The ethics of fat

2009 June 16
by Stace

Three or four years ago, I checked out an audiobook from my local library which was a sort of detective novel. This is strange because I’m generally not into detective novels, but I had already listened to most of what actually interested me, and that left me with genres I normally avoid. I can’t remember the name of it now, unfortunately. I do recall that the detective was a woman who was also an avid member of a society of philosophers, and I think the author was the man who writes those charming “#1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” novels.

Large sections of the novel revolved around the protagonist’s internal debates regarding ethical questions posed by her fellow members, and by the situation of solving whatever mystery it was that she was pursuing (I have no memory of the mystery whatsoever).

My one specific memory of the book is her debate about whether or not, in a world where people are starving, it is moral to be fat. She concluded that it is unethical to overeat and be fat in a world where people are without food and are starving to death. She then proceeded to eat much less cake than had been her habit.

It’s silly, really, this sort of debate. But I clearly recall my first reaction to her decision was that I had been offended. I’m fat, and I overeat, yet I certainly do not consider myself unethical for it. It’s bad enough that being fat gets you labeled as ugly, lazy, disgusting, weak-willed, stupid, and a host of other insults. Now I’m unethical, too? Come now. Enough is enough.

I got over it within a few minutes, naturally, debated the issue within myself for a while, then went on with the book. The funny thing about it is that all these years later, the question of the morality of being fat still pops into my head occasionally. It probably recurred recently because of my reading of “Banker to the Poor,” and my being on the new diet.

As many times as I have argued the question with myself, I have yet to come to a conclusive judgment.

On the one hand, it does seem somewhat callous to spend so much of my money on more food than I need to survive, when so many people don’t even have the minimum amount of food to stay alive. Callousness is unethical, in my opinion. Therefore I am unethical for overeating and being fat.

However, my eating less food certainly does not mean that starving people will receive the food I did not buy. In fact, it is certain that they will not. So how does my eating less have any impact whatsoever on starving people? It seems to me that it must have an impact of some sort on the starving people, or otherwise what is the point? That I am simply not eating as much in order to disprove my callousness? Some sort of empathetic abstinence which would make me instantaneously moral? Nah, that sort of thing doesn’t serve much purpose, and I’m of the camp that morality should serve a solid purpose.

Therefore, limiting my eating is only useful if it has some impact on those my overeating supposedly harmed. In order for it to have an impact, I would have to save the money I did not spend on overeating, then buy food with that money to give to starving people. In this way, food that I would have eaten unnecessarily, will now be utilized by people who actually need it. The conclusion would then be that I had eradicated a bit of personal unethical behavior.

And yet …

I can’t remember when, but it was well over a decade ago, everyone got all up in arms because this incredibly rich man spent countless millions of dollars on a gigantic birthday bash. I can’t remember his name. I only remember that Elizabeth Taylor was one of his pals.

Anyway, many people in this country were outraged that he spent so much money in such a frivolous fashion when there were hordes of people in the world who didn’t have a roof over their heads or food to eat. They believed he was immoral for wasting such huge amounts of money.

I didn’t agree, at that time. It was his money to do with as he saw fit. He had no obligation to the poor unless he chose to have one. Period.

I could apply this same argument to the ethics of fat. It’s my money. If I wish, I can spend it on overeating, or I can spend it on iPods, or I can save it, or I can give it to the poor. How I spend my money is not a matter of morality. Some people don’t have a pair of pants, so does that mean I should only own one pair of pants until everyone in the world has a pair? Ridiculous. It’s my money. I earned it, so it’s only about me. I feel badly that some people are starving, so doesn’t that alone prove that I am not callous to their situation? Besides, charitable works do not necessarily prove morality. And we cannot all be Siddhartha Gautama.

So, using that as a guideline, being fat and overeating does not make one unethical, no more than having two pairs of pants or two televisions makes one unethical.

And yet …

I come back to the wealthy man who squandered a fortune entertaining other bored, rich people. The kind of thinking that led me to defend him way back when, is the kind of thinking that has led us to many of the problems we see today. The gap between the rich and non-rich is widening every day. Unrestrained greed has led to a monumental financial crisis that no one really knows when and if it will end.

I think the majority of people would agree that the movers and shakers behind this crisis were grossly unethical, for their lack of social conscience, if for nothing else.

And that brings me back full circle in the question of the ethics of being fat, which is really all part and parcel of the ethics of having while others have not.

