Weight Discrimination?

Picture of an Obese Teenager (146kg/322lb) wit...
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CNN recently aired a segment about a woman who was charged an extra $5 by a salon for being obese. Or, to be more precise, she was charged a fee for the extra wear and tear her extra weight placed upon the salon chairs.  This situation, not surprisingly, once again raises the matter of discrimination and the obese.

On the one hand, charging obese people more could be seen a discrimination. After all, they are being charged more simply because of who they are. If a business charged people with dark skin more, that would be condemned as vile discrimination. So, one might argue, to discriminate against people based on how much they have packed under their skin would also be wrong.

On the other hand, charging obese people more in certain conditions would not be discrimination. As a general rule, different treatment that is not justified by a relevant difference would count as discrimination. For example, refusing to allow someone to shop in a store because she is black would be discrimination. After all, ethnicity is not a relevant difference. Also as a general rule, different treatment that is properly justified by a relevant difference would not be discrimination. For example, if someone repeatedly shoplifted from a store and attacked customers and employees alike, then banning her from the store would not be discrimination.

In the case of the obese, it would not be discrimination to charge them more if they, in fact, subject equipment and furniture to more stress and wear due to their greater weight. Of course, this would also apply to the non-obese who are very heavy.  For example, if a salon station is designed and specified to be able to support a 200 pound customer, someone who exceeds that weight would be putting more wear and tear on the station than other customers. As such, it makes sense that they would have to pay more. It even makes sense that they could be refused service on the basis that they could injure themselves and the employee by breaking the chair. This seems to be a rather relevant difference.

In support of this, consider the following analogy. Imagine that Jane and I are renting trucks for some major weekend projects. Jane hauls a lot of light material and does not put much wear on the truck. However, I spend the weekend hauling heavy stones, massive wooden poles, and lots of scrap metal. As such, I put a lot of wear and tear on the truck. As such, it would seem fair to charge me more on the basis of this extra wear. Naturally, this assumes that such extra wear and tear is not part of the normal rental conditions. To continue the analogy, it would seem fair for the rental company to refuse to rent me a truck if I made it clear that I intended to load it beyond its capacity.

it might be countered that this is still discrimination because it is treating people differently because they are obese (or just very heavy). They are, one might assert, being singled out for different treatment and this is unfair.

However, this reply has no traction in the sort of situations under consideration. An obese person whose weight can actually damage equipment and furniture is not the victim of unfair prejudice. Rather, she is a “victim” of physics because her weight increases the cost of providing such services.

Of course, it might be argued that the obese would be victims of discrimination when businesses do not upgrade their equipment and furniture to handle people of greater weight. The analogy to accommodating people with disabilities is obvious. In such cases, the burden of accommodation rests on the businesses.

In reply, accommodating people who are disabled seems to be different from being forced to upgrade to handle the obese. After all, being obese seems to be a matter of choice and the fix is simple and obvious enough (eat less and exercise more). As such, the burden of accommodation does not rest on the businesses but on the obese people. It would thus be unreasonable to expect businesses to make a special effort to accommodate them.

From a practical standpoint, however, it might be good business to upgrade for the obese. After all, obesity is on the rise and hence the obese provide an ever expanding pool of potential customers. But, as Kant argued, what is prudent is distinct from what is a moral duty.

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  1. In sales, the less discrimination the more commission. In this particular case, every customer would need to be weighed. Light customers would be given a discount; heavy customers would pay an extra fee. But this would be a terrible way to run a business, the primary point of which is not to act justly but to provide a service and subsequently make money. The chair should be viewed as equipment (probably amortized as a business expense anyway) that over time undergoes an average amount of use, including customers who are, in weight, far from any standard deviation (either way). A base of, say, 1000 customers could consist of buyers of the service who pay the same rate each, that rate covering every use by every possible deviation of weight. Just like making larger CAT scan machines for heavier patients, salon chair manufacturers could sell stronger chairs for a heavier customer base. Spending $500 more upfront for new chair equipment for a future 1000 customers is much more appealing than losing customers or suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous litigated fortune.

