Sunday, June 17, 2012

Drinking Sodas, Appetitive Incontinence, and Public Policy

At PrawfsBlawg, Rick Hills:

“I ask this with love, as a registered Republican: When will my fellow Republicans stop saying silly things against paternalism? My text for this plaintive homily is Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed health code amendment limiting the size of sugary soda pop servings to cups of 16 ounces or smaller. The proposal has been met with angry protests about the nanny state’s intrusions into people's private choices. State senator Tom Davis (Republican, SC) even denounced me as Orwellian for my statement to an AP reporter stating that government had the constitutional power, despite the 14th Amendment, to enact paternalistic regulations controlling the sale of food and drugs.

I am inclined to think that denouncing Bloomberg’s proposal as Orwellian is like ridiculing the Food, Drug, & Cosmetic Act as a Stalinist plot or attacking “no smoking” signs in public buildings as a Maoist re-education campaign. Such hyper-ventilated rhetoric against ordinary regulation is making us Republicans look absurd. So long as government subsidizes healthcare costs, regulations to discourage obesity are society’s self-protection, not nosy paternalism. [….]

Discouraging obesity either through insurance premiums or taxes on sodas (and forcing the purchase of two 16 oz. cups is essentially just a soft-drink tax) is not creating a nanny state: It is avoiding moral hazard by forcing those who undertake risky behavior to pay part of the price of their risk-taking. Despite empty libertarian rhetoric about letting people pay for all of the consequences of their actions, we know that (as Mark the Evangelist might say), the healthcare-subsidized we will always have with us. We will inevitably end up paying for at least some substantial part of at least some folks’ healthcare. So long as such subsidies exist, doing nothing about the effects of soda consumption on obesity is just letting soda drinkers slurp dollars out of their fellow citizens’ wallets. That’s not living free: It is just drinking and dying at the public’s expense.”

Not surprisingly, Rick raised the ire of a few libertarians and, presumably, Republicans in the comments. I overcame my reluctance to join the fray because Aristotle (and ancient Greek philosophy generally) has been on my mind of late owing to our posts “on anger,” so I thought to proffer an Aristotelian take on the subject, ending with an argument from one of today’s foremost political scientists, Robert E. Goodin, from his classic work, Political Theory and Public Policy (1982). Herewith my comment (slightly edited):

It is revealing to see the heat generated by this particular post and topic: matters of much more urgency and importance receive comparatively little attention. That said, I think the subject matter is indeed important for several and perhaps not so obvious reasons which, accordingly, will take some time to flesh out. I find classical Greek philosophy of some help in this enterprise. Aristotle more or less assumed something like Plato’s triune division of the “soul,” involving rational, spirited, and appetitive parts, all three parts being independent sources of motivation. And Aristotle argued our non-rational desires (which, he believed, have conceptual and propositional structure, hence they contain thoughts about what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for oneself independent of reason as such) could and should be harnessed in the service of reason, in other words, non-rational feelings need to be disciplined and controlled, should we aim to realize our capacity for rationality and virtuous behavior, essential elements of our distinctively human nature. Akrasia, or weakness of will, generally speaking, is exhibited by those who habitually let their non-rational desires, especially of the appetitive sort, trump their rational desires (which concern, subjectively and objectively speaking, what is ‘good’ for them). To be sure, non-rational desires have an independent role as a source of value(s), the problem hinging on whether or not that value is accorded rational scrutiny wherein it might find its rightful expression in the person’s life as a whole. The three parts, being one-part rational and two-parts non-rational desires, should work in harmony with each other toward the person’s good, such that an appetitive desire, for example, becomes “refined” or “educated,” thus fully integrated with one’s “educated rational judgment of what things are valuable, in what ways they are valuable, and why” (John M. Cooper). The strong or would-be moral agent must master the two forms of non-rational desire, and (strict or ‘unqualified’) akrasia is particularly germane to the “necessary” pleasures of eating, drinking, and sex (other forms of akrasia, for example, those having to do, say, with money or fame, resemble this ‘paradigm scenario,’ to borrow a term from Ronald de Sousa). The weak person who succumbs to mastery by or through their appetites is called incontinent, and Aristotle believed incontinence with regard to spirited desires was less indicative of a defective moral character than any of the forms of appetitive incontinence.

It seems clear that our society is experiencing a plethora of negative (behavioral, health, economic, etc.) effects of sundry kinds from individual behavior that exhibits in grandiose if not egregious ways, appetitive incontinence (of the senses, as well as of the more ‘qualified’ or abstract and metaphoric kind). We might look at Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed health amendment in light of this bigger and disturbing picture, in which case it appears fairly trivial or inconsequential with regard to the larger fight against appetitive incontinence, a fight that in the first place must take place within the individual, albeit with support of family, friends, perhaps even the larger society, including, on occasion, government agencies. Yet even if trivial or inconsequential, the symbolic value of this proposal appears helpful insofar as it brings subject matter into the public fora for discussion, a by-product or spillover effect of which is perhaps an increasing recognition and more precise definition of the larger problem at-hand (no pun intended). I’m not particularly fond of regulations being used primarily for communicating symbolic messages or by way of accomplishing beneficial spillover or by-product (i.e., indirect) effects, but I’m inclined to see this case as an exception if only because it may in fact accomplish at least some concrete changes in behavior that benefit the individuals targeted, and therefore as well the rest of us. At the very least, it helps entrench, I think, a social norm (or norms) associated with the recognition of the myriad personal and social problems that come in the wake of widespread and routine behavioral incontinence with regard to appetitive desires. Such incontinence is hardly confined to the behavior of the lower and middle classes, indeed, I suspect it’s an affliction that plagues, in more insidious and consequential ways, the behavior of the upper crust. This point was made by one Fran Lebowitz, interviewed in the latest issue of The New Yorker (June 18, 2012):

