Is It Just Because He’s Fat?

Probably a lot of you have tried out the interactive activity that I put together on the Trolley problem.

If not, then it’s here.

Anyway, I mentioned the existence of the activity on one of the philosophy mailing lists, and one of the responses that came back suggested that by including a fat man I was effectively perpetuating a bigotry.

I have to say that I find this experiment offensive, and always have. There is absolutely no reason in the logic of the experiment that the person sacrificed should be a "fat man" or …"a (very) fat man." There is a clear subtext that killing a fat man is somehow different from killing a man.

I am glad to see that some versions of the experiment have recently removed this piece of bigotry — I just recently saw one in which simply "a person" was suggested to be sacrificed. But the perpetuation of this gruesome story in its obviously bigoted anti-fat form is regrettable. The fact that Prof Foot may have invented it in that form is hardly an excuse.

This issue was then picked up at some feminist philosophers blog, and I joined in briefly, but the conversation there was too daft for my taste, so I left.

So to get some things clear here.

1. There is no clear sub-text that killing a fat man is somehow different from killing a man;

2. Professor Foot didn’t come up with the fat man scenario, it was Judith Jarvis Thomson;

3. It can’t just be “a person” because that immediately opens up the possibility of self-sacrifice, which completely messes with the thought experiment (you’ll have to be familiar with the Trolley Problem for that to make sense).

Anyway, I now have some interesting data that I thought I’d share. Around 4700 people have completed the activity to date. The results are showing that about 75% of people who avow utilitarianism will throw the fat man off the bridge; compared to only 20% of those who disavow utilitarianism (many of whom will also go on to make other decisions suggesting that they do actually make broadly utilitarian calculations).

This is actually quite encouraging. It suggests that in fact the size of the man is only of marginal significance – if it is of significance at all – in the decisions people make about his fate.

There is another wider issue here, which I’m not sure I want to get into, but which is worth mentioning. Why is it a prejudice to think that there might be moral problems with being fat (I ask this as somebody who has been fat, and no doubt will be fat again)? For example, I can think of straightforward utilitarian reasons to think that you might be doing something wrong if you eat enough food for six people… (okay, I’m being a little provocative, but even so…).

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