Fat Shaming and Free Will
How to think about the concept of “choice”
I’ve noticed that most intelligent people I talk to, even non-leftists and non-wokes, tend to have an aversion towards shaming fat people. Here’s a debate I had on Twitter with Megan McArdle, which was set off by me quoting an article in the NYT on the latest in obesity research. I took issue with this particular passage:
That’s not to say the researchers disagreed on everything. The three-day meeting was infused with an implicit understanding of what obesity is not: a personal failing. No presenter argued that humans collectively lost willpower around the 1980s, when obesity rates took off, first in high-income countries, then in much of the rest of the world. Not a single scientist said our genes changed in that short time. Laziness, gluttony and sloth were not referred to as obesity’s helpers. In stark contrast to a prevailing societal view of obesity, which assumes people have full control over their body size, they didn’t blame individuals for their condition, the same way we don’t blame people suffering from the effects of undernutrition, like stunting and wasting.
This paragraph reflects what I call the blameless fatso theory. Being overweight is not a choice. It is therefore cruel to blame fat people for their predicament, just as it would be to attack someone for being the wrong height or race.
Yet two seconds of thought about the arguments presented for the blameless fatso theory above would show that they prove too much. For example, people point to studies showing that genes predict BMI. In the NYT story above, they present the fact that obesity has increased in recent years to say it is not a normal human failing.
Yet one can say the same about crime. Biological children of criminals are more likely to be criminals themselves, and the murder rate fluctuates over time. We could even follow the blameless fatso theorists and find specific genes and biochemical pathways that make some individuals more prone towards violence than others. Does that mean we are forced to say that crime is not a choice? Some might take that step, but few people do. Obviously, the argument that the NYT makes for the blameless fatso theory wouldn’t be considered plausible in other areas of life.
A Definition of “Choice”
Before continuing, it’s necessary to take a step back and ask the broader philosophical question of what it means to say something is a “choice” in the first place. I’m willing to go all the way and reject free will, accepting that you are a combination of your genes and your environment, and you didn’t “choose” either one, whatever that means. But then you have to accept this view for everything. You can’t say that murder, rape, going to the opera, and racism are choices, but absolve the overweight of any responsibility for their situation.
To advance the argument made here, I would propose the following definition.
Choice: A human behavior or condition that responds to incentives.
I think this clarifies what this entire discussion is about, and accords with how most people think about the issue.
Thus, the following things are certainly not choices:
Height (setting aside new surgical techniques)
Your race (setting aside Rachel Dolezal)
Your sex (setting aside…you know what I’m going to say)
What country you were born in
Other things are certainly choices, under anyone’s definition:
Whether to go for a walk
What TV show to watch tonight
Whether to continue reading this essay
If someone put a gun to your head, and told you to do something differently, they wouldn’t be able to influence Category 1 (non-choices), but would be able to influence Category 2 (choices) with certainty.
And then of course, many things are somewhere in between those two extremes. For example, how much money you earn is a combination of things that are clearly choices, like whether you decide to work extra hours, and things that are not, like your IQ and what country you were born in. Physical attractiveness also exists in this middle category. People have a certain bone structure, hair texture, etc., but can decide on things like how much to work out and what kinds of clothes to wear.
Not only is this how most people think about the issue of choice, but I would also argue that the definition above is highly adaptive, for individuals and society. There’s no point in shaming or punishing people for things they can’t control. However, we hold individuals responsible for things that they could have done differently given the right incentives, in the process shaping the incentives they face.
The debate over fat shaming argues that fatness is more like your race or your sex than which TV show you watch. This is absurd. How much you weigh is the result of how many calories you take in and how many you burn. Whether to go to the gym and what to eat are choices. Yes, some people have a slower metabolism, poor self-control, or whatever. Just like how a man born with an unusually high sex drive might be more likely to be a rapist. But I see no evidence that fat people can’t respond to incentives.
I grew up overweight, and responding to the dominant culture I at first blamed my parents and my metabolism. As a teen, at some point, I decided to start making a spreadsheet and counting my calories. Shockingly, there was a very strong correlation between how much I ate and how much I weighed, and I soon got in shape. Over the course of my adult life, my weight has fluctuated in ways that are easily explainable by life circumstances. When I started my PhD studies at UCLA, I got thin as people tend to do when placed in new environments where they need to form new relationships. As I got comfortable in my routine and where I was socially, I put on weight. I was then fat for a while, eventually becoming skinny again after I saw how bloated I looked on TV. This all feels very much like a choice to me, as much as anything else in my life does. Right now, I’m choosing to broadcast to the world that I think being fat is a choice and fat people are blameworthy, which shapes my incentive structure by being certain to cause me great embarrassment if I’m ever tempted to start eating carbs again.
