August 2008 Ethics Dunces

The Los Angeles City Council 

This month, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously adopted a one-year moratorium on new fast-food restaurants in a 32-square-mile area of South and Southeast L.A, an area of high levels of poverty and obesity. The measure is the inspiration of City Council member Jan Perry, who argues that she is not trying to control what people eat, but rather attempting to give them “more healthy options.”  

Uh-huh. As if Maxim’s is now going to rush to move in where McDonalds can no longer tread. If you are poor, inexpensive food is the only option, not because of what restaurants are in the neighborhood, but because of the amount of money you have to spend on food. But even McDonalds has healthy food---salads, wraps---if someone chooses to order them. Next up for Ms. Perry: an ordinance requiring the big Mac to be made with soy-burgers only. And City Menu Police to make sure people order them. 

The ethical value of autonomy---letting adults make their own choices, good or bad,  wise or not, in their lives, is hard for some people, like those elected to municipal responsibilities in California, to grasp…especially when they are so sure they know better. “How dare you be fat? How dare you choose eating what you want over a life we think is appropriately meaningful and long? How dare you choose to spend your scarce funds on things other than healthy foods?” The implied racism, classism and arrogance of the City Council’s action is difficult to explain away. Rich white starlets and would-be celebrities engage in expensive, health-threatening, societal values-polluting cosmetic surgery with increasing frequency. This wastes money that could be better used (for almost anything), is an unnecessary health risk, causes self-esteem and body-image problems for girls everywhere and has fed our culture’s sick obsession with youth and appearance over character, knowledge, and brains. But the City Counsel would never consider trying to restrict the access of Beverley Hills residents to botox, silicon and liposuction. It’s their bustlines, after all: let ‘em inflate them like water balloons! But, oh, these poor folks…we have to make sure they make healthy life-style choices. Remove the source of temptation! 

Equally offensive is the unfairness of making fast-food companies villains for giving people products they want to use at prices they can afford. Hollywood awarded an Oscar to “Super-size Me!,” an intellectually dishonest but entertaining documentary that chronicled the physical deterioration of a man who abused the McDonalds menu specifically to maximize its negative health effects. (One could, of course, do the same thing at any five star restaurant in the world.) Oddly, Hollywood has showed no interest in the recent news item about Chris Coleson, a formerly obese Virginia man who lost 80 pounds and improved his health by eating nothing but the healthier McDonalds fare---and, amazingly, Jan Perry wasn’t forcing him to do it.  

Having good intentions does not excuse the irresponsible abuse of power, disrespect for individuals and blatant interference with personal autonomy. And, as with the vast majority of ethics dunces, the City Council’s conduct is also as generally dumb as it is ethically obtuse. Most bad diet choices take place at home, where it is cheaper to eat anyway. The Council can’t stop families from buying bacon, fried chicken, potato chips and Oreos. The one arguably ethical argument for Perry’s plan---that it may be worth limiting individuals’ autonomy to make them healthier---doesn’t stand up to simple logic. It’s a bad plan that can’t possibly work. All the measure can do is insult, inconvenience, and patronize.  




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