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.