Contrary to what the NYT claims, the fact that obesity rates differ so much, across time and across countries, is an argument for fatness being a choice, rather than the opposite. Something about the incentive structure we have created makes modern Americans fatter than other people. Things that truly aren’t choices, like the sex ratio in the population, are stable over time and place. Things that are clearly choices, like fashion trends and norms regarding interpersonal behavior, are what tend to vary.
This is why behavioral genetics studies, which I’m usually a big fan of, are a red herring in this case. Yes, you can show that identical twins are more likely to be of similar weight than fraternal twins. All this proves is that people with similar genetics respond similarly to the given incentive structure of their time and place. It tells us nothing about whether we can change that incentive structure, and thus change behavior.
To see what’s wrong with the logic of using behavioral genetics to argue fatness is not a choice, consider that in early twentieth century China, an estimated one quarter of the male population was hooked on opium. If they had twin studies at the time, they would have almost surely found that there was a strong biological component determining who got addicted and who didn’t. It would have been fallacious to then jump to the conclusion that you shouldn’t create incentives not to use opium because it’s not under people’s control. Mao came along and eliminated opium use, clearly demonstrating that there can be societal payoffs to treating individuals more harshly for the poor decisions that they make.
The Role of Shaming
If your weight is the product of how much you eat and exercise, and these behaviors respond to incentives, then shaming has a role to play in nudging people towards better choices.
As mentioned above, the arguments against fat shaming strike me as odd because you could make the exact same arguments about crime, but almost no one says we should stop “shaming” rapists and murderers. Why exactly is this?
I think what’s going on here is that people at some level understand that shaming works, but don’t want to advocate for it because it makes them seem like they lack compassion, unless the behavior they are shaming is seen as morally outrageous enough.
For example, liberals are much more likely to support shaming racists, sexists, or homophobes than drug addicts. This is because, despite what they say, most committed leftists have a stronger emotional reaction to certain kinds of bigotry than just about anything else. People will similarly accept that some people are born gay, but there is extreme hostility to the idea that certain individuals might naturally be pedophiles. This isn’t based on scientific reasoning, but rather the fact that most educated people have come to find homosexuality morally acceptable while believing that sex with children should be a crime. We’re afraid that if we admit there might be a predisposition toward pedophilia, we would be taking the first step towards excusing it. I think that is correct, but that we should apply the same logic to obesity, drug abuse, and other kinds of harmful behavior.
Most feel sorry for fat people. It’s clear that they are the main victims of their poor choices. Meanwhile, criminals — and, in the minds of liberals, “racists” — hurt other people. Thus, it feels right to cut fat people some slack.
But this is false compassion. Treating obesity as if it’s morally acceptable gives us more of it. Of course, most social science is garbage that justifies what academics want to believe anyway, so predictably “research” exists that says the opposite. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to figure out what’s wrong with the arguments made here. Your priors should be that shaming works because it’s unpleasant, and humans respond to incentives. If you think that’s untrue in a particular case, that falls into the category of the kind of extraordinary claim that requires extraordinary evidence. Nobody has produced evidence of anywhere near high enough quality, even if researchers have produced the kind of nonsense that always pops up to support politically correct narratives.
If one looks at the broad sweep of recent history, rather than low quality studies, we can see that there was a broad cultural change starting in the 1960s in which we started to destigmatize things like drug use and illegitimacy, and ended up getting more of those behaviors. The same seems to be true for obesity, as I pointed out to McArdle in our conversation.
I think what Megan is getting at is that because being fat already has all kinds of negative consequences, adding to the suffering of the overweight contributes nothing but pointless cruelty. I disagree, since humans are social creatures, and can in many cases care just as much about the negative judgments of others as they do their own health.
The example of smoking is instructive. The health effects were known for decades without making a dent in the numbers, but when smokers became the targets of public shaming campaigns, which included bans on advertising meant to make smoking look cool, the numbers dropped. I don’t doubt that a similar campaign against obesity could work, even if there might be too many fat people for it to be politically plausible.
When I’ve traveled around Europe, two things have struck me about the women: they are much thinner, and dress much better. I would suspect these two things are related. As seen during covid, Americans have an individualist culture in which people feel freer than other nationalities to ignore the preferences and opinions of others. Dressing down and being fat both cause an eyesore, and reflect an attitude of prioritizing comfort over how one is perceived.
Personally, I prefer a society where people are in shape but don’t care too much about the clothes they wear. Ideally we’d all dress down in order to be able to make direct comparisons of one another’s physiques. I’ll maybe explain one day why I come down more on the side of Bronze Age Pervert than Michael Anton on the clothes question. Nonetheless, it appears that in the real world, there’s a correlation across nations between people dressing nice and having attractive bodies.
Of course, I understand there are important physiological differences between populations, and any analysis of cross-national data has to take that into account. Relevant genetic variation across individuals or nations again doesn’t imply that something isn’t a choice, however, in terms of how we usually understand the concept. Reject free will and the value of stigmatization if you want, but then do so for everything, rather than carving out a special exemption for fat people.
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