The Ethics of Bloomberg’s Soft Drink Ban

It’s a serious problem.”

“Something needs to be done.”

“This is a public health issue.”

The media defenses of New York Mayor Bloomberg’s controversial decision to ban the sale of large soft drink servings in New York City, and Bloomberg’s defense as well, set up a classic utilitarian argument for a government intrusion into personal choice and lifestyle. It is, simply, that the ends justify the means, and as we all know, sometimes they do.

Sometimes, however, those means sacrifice too much: lives, dignity, fairness, liberty, fun. Sometimes employing those means require crossing lines that have not been crossed before, opening the door to more and greater sacrifices that even advocates of the particular measure would find objectionable and wrong. This leads to the slippery slope dilemma, and invokes absolutism. Some things must never be considered as just means, no matter what the ends being sought may be. Immanuel Kant’s philosophy of absolutism declared that it was always wrong to use human beings against their wills to solve problems, no matter how great the problems are. The Declaration of Independence holds that a human being’s rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness must never be breached by government.

“It’s a serious problem” and “We have to do something” are mantras that permit both reasonable and unreasonable intrusions on liberty, personal choice and dignity. “We have to do something” about the thousands upon thousands of human lives lost to abortions: Let’s make abortion illegal. Let’s require licenses for sex.

“It’s a serious problem” that some people who can afford it refuse to but health insurance. Let’s make them do it.

“We have to do something” about the levels of obesity because it is making people sick. “It’s a serious problem” that only government has the power to address. Let’s tell people what they can eat and drink. Let’s ban sugar; let’s limit fat. Let’s do public weigh-ins, and permit open discrimination against fat people. Let’s make exercise mandatory, and take public benefits away from people who make themselves obese.

If you think I’m able to make a reflex call on the ethics of Bloomberg’s ban, you are wrong. This kind of public policy decision, much like the Obamacare individual mandate being judged by the Supreme Court, and yes, like the decision (by the Bush administration) of the U.S. to use torture against terrorists, and the decision (by the Obama administration) to target individuals on foreign soil, including American citizens, for drone assassination, sets cultural and societal ethics standards with wide-ranging consequences for our society for decades to come, and perhaps forever. It is a classic ethical conflict, pitting ethical principles, values and philosophies against each other, and must be discussed, analyzed and debated seriously, not with bumper sticker slogans and insults about broccoli and nanny states, or one-sided formulations like “we have to do something!” which bypass ethical analysis entirely.

I’ve been looking for an opportunity to apply Prof. Laura Nash’s “12 Questions Toward Ethical Decision-Making”  to a public policy issue, and this is a perfect subject. But I’m not going to answer her questions right now: you should. Here they are, from her 1981 Harvard Business School article, “Ethics without the Sermon.” She crafted the questions for business, but they apply in government equally well. What I have always liked about Nash’s questions is that they forego ethics jargon, and go to the heart of what makes a decision right or wrong in the short and long-term. Ideally, they should be paired with the Josephson Institute’s model for ethical decision-making, which leads the Ethics Alarms Ethical Decision-making Tools, right before the Nash questions.   But let’s start with Prof. Nash. Does Bloomberg’s ban seem like a reasonable and ethical course of action, after all of her questions are considered and answered?


[These 12 questions for examining the ethics of a decision were adapted from the steps formulated by Harvard Business School Professor Laura Nash in her Harvard Business Review article, “Ethics without the Sermon” (1981)]

1. Have you defined the problem accurately?

 2. How would you define the problem if you stood on the other side of the fence?

 3. How did this situation occur in the first place?

 4. To whom and to what do you give your loyalty as a person and as a member of the organization?

 5. What is your intention in making this decision?

 6. How does this intention compare with the probable results?

 7. Whom could your decision injure?

 8. Can you discuss the problem with the affected parties before you make your decision?

 9. Are you confident that your position will be as valid over a long period of time as it seems now?

 10. Could you disclose without qualm your decision or action to your boss, the head of your organization, your colleagues, your family, the person you most admire, or society as a whole?

11. What is the symbolic potential of your action if understood? If misunderstood?

12. Are there circumstances when you would allow exceptions to your stand? What are they?


Source: NY Times

Graphic: The Improper

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at


Filed under Business & Commercial, Character, Government & Politics, Health and Medicine, Law & Law Enforcement, Leadership, Professions, Religion and Philosophy, U.S. Society

14 responses to “The Ethics of Bloomberg’s Soft Drink Ban

  1. I consider this as much/little an intrustion as mandatory seatbelt laws. The prediction is that by 2050, one in three Americans will have some form of diabetes. The economic and quality of life implications are incalculable. This is a crisis that must be abated, and disallowing a quart-size cup of soda is not particularly totalitarian.

