The Brass Tack

Let's get down to it.

The root of all evil

Posted by srconstantin on July 15, 2009

Jamelle and Grand Mute follow up on my obesity post, and point out that culture is important:

Because, for all the economic and technological factors that have gone into fueling the obesity epidemic, these factors have only been the “how.” The “why” of obesity stems from culture, and specifically the culture of food: what is food, when and how and with whom it should be eaten, and so forth. Basically, if people didn’t recognize fast-food french fries as food, it wouldn’t matter how cheap McDonald’s could sell french fries for, because the demand would just not be there. On a broader scale, people eat as they do because of a mix of old customs, new marketing, and timeless peer pressure – and, yes, because technological and economic developments have enabled them to eat so.

So what’s the point of this – if you will – sociological take on obesity? Even if we remove the enabling factors – cheap corn, “supersize” portions, urban “food deserts”, total ignorance of nutrition – we will still be left with the root cause of obesity: the desire for a certain (and incidentally unhealthy) diet. And that means, so long as a caloric surplus is available, people will continue to get fat(ter).

I’ve been thinking a bit about food lately, and this reminds me of an idea of C.S. Lewis’s, actually. The protagonist in one of his books is alone on a strange planet, passing his time by gathering alien fruit. He can find plenty of nourishing fruit, but once in a while he sees a brilliant red fruit, sweeter than all the rest. He’s tempted to focus only on gathering the sweet ones, but voluntarily holds himself back, thinking that would be too much sweetness. He reflects that perhaps the root of all evil is the human desire to only eat the red fruit, to taste only the most pleasurable experiences and have them over and over again. Perhaps, Lewis writes, that’s why money is said to be the root of all evil; buying things is how we ensure we can have pleasurable experiences whenever we want.

It’s possible to literally do this with food, of course. We can have every drink a soda, every meal a treat. (I don’t want to admit to what extent I actually do this — I think I actually drink more Diet Coke than water.) If an occasional red fruit is good, it would be best of all to have nothing but red fruit.

And interestingly enough, that’s exactly how Homo economicus behaves. All economic models have individuals consuming as much as they can of the things that make them happy. A model consumer will stop if he runs out of resources, or if his consumption has nasty side effects, but he won’t consume less than he could just for the sake of being moderate. There’s no self-restraint for its own sake.

I wonder, sometimes, in my grimmer moments, if we’ve become culturally worse at self-restraint for its own sake, if we behave too much like utility-maximizers and red-fruit-gatherers. Sure, food manufacturers and their calorific innovations are to blame for a lot of obesity, but maybe we’ve also lost an old-fashioned kind of asceticism. The automatic “No, thanks.” The embarrassment at putting too many lumps of sugar in your tea. A part of me, personally, is terrified by truly having limited resources — limited sweetener, limited electrical power for my laptop. I want all the goodies of life to be too cheap to meter. Maybe I’m like those conservatives who Jamelle says have an ethic of consumption, a commitment to the idea that a mighty country like America shouldn’t have to stint itself. We want to have all we want. It’s an idea that would be alien fifty or a hundred years ago.

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4 Responses to “The root of all evil”

  1. Lord High Everything Else said

    But is “moderation” really decoupled from economic reasoning? It’s pretty easy to make a purely utilitarian case for moderation – gluttony incurs social disapproval (originating, probably, in an attempt to avoid the tragedy of the commons), thus disutility; excessive unrelenting sweetness gets to be boring, so there’s decreasing marginal utility; and of course we already know about getting fat and sick.

    Devotion to moderation qua moderation (a la Aristotle (or Plato? (I forget))) seems like the sort of thing a rule utilitarian might come up with – a useful heuristic, but one chosen because it helps you achieve more fundamental things.

    • thebrasstack said

      Yeah, sure, there’s a “side effect” reasoning. It would make it simpler if that were all it was.
      I’m thinking foggily right now but I think I was writing out of the fear that there was something more essential at stake; that greed itself is bad, not merely because it usually ends badly. That — suppose there’s a maximum beyond which consumption begins to have bad side effects — always choosing the maximum, instead of stopping short of it, is a kind of loss. Maybe it’s because I personally used to have a more ascetic lifestyle (early to bed, early to rise, always working, never spent any money, reused everything) and I’ve forgotten how to do that and sometimes it worries me.

  2. Lord High Everything Else said

    I think that, as in hard science, we should be very reluctant to assign philosophical commitments to economics. Economics is (as applied to the individual, anyhow) nothing more but an attempt to quantify the tautology that people act as they see fit. It doesn’t necessitate the acceptance of hedonism. Utility, in the purest sense, is a very, very abstract concept – it’s not pleasure, or the present value of all future pleasure, or even the present value of your future pleasure plus a proportion of the pleasure of other people weighted by the amount of affection you have for them. Definitionally, that which is chosen has maximum utility (or rather expected utility), even if we choose a life of praying atop a pole.

    Now, it’s true that if we want to construct useful economic models, we may need to make assumptions that may not agree with what we really are. A widget tomorrow SHOULD be worth a widget today divided by one plus the risk-free interest rate. Three widgets are better than two widgets, but the difference is less than that between two widgets and one widget. All of these, of course, are simplifications, and not necessarily true. And without them, we can still do economics, we just might not find our results to be as useful in determining public policy.

    So to take my head out of the clouds, I think it’s a mistake to equate eating-like-homo-economicus with greed. Greed, the theologians would say, is (contra Gecko) bad because it places the desire for stuff over the desire for love/harmony/God/self-knowledge/puppies and sunsets. But that’s not the same thing as the “desire” to maximize utility. If I choose to eat nothing and mediate under a lotus tree, I’m certainly not being greedy. I am, however, deciding that the utility of potentially achieving enlightenment outweighs the disutility of being hungry: Siddartha economica.

  3. thebrasstack said

    Jeez Louisa, I know that. I’ve been trying to convince people of that all my life. I think I was just echoing a half-baked argument I ran into somewhere.

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