  2. DGEYER, I agree that it might not be good for a business to start charging obese people more, as it might drive them to competitors or to deem the service unnecessary — however, that is their decision to make and the government has no say in this matter.

    It is, of course, too complicated to try and determine exactly how much wear different weight groups cause and to charge them in a proportional manner, which is why they can simplify this by deciding upon a cutoff point such as “over 200 pounds”. They would have the option of verifying each customer’s weight to see if it is above the the cutoff, but they could also only charge those that are clearly above the cutoff point, like bars do by not carding those who are clearly old enough to drink (weight is actually more obvious than age).

    If the extra charge was only mentioned after the service was performed, I believe that the woman is right to complain; though discrimination is not the issue here. If it was stated before, I find it troubling that the woman still went through; she should have showed them her displeasure by refusing the service and reminding them that this policy will lose them customers. I don’t understand her decision to accept this discrimination and then complain afterwards.

  3. I’m not sure how I feel about a salon charging extra for obese individuals, as a matter of running a successful business rather than philosophically. However, I wonder if there are other places that can/should charge the very large extra fees. Perhaps if a hospital’s x-ray machine cannot accommodate a person over a certain size, or in tightly packed airlines (I think this might already be done)?

  4. The crux of the matter is just how much a “matter of choice” the obesity is (in each specific case).

  5. BJORN has the point that came to my mind as I read. Any Obese person being excluded could claim that they were ill – several ills cause uncontrollable weight gain. And for some of them it would be true. So if upgrading in some way for disability (from birth or caused by illness) is law then … difficult eh? because only a few obese are really ill. It would cause an apparently unnecessary cost. Do we need an ‘it’s not my fault’ certificate for all disability?

  6. In one way, this is an accounting problem-opportunity. The narrative above suggests to me (a) airlines should charge for weight, and (b) the hair salon is being arbitrary.

    Airline fuel consumption is a function of weight. So air fare should be calculated on a per passenger basis using combined weight of passenger, handbag and luggage.

    As for the hair salon, there is not a similar variable cost consumption; so the salon is being arbitrary. And yet does the salon have to be reasonable about everything?

    Isn’t discrimination something that is grounded on the law? By law one cannot discriminate based on sex, color, or religion. What would be wrong (legally or otherwise) with an upscale watering-hole having this policy: “Person with body-mass-index of +35 or who are ugly not permitted to enter”?

  7. It would be interesting to find out if this salon extends the “obese fee” to all their customers? If she was in fact singled out for this fee, then it seems extremely unfair to the poor girl. For the fee to be seen as anything other than a cheap humiliation, all customers should, and would, need to weighed… indiscriminately as you will 🙂

  8. What if we had independent critics who decided whether the salon haircut was really worth the stated price? Clearly the salon prices their haircuts on the average quality they provide. Fancy salons charge more, budget salons less. So it is with the “cost” customers impose on the facility. It’s just part of the overhead and we all get charged the same. Distributing burdens through pricing is a simple and effective way of addressing issues. Taxing them directly is less effective. Leave the taxing and surcharge to government. Businesses should stick to pricing equally for everyone absent a clear cost burden.

  9. Calling it relative might be reasonable, but I don’t see scales at salons and airlines for weighing people. And, I certainly don’t see every customer being weighed.

    So, how does it work? Do the staff eyeball the weight, and leave it up to the customer provide proof of actual weight?

    Philosophically, I’m not fond of seeing arbitrary thresholds applied to things that can be measured on a continuous scale.

    And, in the case of service industries, where customer service and care are considered part of the product, I get suspicious when there is a practice of treating certain kinds of customers in a way that makes them uncomfortable. I know this isn’t an easy thing to measure; but if they wanted the business of the obese, then there would be some effort to minimize that embarrassment.