    You know what the real ethics sham is here? Last year, in New York, there was an attempt made to levy an increased tax on soda of 1 cent per ounce. The entire weight (and cash) of the soda lobby defeated the bill, citing the rights of people to enjoy their soft drinks.

    Can’t stand hearing that phrase “nanny state.” Why don’t we just eliminate all health and safety regulations, no guard rails or lights on highways,
    no meat inspection, and whatever abuse you do to your kids is fine, it’s your business.

    Soda may seem like a trivial issue, but with the direct and indirect health and insurance costs, it has wide implications for all of us.


  2. Pingback: The Ethics of Bloomberg's Soft Drink Ban | Ethics Alarms « Ethics Find

  3. Danielle

    I know many people that would sail past question one with a resounding yes and…. be wrong about it. I think getting past question one with agreement would be the most difficult part.

    • That’s astute: defining the question is always the hardest and most important part of the process. If you do that wrong, there is no way to arrive at the best result.

  4. Michael

    If you think the medical community knows the risks of being obese or overweight, think again. Look at the CDC definitions and you will see why so many people are “obese”. Yes, lots of people need to lose weight, but this “one size fits all” is ridiculous.

    For someone my height, I should be under 168 lbs! Well, I know I should lose about 30 lbs, but 168 is insane. In college, I weighed between 175 and 200 lbs and I felt great. I rode my bike 30 miles/week and I unloaded trucks on the side. When I went to graduate school, I was working too much and my weight dropped to 145 lbs. My parents wanted me to see a doctor, friends worried if I had HIV or was on drugs or something. When I look at pictures from that time, I realize how bad I really looked, skin and bones with a hollow face (like a sterotypical heroin addict). I was 145, right in the middle of the ‘healthy’ range for my height. I hope to get back to 200 lbs. That was when I felt best and I looked best. If you notice, that is 2 lbs shy of “obese”, but I am a stocky guy. At 200 lbs, I sank in the swimming pool!

    First they want to ban soda, what’s next? Take people’s kids away? Oops, too late.

    Maybe we should start regulating physicians instead. Medical mistakes cause over 200,000 dealth/year. Prescribed medication side-effects (not overdose) causes another 100,000/year. That means over 1 in 10 deaths is due to health care. That puts it at #3 after heart disease and cancer. Diabetes causes a mere 68,000 deaths/year and murders a mere 17,000 ( 12,000 by firearms). Remember that the next time the AMA demands to be allowed to regulate the firearms industry because it is a “health issue”. Maybe the firearms industry should be allowed to regulate the AMA because they are a “death industry”.

    • Peter

      About the definition, if you read the detailed explanation, you will see that the figures stated are guidelines for average build, not for athletes, not for those of “large boned” skeletal frame, and so on. One’s weight cause one to exceed the BMI guidelines for healthy weight, predicted from weight from height, when a person is muscular, or athletic. These are only rough guidelines. True obesity measurements require either using measures of adipose tissue thickness (with a big forceps device around your belly fat, for example), or, most accurately, requires measuring adipose tissue through “bouyancy,” that is, how much water you displace when you are in a tank. Fat people displace less water for a given weight. All of this is too complex for generic guidelines.

      • Michael

        Yes but we both know that isn’t how it actually gets done. I am not actually considered “big boned”, I’m not an athlete. When the government gets involved, it is going to be BMI and that’s it. For most physicians, it is BMI and that’s it. And that is only the half of it. My father had to wait 6 months to get health insurance once because the medical community insists that if you are overweight, you must have health issues. They spent 6 months and close to $10,000 on a physical before he could get this health insurance benefit from his company. They tested and tested and tested, because they couldn’t accept that there was nothing wrong with him except for the fact that he is overweight. That was 30 years ago. Still no health problems despite the fact that he is still overweight. Sure, he might have a heart attack when he is 85, but is that really reason enough to micromanage our lives so much? I haven’t seen that taxing cigarettes has reduced our health care expenses any and we know what the health effects of those are. Despite how bad they are for health, the tax has probably increased the costs. In today’s world, someone with lung cancer dies quite quickly and cheaply compared to the long, drawn out and expensive alternatives.

        The medical community is taking the health issues of 600 lb people and trying to extrapolate them to 250 lb people. It doesn’t work that way with the human body. Just because too much sodium chloride is bad doesn’t mean less is good. Just because too much radiation is bad, doesn’t mean less is good. Just because 300 lbs overweight is bad doesn’t mean that 50 lbs overweight is 1/6 as bad.

  5. Tim LeVier

    My gut reaction to this whole mess is more with the “means” than with the end. If soda is bad for you, then why limit it in a way that still allows people to drink as much as they want as long as they are inconvenienced?