“’These are class issues,’ she said of Bloomberg’s soda scheme. She called the mayor ‘the Monarch of Minutiae.’ ‘Soda is the recreation—the summer house—of the poor. It’s an indulgence, and it’s something they can indulge in.’ Speaking of the Mayor, she said, ‘This man has eleven houses. That’s the self-indulgence of a billionaire.’ […..] ”

Yet as we learned growing up, two wrongs don’t make a right. And, in any case, the poor will hardly be denied their indulgences (such as they are), should they choose them, there being many creative methods folks will fashion to break the letter of the law or simply violate its spirit should it take effect. In any case, encouraging or apologizing for appetitive behavioral indulgence or incontinence does not, in the long run or on the whole, truly aid in reducing or eliminating the miseries or suffering associated with poverty (any more than we should be content with the self-reports of poor rural women who express satisfaction or happiness with their lives when lacking awareness of or belief in alternative possibilities). Still, Ms. Lebowitz made an arresting and, I think, important observation about the class-based orientation of our concerns.

Only ubiquitous forms of individual and collective states of denial, wishful thinking, and self-deception can account for the refusal by many individuals in our society to acknowledge and confront in a meaningful manner the fact that many if not most of us are truly terrible judges of what is in our self-interest (as that idea was first formulated in the history of Liberalism), of what is good for us, and appetitive incontinence merely reflects this fact. Of course we need to let people, in some ample measure, intimately experience the consequences of their mistakes (at least in a way consistent with learning from them), consequences that can be, in the short- or long-term, rather painful. However, at a point when the material and immaterial costs of such mistakes become socially intolerable, the State is surely justified stepping in to the consequentialist benefit of the rest of us. We are, in other words, far weaker individuals than we care to confess, and yet that weakness is not without possible address, and at least one of the enduring reasons for government is to help us when we are considerably less than rational, indeed perverse, in our preferences, owing to myopia, akrasia, a failure to exploit economies of scale involved in self-realization or to grasp the meaning of diminishing marginal utility in consumption, hyperbolic (time) discounting, procrastination, what have you. The irrationality, incontinence, denial, and so forth that afflicts us can be seen as one reason why proposed legislation and regulation (e.g., the American Social Security Act or the British National Health Service) is often vigorously opposed ex ante for reasons that, post facto, can barely be believed some years later (looking backwards, they seem patently ignorant or silly).

With Robert E. Goodin, we might formulate Bloomberg’s proposal in terms of the model of “retrospective rationality,” which justifies legal interference “on the grounds that the individuals concerned cannot adequately anticipate [like cigarette smokers] their future [and non-perverse] interests.” Those with inordinate or incontinent appetites, behaviorally expressed, for instance, in the excessive consumption of soft drinks, are likely to believe their present pleasures or gratification far outweigh any possible future pains or health risks thus, like smokers, “lack[ing] a full and vivid awareness of the pleasures and pains of the alternative outcomes:”

“’While [the smoker] may antecedently suppose that the pleasures of tobacco outweigh the risks of pain, there is every reason to suppose he would think otherwise should he contract cancer—not just in the sense that anyone who gambles and loses wishes he had never gambled at all, but more importantly in the sense that he had badly underestimated the pains associated with losing the gamble. Policy makers who foresee this preference shift would, following retrospective rationality, be perfectly justified in prohibiting, limiting, or discouraging smoking.”

We need not imagine the hazards associated with excessive soda consumption as equivalent to smoking to appreciate the logic of this argument, which strikes me as more than an analogy and thus perfectly applicable to the present case.

References & Further Reading:
  • Andreou, Chrisoula and Mark D. White, eds. The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Bicchieri, Cristina. The Grammar of Society: The Nature and Dynamics of Social Norms. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  • Bicchieri, Cristina and Muldoon, Ryan, “Social Norms,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), .
  • Cooper, John M. Reason and Emotion: Essays on Ancient Moral Psychology and Ethical Theory. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.
  • Elster, Jon. Alchemies of the Mind: Rationality and the Emotions. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  • Elster, Jon. Ulysses Unbound: Studies in Rationality, Precommitment, and Constraints. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  • Frank, Robert H. Passions Within Reason: The Strategic Role of the Emotions. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1988.
  • Goodin, Robert E. Political Theory and Public Policy. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1982.
  • Holmes, Stephen. Passions and Constraint: On the Theory of Liberal Democracy. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
  • Widdicombe, Lizzie. “Fluid Ounces,” The New Yorker, June 18, 2012: 26-28.


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