    And, back to the point of being arbitrary, is someone really calculating the cost of the extra wear and tear? I would be surprised to find that the extra money collected is being specifically earmarked for chair replacement.

  10. Or, to turn it around – does the business charge a very thin or anorexic person less? If not, then it cannot justify charging an obese person more.

    It is sensible to estimate the average expected lifetime use of a piece of equipment, including jobs that would use it very little (the anorexic person) and a great deal (the obese person) and divide it equally by the number of times the item is used.

    To separate this to an extent from the issue of whether weight is ‘controllable’ or a ‘choice’, different to skin colour or gender – it seems OK to see anorexia as something people find hard to control and deserve medical treatment for, but the reverse is not often the case.

    And I agree with TesserId it is very unlikely the money is going to replacement of the item. It is not beyond the imagination for it to be an excuse to deter those who may detract from the ideal image the salon wishes to portray…

  11. Nick, I was just thinking that your point (as captured in your first sentence) was the next to be made.

    One might expect that in cases where certain costs are high, there might be individual measurement of weight. One example of this might have been the supersonic airliners. The cost of tickets for those flights was very high, as the capacity of those planes is low and the cost of fuel at supersonic speeds is very high. But, I don’t remember hearing anything that suggested that passengers were weighed (though I expect that baggage restrictions were severe).

    In luxury services, all passengers pay the same premium rate. It’s in the cheap seats that people are treated like cattle, and non-conformists are more likely to be punished on the basis of some poorly formed rationale. The victims will be those that society is emotionally disinclined to defend.

  12. There isn’t anything immoral about a private business discriminating in any way they see fit. If they’re too discriminatory, they’ll make less money. The only thing that would make the weight policy wrong is if the customer wasn’t told about it in advance, as it is not a normal policy for a salon.

    Also, a business has no moral obligation to accommodate the disabled. It may not be economically feasible for a business that doesn’t get many disabled people to accommodate for them.

  13. So, questions fall into two areas: 1) Is there discrimination? 2) Is such discrimination immoral, unjust, or illegal?

    I’ve had plenty of discussions where it became apparent that there are often misconceptions about what constitutes a “private business” and what that means. And, I am often the person to point out that a business, as in a typical store front, has the right to refuse service to anyone (as is often posted on a sign). But, it seems that a business may need to be very careful about what reason they give when they do refuse service. And, I’m inclined to think that there are some legal implications on that point, though I don’t happen to know what that involves.

    There are also questions about how private a business is and what that means. That is, some businesses are less private then others, as is the case with common carriers.

  14. Joshua Cooley,
    So, it would not be immoral for a private hospital to refuse life saving service to someone because s/he is Hispanic?

    I’m interested in what your arguments are for your claims. Could you provide them?

  15. Any discrimination is a discrimination. The philosophical question seems to be when does discrimination (between) result in discrimination (against).

    In the UK over the years there are semi regular media stories (handy that) regarding obese people who have been refused treatement by the National Health Service because of the difficulties and dangers their condition causes to operating processes and hence the expectancy of survival. More obviously some national health media programmes are more directly aimed at weight loss by the obese as a means of hopefully reducing the overall burden on state obesity. Non-smoking programmes are a recent apparently successful example of similar actions. I have also noticed that type of issue arise in the USA.

    Somewhat amusingly most working sectors of communities seem to discriminate against the obese in some way so the only way to identify if that is a real problem of any scale would seemingly be to measure the weight of people in various occupations and regulate for a non-discriminatory weight distribution. Physical fitness is also relevant here so the correct physical fitness regime would need to be implemented alongside any weigh in programme. Clearly care would need to be taken that the resulting legal regime did not obviously discriminate against anything…

    Applying discrimination purely to the social arena these things have personally always left me with the question; If discrimination between results in discrimination against why? Applying utilitarian logic to the selected answers provides an amusing route but an inclusive mixture of methods has often proved more insight and a more valuable broadly based choice of answers for any question.