    It’s the “half measures” that bother me. If Soda = Bad, then ban it. If Soda = Expensive, then tax it. If the People won’t let you do either, then listen to the People. But don’t try to circumvent the People from the process.

  6. Eeyoure

    I caught myself “drilling into” questions 9 and 12, like Danielle did (astutely, I agree) with question 1.

    Thinking of 9, the size limit on soft drinks runs the risk of enabling a faulty conclusion, I believe. Quantities consumed may decrease, and general health of the soft drink-using public may improve. And yet, those positive changes may have absolutely no attributability to the size limit…and yet, the observation of the changes could be used like blood in the water for regulatory “sharks” to conclude, “You see? Told ya so! Should’ve banned soft drinks entirely!”

    Question 12 got me to wondering if the New York food establishments are already prohibited from serving free refills. Last time I went to a local fast food place (outside New York), free refills seemed the routine, not the exception – to the point of unlimited free refills. A one- or two-free-refills sales tactic might provide the “happy medium” for (1) extra-thirsty consumers who fear they won’t be free to slake their thirst with a one-size-fits all policy and (2) sellers who fear losing such customers, without making a mockery of the limit on the container size.

  7. Peter

    It has become a reflex response to answer adverse circumstances with more regulation. To a lawyer, there is always a law, or regulation for any and every misstep in human behavior. Of course, we forget that we cannot predict the unintended consequences, not even to mention reviewing the effects of the laws we pass to determine if they are even having the INTENDED effect. Somehow, we believe that it is appropriate to pass laws to deny other people’s freedoms due to the “discomfort” of whiny types who have the connections and persistence to keep whining until they can get someone to pass a law. The consequence of such legislation’s continued passage, at ever more confiscatory levels of our liberties, is that we are legislating our way into a police state, and the widespread acceptance of the idea that it’s OK to deny personal liberty because it makes someone else “uncomfortable.” Again, as RR so aptly pointed out, “the government that is big enough to give you everything you want, is big enough to take away everything you have.” And this goes for not just your personal assets, but your freedoms as well.

    That said, in this context, yes, drinking lots of sugary sodas will make you fat, smoking will kill you, too much alcohol will kill you, doing extreme sports can kill you, and so on. And as long as one’s decisions affect only himself, have at it. However, when you want me to pay, through my insurance premiums, and my taxes, for the consequences of your stupidity, you cede the sovereignty of your decision to others beside yourself. If you want to ride your motorcycle without a helmet, while drunk, sure, do it. Just don’t expect me to pay the costs of your head injury.

    As much as I hate the idea of the “nanny state,” and I do, I do NOT oppose the idea of a user’s “fee,” or user’s “tax” and lobbied for a bill in Colorado some years ago, that would direct that state’s tobacco tax towards the costs of indigent medical care in that state. The argument was that smoking was much more prevalent in the indigent population, and there was at least some kind of plausible connection. (Of course, you can’t trust legislators, and the possibility exists that, in the future, in the midst of some budget crunch, those funds would be confiscated for the general treasury. So far, however, they seem to have been put to good and multiple related uses in that state).

    In this context, recognizing that the potential health costs related to obesity will be huge if such predictions come true, and there is little reason to believe that they will not, one can make the argument for a “user’s fee,” here as well. It’s just that I don’t trust Bloomberg to “escrow” the proceeds from such a tax to build up the reserves to pay directly for such health consequences to the population in the future. Again, one can make the argument that the predictions about obesity are likely to affect the indigent population disproportionately, since therein lie many who make poor personal choices in a number of areas, and direct the funds toward defraying the costs of indigent care in New York (thereby freeing up other funds, or, God forbid, reducing income tax rates to stem to loss of productive people whose enterprise and job-creating abilities are treated more favorably in other states).

