make an obese person thin. We can starve and exercise a body to the point of thin for a short while… and then the body exists. The weight loss industries have built their image on this brief period (which might be months and might be a few years) before the bungee snap pulls one back. No method of weight loss has ever managed to achieve much better than a 95% failure rate after five years. The individuals who succeeded are held up as proof that “anyone can lose weight who wants to” even though study after study affirms that losing weight is temporary and the body will adjust and rebound to an even higher weight.

    So given that being “actively obese” is a moral failing, what’s a body to do? You have created for us a category of secular original sin, one into which we are born and one from which we cannot hope to escape.

  4. Oops, I should have proofread. That part that says “and then the body exists” should say “and then the body resists”.

  5. Good. Substance.

    Again, obesity is not the moral failing. And I have already noted that thinner people are also guilty of being weak in regard to their health. So it isn’t that I’m saying it is immoral to not appear healthy, but rather that it is immoral to not try and be healthy. How one goes about that and whether any success is procured is a massively complex and interesting topic worth the time, but it is besides my point on morality.

  6. […] note, PZ. This is your fate if you don’t get your act together. Advertisement GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Origin", "other"); […]

  7. […] fatness and obesity. I don’t think it’s wrong to be either one of those, but I do think there is a moral argument that underpins the necessity to attempt to avoid being those things. You get one life. I think […]

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