Fat shaming from Peter Singer

Peter Singer – perhaps unsurprisingly – has some opinions about fat people.

Things don’t bode well from the beginning:

We are getting fatter. In Australia, the United States, and many other countries, it has become commonplace to see people so fat that they waddle rather than walk.

That’s objective rational discourse right there. But it gets better. Singer’s main argument is that people who weigh more should have to pay more to fly. Says Singer:

I am writing this at an airport. A slight Asian woman has checked in with, I would guess, about 40 kilograms (88 pounds) of suitcases and boxes. She pays extra for exceeding the weight allowance. A man who must weigh at least 40 kilos more than she does, but whose baggage is under the limit, pays nothing. Yet, in terms of the airplane’s fuel consumption, it is all the same whether the extra weight is baggage or body fat.

And you can imagine how it goes from there. Fat people cost more. Fat people are a drain on resources. Fat people should have to pay for it. He concludes:

Many of us are rightly concerned about whether our planet can support a human population that has surpassed seven billion. But we should think of the size of the human population not just in terms of numbers, but also in terms of its mass. If we value both sustainable human well-being and our planet’s natural environment, my weight – and yours – is everyone’s business.

So clearly what we should do is make sweeping generalizations about “the overweight”. Then we should engage in some not-very-subtle fat shaming, in which we blame individuals for what is clearly a social phenomenon, and demand more money from those who can often least afford it. Flying can then become just another thin privilege.

While we’re at it, we should probably charge disabled people more to fly, given the extra airline resources it can take to get them to and from their assigned seat, and the extra weight of any assistance devices they might need. We will probably, for similar reasons, also charge the elderly more. And don’t even get me started on parents that travel with children.

Or we could try not listening to Peter Singer. That works too.







33 thoughts on “Fat shaming from Peter Singer

  1. Consequentialism is the superior normative moral theory–but only when done right. When done wrong, it encourages one to make childish, simplistic, Manichean binary distinctions that ignore meaningful variables such as the nuances of culture and human emotion. If it is to be pragmatic, consequentialism, and utilitarianism in particular, *must* account for those latter variables, lest law and propriety mean nothing, and lest ethics should be made impossible.

  2. This doesn’t really shock me. Singer has said a lot of Ableist things in the past. His whole theory is based on an equation that says the more “rational” you are, the more happiness you can experience, therefore the more you count morally. He himself is a liberal, but his theory has deeply illiberal implications.

    Re: “Consequentialism is the superior normative moral theory–but only when done right.”

    My feeling is that consequentialism is the worst normative moral theory, but it’s popular because it has the most intuitively simple underpinnings. But maybe this debate can’t be settled in a blog comment. :-)

  3. None of the excerpts above make sweeping generalizations about overweight people. Do you disgaree with any of the three points that Singer actually makes in the excerpts above?

  4. Lee, *the article*, and it’s main thesis, make sweeping generalizations about “the overweight”. I don’t think my post implies that any of the quotes do (though I think that whether they do – especially the first and the third – is open to interpretation.)

    Do I disagree with the points that Singer makes in the quoted passages? Yes, absolutely. First of all, I don’t think it’s commonplace to see people that “waddle”. In fact, I think this is a ridiculous anti-fat slur, and I’m ashamed to see it written by a philosopher.

    Secondly, the cases of the slim woman with lots of bags versus the heavier man with minimal baggage don’t seem to make the point that Singer wants them to make. (Also, why the hell is it relevant that the woman is Asian?) When airlines charge you for baggage, they aren’t just charging you for the weight. They are charging you for the time and effort it takes to load the bags into the cargo hold. They are charging you for insurance. They are charging you for the time and effort it will take them to track down your bags and get them back to you should the bags be lost in transit. Baggage transport is very expensive for airlines, and they charge passengers for extra baggage in part to recoup costs and in part to disincentivize passengers from carrying excessive amounts of luggage. (Also, the ‘ask the pilot’ column linked in Bijan’s comment is well worth a read.) To suggest that a heavier passenger is the equivalent – from an air travel perspective – to a lighter passenger with lots of checked baggage is just ridiculous.