  8. T. Bird

    In a recent posting ( you discussed your affirmation of the Mayor’s campaign to curb teen pregnancy in NYC. You used another one of Kant’s philosophies in arguing that in this case the government stepping in makes sense. I fail to see how this same reasoning does not also apply to the mayor’s initiatives to try to curb the obesity epidemic. “Conduct that would lead to societal catastrophe if everybody engaged in it is bad”– I give you excessive fructose (the sweet molecule making up roughly half of table sugar and 55% of high fructose corn syrup – HFCS) ingestion. If everybody ate excessive doses of fructose, the entire society would be obese and have metabolic syndrome ensuring early death – this would be BAD for the public. Our obesity epidemic and the world’s obesity pandemic at our hands costs trillions of dollars the world over and results in poor health and early death. In that light, it is far worse than the teen pregnancy problem for which you see no ethical dilemma in government policies aimed at curbing such a problem which is actually trending downward. While I am all for Mayor Bloomberg’s new initiative to curb teen pregnancy and hail it as being ethically correct, I also see merit in his soda ban. If I apply Kant’s Universality principal to the soda ban like you did to teen pregnancy, it would seem that it is reasonable to limit the availability of an excessive dose of a toxic substance, especially when applied to curb something that is trending upward as a public health problem. We already do this with tobacco and alcohol. According to Lustig, fructose metabolism is identical to alcohol metabolism except for one thing – none is metabolized in the brain. Fructose is alcohol without the buzz. Like alcohol, fructose is a toxin (dose dependent – and without the fiber found in fruit as an antidote to the metabolic nightmare which ensues when delivered without the fiber), only different from alcohol, it goes unregulated. In fact, subsidizing the corn growers only contributes to the problem on a political level.
    Using these same principals, I do believe the government should do something to curb the obesity epidemic. I’m not sure how to do it, but it probably starts with ending subsidies to corn growers. I read your argument against the government speaking out of both sides of its mouth about saturated fat in our diets all the while enacting programs that increase profits to the dairy industry. (
    If you accept Taubes and Lustig’s arguments that fructose is a toxin (found in their books “Good Calories Bad Calories” , “Why We Get Fat” and “Fat Chance” and in their articles in the NY Times and also in Lustig’s famous 90 minute YouTube video watched by over 3 million people) then substitute “Sugar or HFCS industry” and “Corn growers” for “Dairy Industry” and “Dairy farmers” and also substitute “fat” for “fructose” and leave cholesterol alone as fructose is actually what causes a rise in the bad LDL in the body, then there you have it –same argument for changing government policies so government is not hypocritical.
    To me these two problems both bring up sticky debate. What right does government have in telling me what, when and how much I can eat? What right does government have in telling me how (protected or unprotected) and when (including at what age) I can have sex? Both are complex and intricate dances around principals, morals and philosophies that merit some public discussion. It is the public who pays the price when individuals behave inappropriately in both cases. It is misinformation and bad government practices that compound the problem in both cases. So, the public should be protected from inflicting damage on itself. Wait. Did I just say that government should be invited to my dinner table or into my bedroom? Tricky dance indeed.

    • It’s a great post, and I will probably make this a comment of the day. But your analogy is forced. My drinking a supersized sugary drink doesn’t hurt society, nor does it make the world obese, or even me obese. Having kids without being married, however, does create kids without fathers, does create high risk children, does undermine societal stability and productivity. Bloomberg’s drink law didn’t prohibit becoming obese, which, I would argue, a government that has to pay for health care could reasonably do (one reason I don’t like government health care.) If everybody in the world drank one sugary, giant drink, the net effect would be zilch.

      It’s wrong to incapacitate yourself when others depend on you or have to care for you—this applies to both having children you can’t take care of, and getting obese. If Bloomberg had parallel campaigns, educating people about obesity, and making it clear that not taking care of yourself was irresponsible, and campaigning against teen pregnancy, that would be dandy. But with drinks, he’s passing laws. This is ethics, not law we’re talking about. Right and wrong, societal standards, not “live the way I want you to live…or else.”

      The public should be prohibited from inflicting damage on itself to the extent that irresponsible individual choices seriously affect others, and society generally. Drinking a super-sized soft drink doesn’t do that. Doing almost everything to excess will lead to harm…that’s what makes the soda ban dumb, autocratic and arbitrary. Telling us they are bad for us? Public education. Fine. Just like the pregnancy campaign.

      You know, obese people are already ostracized, exactly the treatment that is deemed cruel for single teen mothers….and yet many obese people are blameless. Unless they are raped, I don’t regard teen mothers as blameless.

      Good thoughts—flawed analogy.

  9. T. Bird

    Thank you, Jack. This is exactly why I read your blog faithfully every day. It improves my thinking. If I have no one to share my thinking with, how will I determine when I am using a bad analogy? I’m going to say that it didn’t occur to me – and likely would not have if I hadn’t written it down and took the risk of sharing it publicly. So, for providing a place where I can throw out my ideas and get in return a reasoned scholarly response, I am most grateful. I don’t have enough conversations with people in real life where I get to bounce ideas off someone who can apply an ethical lens. I find most people to apply their own bias lens. In this new light, I do not think the Mayor should be enacting laws to prevent people from excessively large sods any more than I think he should be enacting laws prohibiting teens from having sex But I would fully support a campaign to raise the public’s awareness of the dangers of excessive consumption of foods high in sugar and HFCS. This might actually help the public in a way that would reduce health costs and make them less dependent on the State.

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