I’m beginning to doubt I’ll ever find a resolution; I’ve always found it impossible to view the world in black/white terms. Still, it’s interesting to think about when it makes its occasional appearance in my thoughts. Pointless, I suppose, but interesting.

And anyway, I’m on this diet at present, which leaves me ethically home free … sort of. Maybe. Oh hell. Here I go again.

6 Responses
  1. 2009 June 16

    I think the issue is so much more complicated than how much the individual eats. For me, it’s not how much I eat, but what I eat that’s important. Does it use our natural resources efficiently? Most meat does not. Does it create waste in its production? Is it fresh and local (well, being Canadian, I get it local when I can). How much packaging does it use? Can I make it myself and make it better, cheaper, healthier? Can I grow it myself? I don’t travel for a living, I have the luxury of being home and having those choices available to me – and as far as the guilt goes…it’s just another way to discriminate against people who do not fit society’s narrow version of normal.

  2. 2009 June 16

    This brings up a philosophy that I have been trying to explain to my son – Enough. He asked me if I had three wishes, what would I wish for. And I said 1) that he would grow up to be a happy, healthy, successful human being, 2) that my family and myself be healthy, and 3) that I had enough money to pay off my debts, secure my own retirement, and maybe have a little left over for traveling. The last one puzzled him – why didn’t I just wish for billions of dollars? And I said, because I don’t NEED a billion dollars. I just need enough. He’s still working on that one.

  3. 2009 June 17

    What a great post! It is a dilemma, but in describing it you really show how empathetic you are and I love you for that.

    I think the thing that disturbs me most about the politically conservative is that they lack one iota of understanding that excess is not something to strive for, always, and that an acknowledgement of other people’s lack is the key to their own happiness.

  4. 2009 June 17

    Anna — All of those are certainly valid issues. As are, I think, the treatment of the animals we use for food, the destruction of natural habitat for the planting of crops, and the impact of herbicides and pesticides on wildife, to name just a few more. Loads of moral issues associated with food.

    Sayre — I think it’s hard for young people to understand “enough,” particularly young people who have always had plenty, and are unceasingly told by society that money and the things you buy with it are what is most important. You’ve got him thinking about it, though. Good for you.

    Decorina — That’s awfully nice of you to say. To the other, I haven’t known many wealthy people, but of that handful, they generally fall into two groups — one is the people who are rich and live like they are rich, and the second is the group who are just as rich but live as if they were not. From what I’ve seen, the first group is perpetually dissatisfied and unhappy, and the second group is confident and as happy as any average person is likely to be on any given day. You would think by now, everyone would know that money can’t buy you happiness. But … sigh … nope. Though that’s not to say that I couldn’t use more of it myself (money, that is). ;-)

  5. 2009 June 19

    I love this post. Very interesting.

    But, I don’t think it’s unethical to be fat. Because if that’s so, then it would also be unethical to be thin.

    Since many thin people are concerned about their health (presumably more than fat people) they do things that enhance it, like going to a fitness club (to do aerobics or spinning classes) to keep in shape; paying close attention to their appearance (going to a dermatologist for their skin or a spa for a facial, etc); or buying organic foods that are “better” and “healthier” for them since they are free of pesticides and chemicals.

    Are these people concerned that there are people in the world that don’t have a mine-free field to run in while they are running on their treadmills in an air-conditioned health club?

    Do they care that there are people in the world with skin diseases that can be eradicated or at least controlled with the proper medication while they are getting their $300 spa treatment which includes a kelp body wrap, sea salt scrub and aloe-cucumber facial mask?

    Do they care that people have to forage for food or eat maggot covered meat while they are having a dinner of free range chicken and organic baby spinach?

    I don’t think so.

    Because all these thing that “thin” people are enjoying their thinness by doing all of these things, which often cost money, are also “taking away” from those less fortunate.

    There may be people starving in other parts of the world when us fatties are enjoying abundance, but there are also people in other parts of the world that don’t get to have organic foods, skin treatments or clean beaches to parade around on either…

    So I guess it’s just unethical to HAVE….which is sort of your point, I think.

    And not that I think people who work hard and make their way up from nothing should be REQUIRED to give to those who don’t do anything to help themselves, but I do think everyone should help someone else in whatever way THEY are capable of doing…whether it’s by giving someone you see on a street corner a bite to eat or a five dollar bill or giving someone a million dollars because you have some extra.

    Oh, I have so much more to say on this subject….I just can’t hijack the comments section….

  6. 2009 June 20

    Selena, that’s an excellent argument there. And you are always free to hijack the comments section. :-)

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