    Finally, the third quote. I think *public health* is a social concern, and a social problem. I think we should focus on health, rather than on weight – because the latter is unhelpful, and can have very negative, pernicious consequences for those who are deemed “overweight”. But I do not think that my weight, as an individual, is anyone’s business but my own. It’s certainly not Peter Singer’s.

  5. Oh, and I meant to add wrt to the third quote – Singer seems to be making the claim that fat people are bad for the environment (because they consume more resources, perhaps?) Two things to say about this:

    (i) Where is the evidence that says that fat people consume more resources than thin people? Why would we think that’s true? I’m skeptical.
    (ii) Even if it were established that fat people, on average, consume more resources, why think that a sensible environmentalism involves penalizing/blaming individuals who consume more resources? As a disabled person, I’m willing to bet I consume more resources than your average non-disabled person – at least if you compare me to non-disabled people of similar age, income, and lifestyle. But I’d like to think that a sensible environmentalism doesn’t require blaming/shaming/seeking to get rid of/etc disabled people (though Singer might disagree). Ditto for the elderly. Ditto for babies and young children. And so on.

  6. Airline flight emissions constitute our most substantial discretely-chosen contribution to atmospheric warming. Singer could set a good example by abstaining from further air travel altogether.

  7. I imagine that your comment about not listening to Peter Singer is ironic, because it seems to me that Singer is always worth reading.

    In this case, while I agree that he is wrong about overweight people paying extra, the issue not only is worth debating, but also will increasingly become an issue that is debated, so we need to prepare arguments and not dismiss what Singer says

  8. Hi Erin,

    If you follow my link, the pilot discusses why weight based price discrimination makes sense for small planes on short haul trips and not for large plane long haul flights.

  9. I thought the main point Singer is trying to make is that we should encourage policies (higher taxes on certain foods, higher cost of goods like flying) to disincentivize obesity, which is something that carries a cost that’s borne by others. There’s certainly a worry that we disproportionately focus on weight because it’s socially stigmatized at the moment. And the article does seem to have been (one hopes unintentionally) offensive, but is the underlying argument a bad one? The question that’s relevant doesn’t seem to be ‘is obesity a social phenomenon, or does it merely result from personal choices?’ but rather ‘would the disincentive be effective?’. In the case of many disabilities, any disincentive would be somewhat useless, since one couldn’t have prevented the disability (and while disincentivizing disability might then cause people to avoid having disabled children, in the case of non-extreme disabilities people generally find that outcome pretty repugnant, so we presumably wouldn’t class that as the disincentive being ‘successful’). But that might not be the case for all disabilities. Imagine that there was a costly disability that people mainly get from accidents in a particular dangerous sport. If everyone who got this disability from partaking in the sport were made to pay a certain proportion of the resultant costs that were being passed on to others, then it seems like this would be a good way to disincentivize partaking in the sport and so a worthwhile thing to do. Isn’t there something similar going on in the case of obesity, smoking, etc?

  10. Aren’t there already huge societal disincentives to becoming obese? Aren’t obese people already penalized in the work place and in their social lives? And aren’t obese people already often publicly shamed? And the weight loss industry is a 40 billion dollar industry that is constantly promoting it’s products and yet has frankly failed at producing results, as has the fitness industry, as a whole. So why does Mr. Singer think adding additional cost is going to make a difference, when obese people are already penalized financially and socially?

  11. we’re all getting taller, too. taller people must use more resources, if fatter people do. AND it’s very uncomfortable sitting next to a tall person on a flight. I think all passengers over 5’4.3″ (that seems a good cut-off) should pay extra.
    (but also, i don’t actually think that carl, above, is right in his reading of singer’s basic theory. I think singer misapplies it sometimes. eg this time. but his theory doesn’t imply that more rational = more valuable.)

  12. A, just to echo what Merry says at 14 – I think there’s already a *massive* amount of societal disincentive for being fat. (See, for example, this list: http://fatadelic.wordpress.com/2008/07/24/re-visiting-average-sized-privilege/#more-883) I doubt extra money for air travel would score particularly high in the rankings of “bad shit that society imposes on you if you’re fat.”

