Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Determinism and Obsesity

I'm posting this to Fake Barn Country, but I think it's also of general interest, so I'll put it here too. There is an interesting article in today's New York Times about obsesity in America (thanks to Brayden King for the link). A Dr. Jeffrey Friedman focuses on two claims about obesity, one of which is of philosophical interest (the other is of merely sociological interest; he suggests that the data suggest that although the mean weight is increasing and a larger proportion of the population has crossed the obesity line, average people are really not heavier than they used to be). His philosophically interesting argument seems to involve something like an assumption of anti-compatiblism, combined with an empirical discovery of determinism with respect to weight gain and loss.
Body weight, he says, is genetically determined, as tightly regulated as height. Genes control not only how much you eat but also the metabolic rate at which you burn food. When it comes to eating, free will is an illusion. "People can exert a level of control over their weight within a 10-, perhaps a 15-pound range," Dr. Friedman said. But expecting an obese person to decide to simply eat less and exercise more to get below the obesity range, below the overweight range? It virtually never happens, he said. ... But isn't it true that we can decide to eat or not, choosing to skip dinner, say, or pass up dessert? Isn't that free will? Not really, Dr. Friedman said. The control mechanisms for body weight operate over months, even years, not day to day or meal to meal.
As a result, Friedman's central claim is that we should not blame overweight people for being overweight, and more than we should praise or blame tall people for being tall. It is somewhat tempting to dismiss Friedman's claim out of hand; after all, it is possible to skip dessert -- or even to make a habit of skipping dessert -- or to integrate exercise into one's daily routine. But we can't argue this from the armchair. Friedman says that there is a gene that virtually guarantees my being fat, and I can't contest that a priori. And I personally can't contest it empirically, either, because I lack the expertise. So let's suppose he's right. As I said above, Friedman's conclusion that overweight people are not responsible for their status depends on anti-compatablism, which is, of course, controversial. A compatablist should have no trouble embracing Friedman's empirical claims and interpreting them as "there is a gene such that people with it tend to freely choose activities that make them overweight". It would then be an open question whether it is appropriate to criticize people for allowing themselves to be overweight (as, I think, it is pre-theoretically an open question). I wonder, too, whether Friedman would be willing to generalize this point. Suppose he discovered a gene that was an excellent predictor of violent crime. Would he be willing to say the following?
Criminal tendencies are genetically determined, as tightly regulated as height and weight. When it comes to refraining from murdering people, free will is an illusion. People can pass up a particular homicidal urge or two, but the control mechanisms for violent crime operate over months, even years. Therefore, it is inappropriate to blame murderers for their states.
Maybe he would say that. To be consistent, he'd probably have to. But if he did, it'd be pretty shocking to a lot of people.

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