April 26, 2015
This week’s blog has nothing to do with the ratio of calories to vitamins, minerals and the other weenie bits in our food that make it healthy (or not, as the case may be). Today I’m wrapping up an unusually long trajectory of musings on the connection between explaining the uptick in obesity and taking some ethical responsibility for doing something about it. We set this up with some desultory blogs on the broader moral significance of eating—hospitality, marking time, comfort food—that sort of thing. But then we dug in on dieting and weakness of the will. That was probably obvious to everyone except the philosophers. The trajectory really took off on March 29 when I brought up the idea that a fat person has only himself (or herself) to blame. Moral responsibility for obesity resides in the bad decisions that are made by individuals.
We’ve spent the entire month of April defending some alternatives to this. The most popular substitutes blame the food industry. Not only have these evil geniuses figured out how to use our propensity for eating more and more to get us to buy their stuff, they’ve crammed their stuff with increasingly less and less healthy ingredients. (Maybe the blog does have something to do with nutrient density, after all!) Along the way we made note of a third hypothesis: the medical model. We’ve gotten fat because of the interaction between these new concoctions of the food industry and our basic biology. We didn’t emphasize how the medical model warps the ethics, however. If it’s our basic biology that’s to blame, the moral responsibility for doing something about obesity resides with doctors. Let them figure it out.
Last week we noted that the food industry can’t really be blamed for what they have done because they are, after all, acting just like the profit-seeking, soulless corporations-existing-in-the-social-milieu-of-ruthless-capital-accumulation that they are. Again, we didn’t really emphasize how this left-leaning diagnosis warps the ethics of diet, but wasn’t it obvious? If we can’t blame the food industry for doing what any red-blooded American self-interested maximizer would do in a heartbeat, we have to blame the government. The problem has to be addressed through changes in public policy. Maybe deep changes in the structure of our social institutions. Moral responsibility becomes social and the primary agent to effect change is going to be whatever political regime happens to be running the show at the moment.
There are some other candidates we haven’t considered. To wit: let’s blame technology. It’s all those afternoons spent staring at screens and playing with robots instead of going outside to walk the dog, play a game of catch or plant pansies in the flower garden. If we would just jiggle our bods around some, we might not get so fat in the first place. And here again, the moral of the story changes: It’s not our social milieu that’s the problem, it’s our technological milieu. So instead of blaming the food industry, we blame Apple, Microsoft and Sony. I hope you are getting the picture that I could go on like this indefinitely, but when next week rolls around, it will be May already and I really need to think about something else for my own sanity, if not yours.
But I want to close with this thought: It seems pretty obvious that all these possible explanations are partial and mutually compatible. It’s not either or. It’s individual decision making and the actions of the food industry and some facts about our biology and our public policy and declining physical activity together that are causing the dangerous increase in obesity and the rise in heart disease, diabetes and other bad nasties. So why is it that when we shift the conversation toward ethics, toward who or what should be taking some responsibility for this situation, we suddenly become blame shifters? We assume that if individuals are even partly to blame, the food industry (or the video game industry) is totally off the hook? We think that if there is some kind of policy change needed, it’s a purely governmental responsibility and no one else in the whole mess has any reason to do anything at all?
Now that’s what I call nutritional density.
Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University