2012-02-17

Immoral To Be Fat?

I have already pointed out that it is illegal to be fat in some places, a trend that will continue to spread across the world as governments binge and bulge.

Meanwhile, a more existential question emerges: Is it immoral to be fat?

Fox News reports on a man who allegedly suffered a heart attack while eating unhealthy food at a restaurant called "Heart Attack Grill." The irony is so thick, you can dip your fries in it. Some of us will take this episode as a cautionary tale against the dangers of leading an unhealthy lifestyle. Others of us will laugh.

Some, however, will claim righteous moral indignation. The article states:
Officials for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine said Thursday they sent a letter to Basso asking him to "declare moral bankruptcy" and close the restaurant.
The organization's use of the phrase "moral bankruptcy" is certainly a witty rhetorical jibe, but I have to call into question their application of morality in this case. The question is whether a restaurant that serves unhealthy food is in some way morally responsible for its patrons' desire to eat that food.

There are fascinating questions at the root of this matter. First of all, are obese people "victims?" Second of all, is it their obesity that leads them to consume unhealthy cuisine, or is it the unhealthy food that makes them obese? Third, do we have a moral obligation to be thin? Fourth, do we have a moral obligation to promote healthy behavior exclusively?

In short, just what is the moral issue we're talking about? The PCRM's own press release on the topic yields a  clue:
“Bypass surgery is no joke to anyone who has lost a loved one to heart disease,” said Neal Barnard, M.D., PCRM’s president. “This latest emergency should be a wake-up call for the Heart Attack Grill. The restaurant should end its bizarre attempts to capitalize on obesity and clogged arteries and reopen with a new name and a new menu featuring heart-healthy vegan options.”
There are two potential moral issues, but one is hidden. The obvious one is the notion of "capitalizing on obesity." The clear indication here is that those who are obese are hapless victims with no control over their circumstances - or at least victims with shortcomings such that anyone who simply offers up unhealthy food is taking advantage of them. But of course, if that were true, wouldn't that make health nuts like myself the hapless victim of the healthy food profiteers? Does the PCRM have a problem with restaurants that seek to profit off those of us interested in salad?

The second - perhaps hidden - "moral" issue is given away by the suggestion that the owner reopen with a new menu "featuring hearth-healthy vegan options."

Now, please understand that I am not an idiot, so I will not pretend that there is any pro-veganism argument other than the supposed "ethical" arguments. These arguments are all well-documented, and it would be insulting to myself, to vegans, and to dialogue itself to ignore the fact that all veganism is so-called "ethical veganism." So let us not get wrapped up in silly notions about how there are "health reasons to be vegan, too."

My intent here is not to call veganism itself into question, but merely to ask why we consider obesity and the sale of unhealthy food to be unethical. Clearly the PCRM is a vegan organization despite their careful public relations strategy to uphold appearances as a public health watchdog.

Therefore, we must recognize that the "moral argument" against obesity in this case is nothing more than a moral argument against meat. When we accept the notion that obesity is immoral, we implicitly accept a vegan premise.

If you are yourself a vegan, then there is no problem. Naturally, however, not all of us choose to be vegans, and we are morally entitled to that choice. If we allow vegan premises to define our sense of morality, then we may as well simply accept veganism as the only truly ethical diet and end all discussion there.

But the fact of the matter is that most of us are not vegans - and we are in fact extremely healthy human beings. If we require more conclusive evidence than this, perhaps we can compare the ratio of vegan Olympic athletes to non-vegan Olympic athletes. Whatever you may believe about the healthiness of a vegan diet, you are never violating any sense of morality when you choose to eat animal products except the morality of a vegan.

My point is that the food choices we make should not be the major moral issues of our times. We live in a world ransacked by war, poverty, credit expansion, tyranny, and crime. Food, at least, should be uncontroversial. Attempts to inject morality into innocuous concepts such as food are offensive to the human experience.