Dietary Impulses

Written by: Paul Thompson

Primary Source: Thornapple CSA

I have an ongoing disagreement with one of my friends at work about incontinence. It usually comes up in connection with the question of how we should think of obesity as an ethical problem. There are some important tangents that could be pursued here—like the sense in which being overweight is really a moral problem or a matter of personal prudence. But I’ll try to resist the tangents this morning, even at the risk of being even more boring than usual. At least you know that in the Thornapple Blog the tedium does not go on for long.

So to put the point as directly as I can, my friend thinks that being overweight is no one’s fault but one’s own. Everyone has a duty to pursue a healthy diet. This implies eating the right foods—a balance of fruits and vegetables, with (in my friend’s case) moderate portions of animal protein. She’s not opposed to vegetarianism, by the way, but that would be another tangent. More to the point, that nutritional category she describes as “sweets and snacks” should be consumed only as the occasional treat. My friend is actually a biochemist, by the way. The fact that “proteins,” “fats” and “carbohydrates” can be given good scientific definitions, while “sweets and snacks” cannot does not deter her. She knows a sweet or a snack when she sees one. When some fool brings a whole tray of sweets and snacks to a business meeting and incontinently throws them out in front of everyone, well that’s precisely when a strong food ethic should intervene and prevent the virtuous person from taking more than the tiniest portion. An ethical person might have a pretzel or an M&M or two just to acknowledge the hospitality implicit within such an otherwise inappropriate gesture, but an ethical person would never indulge in an entire brownie on such an occasion.

We move on from this basic picture to a more general social ethic by inferring that the rise of diet-related disease (heart disease and diabetes, especially) is the result of a widespread moral failure on the part of individuals. People are just not living up to their basic responsibility to resist the urge to get up and get that bag of Fritos out of the cabinet when they are watching late-night TV. Or maybe their moral failure comes when they fail to resist the urge to put that bag of Fritos in their grocery cart, in the first place. On my friend’s view both types of failure are all of a piece. What’s called for in either case is a strong moral will, and evidently fewer and fewer people have it.

I’m not so sure, but as usual my tendency to recognize complicating factors comes at the cost of directness and clarity. In the spirit of resisting tangents this morning, I will confine myself to just one complicating factor, and I will warn you that this may not be very convincing.

My friend’s picture just doesn’t square with the basic phenomenology of dietary impulse for me. Now here I can’t avoid one tangent: explaining what I mean by the phenomenology of dietary impulse. It’s simply this: a detailed and disciplined attempt to describe the experience of getting that bag of Fritos out of the cabinet, or if you prefer, putting it into the cart. One reason why I think my friend’s account doesn’t stand up is that I would describe these two impulses quite differently. I had that impulse to eat some Fritos just last night, for example. One key feature is its constancy. Some would call it a craving. It’s not a momentary thought, “Gee, some Fritos would taste great right now.” Nope. It’s more like a drive that doesn’t actually require any thought at all. The shopping cart thing, in contrast, is a momentary thought.

That get up and eat something impulse is different from the shopping cart impulse because it lingers. My body knows how to find Fritos and I don’t really have to think about it. The effect of conscious thought is to interrupt that habit. (This does, by the way, have something to do with Aristotle’s notion of incontinence—but that’s a tangent). One important feature of that drive is that even if there are no Fritos in the cabinet, I’ll find myself eating something, anyway. Usually it’s something even more disgusting—like that little bag of crusty marshmallows that’s been sitting stuffed back in the corner for seven years.

In fact, last night (and this doesn’t always work out so nicely, I’ll admit) I got up, had two or three Fritos and put the bag right back where it came from. Craving satisfied and no serious damage done. Crusty marshmallows never entered the picture and the impulse to buy those Fritos was vindicated. At least for this time.

(I warned you it wouldn’t be convincing.)

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Paul Thompson
Paul B. Thompson holds the W. K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. He formerly held positions in philosophy at Texas A&M University and Purdue University. His research has centered on ethical and philosophical questions associated with agriculture and food, and especially concerning the guidance and development of agricultural technoscience.
Paul Thompson

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