    But more generally, part of why a lot of people find personal disincentives to obesity problematic is that they’re predicated on the idea that fat people are fat voluntarily – they make poor eating choices, they’re lazy, etc. Fat people are choosing to be fat, so if we just make that choice come with enough negative consequences, they’ll stop choosing to be fat because that choice won’t be working out well for them anymore. But that’s a deeply oversimplified – and in so many ways deeply misleading – picture.

    LP – Word.

  13. Magicalersatz, although Singer does talk about adopting public policies that discourage weight gain, two things are worth noting:

    1. He makes clear that he’s not thinking of the flying scenario in terms of attaching (artifical) negative consequences to a (putative) choice; rather he is speaking there about allocating in an arguably less arbitrary way some of the natural consequences of obesity regardless of any volitional element.

    2. When he does talk later on about disincentives, he’s talking about generally applied disincentives to certain behaviors implicated in the incidence of obesity, not about creating negative reinforcement to the condition of obesity. For example, he alludes to poor eating choices, but his proposal of certain food taxes does not rely on an oversimplified or misleading picture that any particular proportion of fat people are fat due to poor eating choices, just that at least some are due at least in part to such.

    Would you say that Singer avoids the particular problem you mention in #17?

  14. If Singer genuinely wants airline ticket policies that are punitive against overweight people, there’s an obvious problem. Even if we assume that weight correlates to health (which is *roughly* accurate, but has lots of problems, as people have pointed out), weight very strongly intersects with height. Ceteris paribus, a 5’6″ 195lbs. person is probably less healthy than a 6’2″ 210lbs. person.

    So Singer’s proposal to set a “standard weight” just seems like an obvious failure.

  15. lp wrote “we’re all getting taller, too. taller people must use more resources, if fatter people do. AND it’s very uncomfortable sitting next to a tall person on a flight. I think all passengers over 5’4.3″ (that seems a good cut-off) should pay extra.”

    I’m genuinely curious about this. What makes it very uncomfortable to sit next to a tall person? I don’t really understand why this would be so. Speaking as a fairly tall person, I certainly understand that is very, very, very uncomfortable to BE a tall person on a flight. But I don’t really see what effect it has on my neighbors. To put it simply: I extend in a vertical dimension, but my neighbors are located along the horizontal dimension. So I don’t take up any of their space – I just suffer crammed into my own. (The only thing I can think of is that the person sitting in front of me might get some discomfort from my knees being wedged into the back of their seat. But usually seats are thick enough to keep them from noticing.) So I’m really sincere in asking this — if there’s something I’m unwittingly doing to cause discomfort to other people, it would be good to become aware of it.

    And it’s worth noting that many airlines already do effectively impose higher fares on taller passengers. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become incapable of sitting in coach class seats for more than a couple hours. My legs literally do not fit between one seat and the next, and having them wedged tightly for very long leads to severe muscle cramps and pain that lasts for days afterwards. I used to avoid this problem by artfully choosing seats with extra legroom, but the airlines have recently caught on to this and begun charging additional fees for “economy premium” seating. In effect, then, I do have to pay extra fees for flying-while-tall, unless I want to suffer serious pain.

    (None of this is meant to take away from the main point of the original post. I agree that Singer is risking indulging in fatphobia, and I don’t see policies like weight-pricing as wise. I’m just not sure about the relevance of lp’s comparison to height. It seems disanalogous in part, and where actually analogous, it appears only to provide precedent for the unwise policy.)

  16. I’m moderately tall and I fine myself swerving horizontally on airplanes (which is why I aim for aisle seats).

    Other than that it doesn’t seem to be a huge problem for other people afaict.

  17. “Aren’t there already huge societal disincentives to becoming obese?”

    Sure – but clearly they aren’t sufficient to disincentivize becoming obese if the rates of obesity are increasing. You might think that obesity rates just aren’t something that’s responsive to disincentives. I think that’s wrong in the limit case (if I impose a $10,000 fine every day you don’t do 3 hours exercise, make all unnecessary calories cost $100 each, I can expect obesity rates to fall in general, even if some cases of obesity won’t respond to these disincentives). So adding more disincentives seems to make sense if we think they’ll still have *some* positive impact all things considered, even if it’s small. Perhaps we’d do better to use the relevant resources on other things, however, like informing people about existing disincentives, or finding ways to make the disincentives more immediate and salient, and so on.