    Choices, choices, it seems to be all choices…


  16. Mike LaBossiere,

    No, it would not be immoral. No one has the positive right to a hospital, as positive rights only exist when they are created by a contract. There is no contract between a hospital and potential customers to service them in any way.

    If the right to a hospital did exist, this would require someone to build a hospital, and for people to work at it.

    The fact that the patient would die without the care is not important, as the NEED for a thing is not related to the RIGHT to have it.

    Also, when testing for morality, the distinction between discrimination(between) and discrimination (against) is not important.

  17. Insurance provides an interesting playground for this kind of thing. Car insurance is more expensive for men, and health insurance is more expensive for women.

    In both cases the provision of insurance is more expensive, and we society accepts the differential as legitimate.

    However, if a certain race (hispanics in the example above) has higher health care costs than the average then we would probably baulk at the idea of their paying more for insurance.

    Some categories seem fair to discriminate on, others not.

    In a similar vein, if fat people paid more for public transport and everything they sat on it would be very expensive for them. I’d suggest it wouldn’t really be fair.

    I’m shoulder to flabby shoulder with the obese on this one.

  18. But what does the fact that it’s not fair really implicate? Is it a call to action? We certainly can’t force a business to change unfair practices. It’s a business’s right to be unfair.

    If an insurance company starts to see that Hispanics tend to cost them more, then why shouldn’t they have the right to charge them more? Would it be unfair? Sure. But health insurance isn’t forced upon people. You agree to the policy.

  19. Joshua,

    Are you claiming that the people working in the hospital have no obligation to help dying people?

    What is your argument for the claim that positive rights require a contract? Also, what about professional ethics in the medical community? Or are your distinguishing between the hospital as an entity and the people who work there?

  20. I’m saying NO ONE has an obligation to help dying people, at least at long as they aren’t contractually obligated to. Of course, that is what a hospital is there for; they wouldn’t make much money if they didn’t.

    The reason positive rights require a contract is that they would infringe on our negative rights if they didn’t.

    Let’s consider religion. If you are practicing your religion, and you aren’t violating the rights of others, then I have no right to stop you in any way. You have a negative right to practice your religion.

    Now let’s say that your religion requires a session of tuba playing, and I play the tuba. The only way that you would have the right to force me to play the tuba is if I was contractually obligated to, e.g. if I agreed to play for you on payment.

    The fact that life is valued among all else (generally) does not change this. You have a negative right to life; that is, I don’t have the right to murder you. However you do not have a positive right to life; that is, you do not have the right to force people to guarantee your safety.

    Medical ethics is a separate issue. Generally I think of “ethical” and “moral” as synonyms. However, if you consider professional ethics in the medical community to contain guidelines like the Hippocratic Oath, then “medical ethics” directs the physician against things like abortion and euthanasia, both of which are medically unethical, but are not actually immoral.

  21. Joshua,

    Interesting. So, if you were struggling to pull yourself up on the ice, but failing and soon to die and I happened along with a rope, I would be under no obligation to take a few seconds out of my day to save you? As you drowned, you would be thinking “well, he was not under contract to help me, so his failure to act was not wrong”? My main point in asking is to see how far this principle goes.

    What would constitute a contractual obligation in these sorts of cases? Do you require an explicit contract? For example, while you were drowning could you negotiate a contract with me? Would it need to be signed or would a verbal agreement suffice?

  22. If you let me die, I’d think you were a giant dick. That’s not to say that what you did was immoral, but you don’t have to be immoral to be a dick.

    A verbal agreement would suffice, though if I were so near death then the contract would be made under duress, and would not be a valid contract.

    I think in some situations contracts are even implied. For instance, if I decide to take you up in my airplane, but then I decide that I’d rather fly alone, it would be immoral to push you out to your death, even though you’re on my property. I think it’s implied that I’m going to land the plane before I make you get out, even if you start to get annoying.

