The Finger of Blame

Compelled to Assign Moral Responsibility for Obesity

“Whose fault is obesity? Most of the blame rests with one culprit.”  In the Washington Post, Tamar Haspel perfectly captures the overwhelming compulsion to assign moral responsibility for obesity. She espouses a popular view:

“The lion’s share – I’ll go with 61 percent (and, yes, of course I’m totally making this up to give some sense of how I think responsibility gets divvied up) – goes to the food industry, which developed product after product that was deliberately designed to be overeaten.”

With a light-hearted tone, she doles out the rest of the blame to restaurants (5%), diet purveyors (9%), scientists (4%), media (7%), eaters (10%), and other factors (4%). This blamework is essential she says:

“Figuring out the root cause of obesity is Step One to fixing the problem.”

A Theory of Blame and Moral Criticism

In their 2014 paper, Bertram Malle, Steve Guglielmo, Andrew Monroe offer up a theory of blame and how it functions in human and social psychology. They tell us:

“Regulating behavior is a core property of social blame. But by criticizing norm violations, acts of blame devalue the blamed agent.

“Blame emerges as one of the most accepted forms of moral criticism, along with finding fault and pointing the finger. The acts that are least socially acceptable and most unlike blame are attacking, slandering, and vilifying.”

Thus, at the heart of our impulse to assign moral responsibility for obesity lies the presumption that someone is behaving badly. This thinking holds that overcoming obesity requires us to correct bad behavior.

A Pointless and Moot Point

It turns out that assigning blame for obesity is a pointless and impossible exercise. The causes are many and they interact. A “root cause” eludes even the smartest scientists. And, as Haspel eventually concludes, trying to fix a mythical “root cause” is a pointless exercise:

“But the fixes that have been floated to change our food environment — taxes, bans, labeling, education — are both unlikely to pass in our political environment and unlikely to make a dent in the problem; none have led to significant population-level weight loss anywhere they’ve been tried.”

Thus, it makes eminently good sense to address the burden of disease that is with us right now. Offer effective obesity care to the people who need it. The tools for doing this are growing better by leaps and bounds. The cost of delivering this care should come down, and we have confidence that it will.

Asking the Wrong Question

In a parable of true blindness, a blind man came to a prophet and the prophet’s disciples asked “who sinned: this man or his parents, causing him to be born blind?” The prophet replied:

“You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here.”

We would do well to stop asking the wrong question about obesity and get on with solving the problem.

Click here for Haspel’s full commentary and here for the more on Malle’s theory of blame. For further perspective on the blurry line between moral responsibility and public health, click here.

The Finger of Blame, illustration from the Joseph Watson type catalogue 1888 / Wikimedia Commons

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July 6, 2023