    Also in this case the disincentive – a higher cost of airline tickets – can be thought of as the removal of an incentive instead. After all, when someone overweight gets on a plane or consumes more resources, the cost is transferred to the others on the plane or the others who fly with that company. Perhaps we’re fine with that in the case of a disability (since additional costs wouldn’t discourage disability in a way that we wouldn’t find repugnant) but we might want to remove this incentive in the case of someone who is overweight. The non-consequentialist reason to do this is a desert-based one (insofar as your actions contributed to your being overweight, you are the one who is liable for at least a propertion of the extra costs that are currently being spread among the rest of the passangers), but the consequentialist reason is presumably going to be outcomes-based: we shouldn’t transfer money to people who are overweight since being overweight is not socially beneficial and may even be socially harmful (both in terms of the suffering it causes, the number of people it allows the earth’s resources to support, and healthcare costs if they are greater).

    Being taller is different, I think. In the plane case, the cost wasn’t based on how uncomfortable you make other people, but the cost of having you on board. The latter seems to depend on weight and not on height (except insofar as the height contributes to weight, which we might want to treat more like the disability case and discount accordingly). Moreover, even if we were to have a penalty for being tall on a plane on comfort grounds, or a penalty for being tall on resource grounds, it’s very hard respond to disincentives to be tall at the moment, so we’d expect them to be much less effective than obesity disincentives (in fact, the fact that it’s hard to respond to height disincentives and that height is correlated with income is what makes height-based taxation policies so great!).

  18. I am sympathetic to consequentialist justifications for educating the populace more effectively about how to live a healthy lifestyle and eat a healthy diet, but I think airline costs and excessive fuel usage are relatively small potatoes compared to the more systemic problems associated with the negative aspects of the SAD or Standard American Diet (refined flour/sugar in massive quantities, empty liquid sugar calories, snacking, fast-food, huge meal sizes, frozen dinner, etc.). My intuition is that a far larger strain on the Greater Good is not airline fees but the health-care costs associated with treating the serious metabolic and hormonal disregulation disorders that can result from a heavy SAD diet like type II diabetes, metabolic syndrome, inflammation, not to mention cardiovascular disease, stroke, cancer, etc (i.e. the typical “diseases of affluence”). You can be “skinny” but still develop type II diabetes if you eat a diet heavy in things that spike your blood sugar. So I don’t think “obesity” itself is the crux of problem. Rather, morbid obesity is a possible but not necessary side-effect of a more general problem that can make you unhealthy without making you fat: eating what every typical American around you is eating in massive quantities. Genetic toss-ups can then make a difference in how resilient people are to the negative effects of the SAD. And also, you can be overweight and healthier than someone who is skinny. So as I see it, an empirically informed consequentialist social policy would shuffle money into better early-start educational programs to teach people from a young age about how bad eating lifestyles can slowly alter our metabolisms via hormones like insulin, creating both unhealthy adipose generation as well as metabolic disregulation that gets worse over the course of decades. According to the CDC, the “estimated economic cost of diabetes in 2007 was $174 billion”. Imagine taking that money and giving it to Oxfam; im confident the consequentialist metric on any valuation system would come out positive.

  19. In general, I think it healthy to reflect on the impact our actions and circumstances have on others – independent of rights-based or utilitarian justifications. In fact, doing so seems a requirement of being empathetic. This extends, I think, from ordinary cases like being aware of those behind you in the check out line or in traffic, to cases involving the way we are physically. I was struck recently by how cognizant a woman was of her height and its effects on others at a local concert. She made every effort to stand near the back, or to duck while passing in front of others. This was no doubt a hassle for her, but showed real concern for her fellow concert goers – even though her height was nothing she had any control off. And, I think it’s correct to say that she had a right to stand wherever she wished, but her concern for others moved her to not exercise that right. Clearly, these kinds of things come in degrees, and there are perhaps thresholds that need meeting. But, these issues are worthy of discussion.