  23. Not to worry, I’d save you.

    Since you accept implied contracts, is it possible that we have implied contracts with each other based on something such as our being rational beings or human beings, or part of a civilization or some such thing? In other words, is it possible that we are born into certain obligations to each other? So, for example, it is implied obligation that we will not allow each other to die when a simple, non-risky, free action will suffice to prevent such a death?

  24. @Ian
    >Any discrimination is a discrimination

    Not when it’s a choice.

    Health insurance premiums are set on “average” costs – if they are skewed by the obese and smokers, those not making that unhealthy choice are effectively being financially penalized.

    What about my “rights” to sit on the bus without being crushed by an overweight passenger, or having secondary smoke blown over me?

    I have no problem with people making personal life choices, but they have no “right” to inflict those on others.

  25. We could live in a society where it’s generally understood that you’d be morally responsible for saving me if I were drowning, but I don’t think we do. That would be a pretty heavy implication.

    I should clarify something with the airplane example. If, before you got on, I told you that I would push you off of the plane if you started to annoy me, then it would be alright to do so. The implied contract that would force me to land only exists because it is traditional.

    Now back to the drowning example. Can you imagine me having to tell everyone that I wouldn’t save them if they were drowning, in order to escape immorality? It would be a pretty arduous task.

    Here’s another example. I sit down at a diner and order a cup of coffee, without looking at the menu. I ask for the bill, and to my surprise the bill is $40. Do I have to pay $40 for a cup of coffee? Hell no. $40 is traditionally too much for a cup of coffee; it would be ridiculous to assume that the customer would expect such a price.

    Now let’s say I actually looked at the menu and the prices are clearly marked. Now is it okay to charge me $40 for a cup of coffee? Of course; I was well notified of the price before ordering.

    But what about $5? or $8? Coffee is probably more expensive in New York than Detroit. I’d like to say there’s a definite line in implied contracts, but it’s one of the only parts of my philosophy where there really isn’t. You just have to be reasonable.

    Now it is possible for a world to exist where it would be alright to push people out of planes willy-nilly, or charge $40 for a cup of coffee without announcing the price beforehand. We don’t live in that world though. Implied contracts are a definite part of our society as it is now, but they aren’t universally definite.

  26. “After all, being obese seems to be a matter of choice and the fix is simple and obvious enough (eat less and exercise more).”

    False. So, so false. The rest of the article would be fine, but this one sentence pulls the rug out from under it.

  27. If obesity had a simple fix, there would be no industry built around it… no support groups, no drugs, no specialists, no prepackaged dinners, etc.

    In that there is no simple fix, the situation is also not as simple as being purely a matter of choice.

    Also note that part of what is behind what there is in the way of discrimination is an unwillingness to walk a mile in a fat person’s shoes. That is, people claim the problem is easy to fix because they can’t handle seeing these issues from the fat person’s perspective. In fact, people have an irrational view of obesity because of the fear that they feel when confronted by ideas of what it might be like to be so hindered and weighed down.

    Fattism is essentially empathy gone wrong.

  28. Hello I was wondering if my case had any merit? Here is a letter I have sent to Jenny Craig Weight Loss Centres today
    Hello, I had the opportunity to go for an interview yesterday with Jenny Craig. I thought it would be a great opportunity and I was set up with an interview at a Jenny Craig location in my area. When I received a call back the one question I asked was in regards to applying when I myself had weight issues and if that would be an problem when going forward with the interview process. I was assured it would not be and that I would be able to go on the Jenny Craig journey along with working there if selected. I went to my interview and was told by the manager that I was the best candidate for the job. She said my personality was better than anyone she had met with and the only issue she had was that I had weight to lose. She said she had hired people in the past and had to fire them because they didn’t lose their weight after a couple of years. She later called me and decided not to move forward with me. It was just such a misleading and discriminatory procedure. I was more than willing to be a Jenny Craig customer as well as an employee. I would not have applied if being slender was a prerequisite to the job. I am just so disappointed to be told that it wasn’t an issue only to find out it was the only reason I did not get hired. Sincerely, Lora

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