Monday, January 08, 2007

Obese Children

Yesterday, I wrote in defense of Ashley’s parents, who subjected their child to some unconventional medical procedures in order to give their disabled child a better future.

In that article, I wrote that the obligations that caretakers have is to make those decisions for their charges that those charges would have made for themselves if they were competent to do so. That is to say, those choices should fulfill the moral desires of the charge, weighing present and future fulfillment.

In a comment to a post a few days ago called, “,” Spider63 made a comment about childhood obesity, linking to something he had written on the issue.

Applying the arguments I used in Ashley's case to the situation with respect to obese children, I must conclude that the parents of obese children are guilty of the moral wrongs that Ashley's parents are wrongfully accused of violating. These parents, in many cases, are choosing things for their children that those children would not choose for themselves if they were competent to do so. These moral mistakes will often result in significant harm, and even early death, to those children.

Indeed, except in cases where involuntary medical conditions are the source of obesity, a picture of an obese child is akin to a picture of a child with cuts and bruises where one knows that the child’s parents are responsible for those cuts and bruises. It is morally approximate to a picture of a parent sexually abusing the child. In all three cases, we have parents behaving towards a child in a way that damages the child’s future. Instead of a future in which the child’s desires will be fulfilled, we have a future in which the child will suffer the desire-thwarting effects of poor health and early death.

I want to take this opportunity to make a few comments about desires and the education and training of children. Specifically, there are four claims about desires that are relevant here.

(1) People always choose that which will fulfill the more and the stronger of their current desires, given their beliefs. One of the reasons that children are rightfully considered incompetent to act in their own interests is because they have a poor set of beliefs. Fulfilling their desires given their beliefs is a poor way for them to fulfill their desires.

(2) People only fulfill future desires to the degree that they (a) have a present desire that their future desires be fulfilled, and/or (b) have present desires that tend to result in the fulfillment of future desires, even though the fulfillment of future desires is not a part of their intention. In this, future desires motivate an agent in the present in the same way that the desires of other people motivate an agent in the present. The only way for your desires to motivate my action would be if I had a desire that your desires be fulfilled (or thwarted). Also, your desires can be fulfilled by my actions if I happen to have desires that fulfill your desires.

(3) Some desires tend to fulfill or thwart other desires. I have typically written about this in terms of desires that tend to fulfill or thwart the desires of other people. However, it is also true that there are desires that tend to fulfill or thwart other desires of the same person. Strong desires for (excess) alcohol, tobacco, drugs, or food are desires that tend to thwart other desires. Desires for exercise and knowledge count as desires that tend to fulfill other desires. These are, in fact, examples of desires that tend to fulfill or thwart future desires as well.

(4) Desires are most malleable during childhood. This is a desire-equivalent to the fact that beliefs are most malleable during childhood. Look at all that a child learns between, say, one and six years of age, and compare it to any other time in the child’s life, and we see dramatic change. That dramatic change is the consequence of a malleable brain structure undergoing its most rapid change. That rapid change also affects desires, and will go a long way to determining what that child wants to be when he grows up. It will go a long ways to determining what a child wants when he grows up.

A particularly gifted child would realize that this was the time for him to give himself those desires that will make the rest of his life that much easier. There is a unique benefit when one acts on a desire that fulfills other desires. It is play, rather than work. Work is what happens when one has to put the fulfillment of other desires against a current aversion – overcoming the aversion to bring about the fulfillment of those other desires. Play is what happens when one gets to do what one wants – and good play is when one wants those things that also have benefits. Given a choice, our super-rational and wise child would use childhood as an opportunity to harvest good desires.

However, I doubt that there has ever been a child that was so rational and wise.

Failing this, the rational and wise child would select to have somebody responsible for the formation of his desires who is rational and wise and loving enough to see that the child acquires those desires that will serve him well in the future – a taste for good food, a love of knowledge, and a fondness for things that require physical effort, or a fondness for physical effort itself.

We, in society, have ‘reasons for action’ for demanding that a parent provide their children with moral desires. We have no reason to want other people to raise children who are a threat to us – or to our own children. Thus, we have reason to praise those parents who are effective at raising good children – children who grow to be adults who are compassionate rather than vicious, helpful rather than demanding, skilled rather than inept, and knowledgeable rather than ignorant.