  20. I agree with Gary. However offensive Singer’s view is, the main problem is that it is facile and naive. The fact that people are eating 140 pounds of sugar a year (compared to 40 pounds a year just 30 years ago) is a really big problem. Obesity and (more importantly metabolic syndrome, which includes hypertension, type II diabetes, heart disease and blood lipid disorders) is a huge and urgent public health problem. Fructose is a toxin and it is causing people to be very ill. Yet is almost impossible for most people on the planet to eat a diet that does not contain a toxic amount of sugar. This is due to recent (past 50 years) changes in food production and distribution. The purveyors of sugar and high fructose corn syrup will fight against change in the same way that the tobacco and alcohol interests fought against regulations on those products. Please, everyone, read Robert Lustig’s book FAT CHANCE. He insists that restricting availability (especially to children–he thinks they should not be allowed to buy sugary drinks at all just as they are not allowed to by alcohol and tobacco) is the only way to make a difference because of the addictive properties of sugar. (Read the book and see why the sugary drinks are especially problematic.) The idea that people should just make the right choice about food is to fail to grasp the relevant biochemistry. The issue is not about “will power”. Eating sugar makes you hungry. And obese people with insulin resistance and leptin resistance are hungry a lot and they also lack energy because their brains think that are starving.

  21. I read the linked article, assuming Singer would look better in it, but instead it’s worse. He really moves from the comment that arguably, one’s weight is not under one’s control, to the conclusion that one is culpable for one’s weight after all. There’s no justification in between. This article annoys.

  22. I *do* see people so overweight that they cannot ‘walk’ in the normal way; in fact, some of them cannot walk at all and must use what I think of of as mini-scooters indoors and out.

    Perhaps ‘waddle’ is offensive – I find it so – but it is also difficult to think of another descriptive term for the side to side shifting that the very obese must perform in order to move forward. Put another way, I cannot think of a descriptor that would not be equally offensive.

    I think the lack of factual basis for his recommendations about ways to nudge behavior, and the ease with which he assumes that all obesity is fully in the person’s control, are far more problematic than the use of that word.

  23. I don’t think anyone wants to argue that weight is always completely under voluntary control – that’s just not a premise one needs for the argument. A charitable interpretation of Singer might be that he’s defending a view that obesity isn’t something we should incentivize, and that it’s a moral issue that concerns everyone rather than an issue of purely personal choice. The plane example is presumably just a salient one to a lot of people in this kind debate, but isn’t necessarily the most important.

    A worry about policies of this sort that Singer doesn’t mention is that they might be taken to (i) validate an existing prejudice, which would presumably increase the harm done by it, or (ii) turn being very overweight *into* something that’s seen as a purely personal choice – one that people have bought and paid for (which might be good insofar as it reduces criticism of people who are overwight, but bad if we don’t offset all of the externalities such as a reduced population capacity). So even if we accept the premise that obesity is not a morally insignificant issue from a conseuentialist point of view, it’s still not going to be clear what the best response to it is going to be.

  24. The fact that Singer thinks people who are disabled are worth less is the reason I disagree with him.

  25. The assumption that weight meets a threshold of culpability is a hidden premise of any argument that relies on incentives or disincentives. After all, if dis-/incentives are to work, then their effectiveness presumes control over responding to dis-/incentives. So indeed this does seem a requisite premise for Singer’s argument.

  26. beta,

    Are you responding to A’s post at (29)? If so, I think you’ve misread.

    At (27), you attributed to Singer the claim that “one is culpable for one’s weight after all.” A replied that a claim as absolute as that isn’t necessary. That is, an argument like Singer’s (if not Singer’s exact argument) doesn’t require that everyone have complete control over their weight. We can acknowledge that some people have genetic or medical conditions that make weight loss difficult or impossible while also maintaining that many, and perhaps most, overweight people do have significant control over their weight.

    In other words, an argument for implementing incentives to weight loss needn’t presume that every overweight person is “culpable” for being overweight.

  27. “Then we should engage in some not-very-subtle fat shaming.”

    Direct from this very article by Singer:
    “But the point of a surcharge for extra weight is not to punish a sin, whether it is levied on baggage or on bodies.”

    “in which we blame individuals for what is clearly a social phenomenon, and demand more money from those who can often least afford it”

    And again, this is kind of the opposite of what Singer proposes, which is to change society (just one example, being taxing obesogenic foods), to help reduce obesity.

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