However, in acquiring this compassion and concern for others, we acquire ‘reason for action’ to demand that parents want to give their children those things that the children will be able to make the most use of as adults. We have reason to want parents to give their children a good education - not only for the sake of the benefits our children will have in living in an intelligent community, but for the sake of those other children themselves. We have reason to demand that a parent give their children those desires that will help the children fulfill their other desires.

The desires for the welfare of children is what motivates us, when we see a child who is bruised and battered, to go after the adult who did this to him, to call that adult an abuser, and to demand that the situation stop. In most cases, perhaps some counseling will be sufficient. In the most severe cases, the child may be made better off by being placed with those who show more concern for the child’s welfare and the child’s future. Any who argue that a child belongs with his family will need to explain why this is better than placing the child with somebody who more obviously cares for the child’s welfare. We allow that the bruises might have been the result of an accident, but we ask questions, as a part of our obligation to make sure that this is the case, and the child is not in danger.

There is reason to have the sight of an obese child render the same reaction. We have just as good a reason to go after the adults who did this to him, to call those adults abusers, and to demand an end to that situation. We have reason to recommend – and even demand – some sort of social intervention. Perhaps the parents need some help setting up a better regime of diet and exercise. If the parents show that they do not care enough for the child to make these types of changes, then the child may be better off in the hands of others who do actually care for the child’s health and well-being. We must allow that the situation might be the result of a medical condition that is out of the parents’ control, but we have reason to ask questions, and to take action for the sake of the child if we do not get satisfactory answers.

In the case of older children, we may also encounter instances where the situation is not the parents’ fault. There have been instances in which the best and most concerned parents have suffered through children who become hooked on alcohol, tobacco, drugs, sex, violence, and other forms of self-destructive behavior. The older the child becomes, the more the child is responsible for his or her own choices, and the less the parent is responsible. So, my comments above have to be taken as particularly relevant to the well-being of younger children. If a seventeen-year-old often shows up drunk at school, we may reasonably hold the seventeen-year-old responsible. If the seven-year-old often shows up at school drunk, we are far more justified in casting a suspicious eye on his parents or guardians.

A seven-year-old who is overeating to the point of obesity gives us good reason to cast the same suspicious eye on his parents or guardians as well.

So we have national criticism of one set of parents, those of Ashley who I wrote about yesterday, who are clearly taking steps to provide their child with a future in which that child’s own desires can be better fulfilled. At the same time, we allow parents who are doing untold harm to their children, putting their children in a state that will their future desires will be so clearly thwarted, are allowed to continue their abuse unchallenged.

Ashley’s parents are condemned by some who claim that they are sacrificing their daughter’s dignity for the sake of their own convenience. I have argued that parents have a right to consider their convenience to some extent. However, in Ashley’s case, the young girl is almost certainly being provided with a benefit as well.

We can ask what the parents of obese children are doing. It is not unreasonable to hold that many of them are also seeking their own benefit. It takes effort to get a child to eat what it should, not eat what it should not, and put down the video game control and go out and get some exercise. However, in this case, the parents obtain their own convenience at the expense of the child. They are doing, in fact, what Ashley’s parents were wrongfully accused of doing. Here, we have a case in which the people being accused of a wrongdoing are innocent, and those who are actually guilty are not being accused.

The world would be a better place if we were to adjust our attitudes somewhat on these matters.


Aerik said...

It's morally wrong to make a decision for a child if he/she would not make the same decision if he/she were competent to do so.

I feel the same way. And it's why I love What Shall We Tell the Children? by Nicholas Humphrey, a speech he gave to Amnesty International in 1997.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


You have correctly anticipated exactly where I was heading with this discussion - as will become evident in the next post.

FCN said...

I just discovered this site, and I enjoy reading it. This was a good post, but I would like to add something. Taking action against parents for abuse only works if the desires that a competent person would choose are generally agreed on. In other words, a society must have a common set of values if it is to regulate parents who do not raise their children according to those values. One man's use is often another's abuse, and a person (or government) would do best to overlook any treatment of children at which the man on the street would not be horrified.

Anonymous said...

Do you know that an estimated 10% of America's preschoolers are dangerously overweight? Obesity rates for elementary school students have tripled in the last three decades, and 31% of adults in the U.S. are now considered obese which means they are at least 30 pounds overweight.