Bias Also Makes Philosophers Stupid

Kate Manne, an associate professor of philosophy at Cornell University, is tired of dieting, so she tied herself up into rhetorical knots and rationalizations to argue that dieting is “immoral.” She also allowed herself to be published doing so.

How embarrassing. This is one reason why philosophy is a dying field, albeit slowly: how can anyone trust someone who masks pure self-interest in philosophical theory?

Manne writes,

I recognize that even if you are a fat person who would be healthier if you lost weight, you don’t owe it to anyone to do so; you don’t owe it to anyone to be healthy in general. And I know how much my internalized fatphobia owes to oppressive patriarchal forces — the forces that tell girls and women in particular to be small, meek, slight, slim and quiet.

Do parents owe it to those who depend on them, like their children, to be as healthy as possible? Why yes, I think that’s a settled proposition. How about those who depend on the voluntarily obese for their jobs? An ethicist wrote we have no obligations to keep ourselves functional and alive?

And what does being “meek and quiet” have to do with the topic at hand? Manne is trying to make a weak argument appear better by pushing feminist buttons. She knows why women want to be attractive, and she should know that male concepts of what is attractive in a mate aren’t going to shift to favoring fat because a philosopher calls a pre-installed biological imperative “oppressive patriarchal forces” so she won’t feel guilty about having another helping of mashed potatoes.

Then she writes,

As someone who recently dieted with some success (“success”), it is obvious to me that I’ve set a bad example for my now 2-year-old daughter — one that will only become more problematic over time, as she becomes more and more aware of what I am or am not eating. I have contributed in a small way to a society that lauds certain bodies and derogates others for more or less arbitrary reasons and ones that lead to a great deal of cruelty and suffering.

Will mom being fat set a better example for her daughter? Next…

I have denied myself pleasure and caused myself the gnawing pain and sapping anxiety of hunger. These are all things we usually think of as straightforward ethical ills. Almost all versions of the family of moral theories known as consequentialism hold that pleasure is morally good and pain and suffering are morally bad. Even if this is not the whole truth of ethics, it is plausibly part of the truth.

Well, consequentialism is crap, an appeal to moral luck that is a habit for dummies, not alleged philosophers. Eating that eclair might be momentarily pleasurable, but when it helps bring about a type two diabetes diagnosis later, its final pleasurable vs painful score isn’t so pleasurable. This philosopher is arguing for hedonism, which was properly discredited as a sound ethical approach to life centuries ago.

The phrase “not the whole truth of ethics [but] plausibly part of the truth” is so desperate, it’s sad. Stop making excuses and accept that you can’t stay thin, and live with the consequences, or go to the gym. Philosophy has nothing to do with it.

8 thoughts on “Bias Also Makes Philosophers Stupid

  1. As someone who abandoned philosophy for the study of law (hey, if I am going to argue about silly stuff for a living, I may as well get paid for it), I have a slight defense to make of this. I would not say philosophy is a dying field, but the problem with academic philosophy (and academia in general) is the emphasis on publishing. There are only so many insightful things that can be said under duress. It leads to this type of nonsense.

    But, the question itself is not entirely stupid. Jack’s analysis is simply better, though I don’t share the view that hedonism was discredited centuries ago. Bentham, Mill and Utilitarianism are still influential in the area of ethics and morality. It should be obvious, though, that the question of whether dieting is immoral is far more complicated than some manifestation of the Patriarchy (another concept that provides ample fodder for academicians in need of things to write about). Where physical fitness is required (or even mandated), dieting may be the proper means to that end.

    But, if she is worried about “dieting,” she should simply stop dieting and teach her children about proper nutrition. In my daily struggles to feed my children, I try to explain why certain portions of the meal are not only safe to eat (it won’t kill them), but are actually good things to eat (and why). Then, of course, not everything has to be healthy; it is okay to eat some things just for fun or because they taste good. Complaining about “dieting,” however, is probably a very bad way to help her children create a healthy relationship with food.

    -Jut

    • [T]he problem with academic philosophy (and academia in general) is the emphasis on publishing. There are only so many insightful things that can be said under duress. It leads to this type of nonsense.

      Amen.

  2. There is so much to address here it’s hard to know where to begin, but you, Jack, make a lot of good points. And I entirely agree with you that (my opinion) the pursuit of Philosophy has become less and less about the pursuit of wisdom and increasingly about sophism and just plain smart-ass remarks. I say this as a college Philosophy major who moved on to other things after sensing that it was becoming a lot of intellectual onanism. I also find that so many philosophers I run across these days are no better than smart lawyers, who can and do make arguments about something just to show how “smart” they are, with little thought about the content of their thinking or remarks. They also are all too often quite ignorant about a lot of things outside of whatever narrow topic they’re interested in, making their resultant thinking even less interesting or of any value.

    Next, as someone whose business (Apparel and Fashion) has become a topic of abuse recently, the historical male concept of attractive women has varied incredibly across the millenia. Take for example the classic fertility goddess figure, which, yes, is a symbol of fecundity, but also has to be one form of an attractive female figure. Agree or disagree, but the Ottoman figure of desire also was something we would nowadays call morbidly obese. If you’re not sure, look for photos of Turkish harem women of 100-150 years ago – not the western paintings of a seraglio or the “slave market” which seek to titillate Western tastes. Basically, until quite recently the “ideal” woman’s figure has centered around fecundity, which has to do with a certain hip-to-waist ratio, and somewhat less to do with bust size. The modern model’s figure isn’t it. Don’t look at “fashion”, ask most men what they find attractive or look at what shows up online, and it will again come down in most cases to something closer to a full-figured woman – which, coincidentally also coincides with biologically healthy fecundity.

    As regards health issues, yes, as you say, being healthy “for our children” is important, and modeling good practices for them is also important, however as the government intrudes ever more into healthcare it also has a pecuniary interest in the population being healthy, and will perforce find ways to “encourage” us to be healthy. This current “fat shaming” thing is an aberration, and the exception which proves the rule. Look at current vaccine mandates, and the reasoning for them. Or look at the desire to exclude the unvaccinated from receiving healthcare at all. It’s all of a piece. Once someone else is paying for our healthcare, they also will claim the right to tell us how to eat, live, exercise, etc. It comes with the territory.

  3. Yeah, it didn’t take me long to pass the cutting edge of human philosophy, and I don’t even get paid for it. (Yet.)

    Leaving aside for a moment the ethical questions about taking care of one’s own health because of the people depending on one’s continued existence, diet and nutrition is a classic stagnation axis issue.

    Stagnation is the fundamental liability defined by known motivational obstacles. In other words, stagnation happens when we fail to accomplish something because we can’t muster the will to go and make it happen. It’s the difficulty in acting to change who we are to become the people we might otherwise want to be.

    Like the other liabilities, stagnation has two failure modes based on underregulation and overregulation.

    The tradeoff that underregulates stagnation is decadence, the addiction to instant gratification that prevents people from making decisions for their long-term benefit. Decadence happens when people just do what they feel like doing at the moment.

    The tradeoff that overregulates stagnation is dogma, the unwillingness to consider certain options or to question one’s assumptions in a particular context. Dogma happens when peope take beliefs and rules for granted and resist reevaluating them. Many humans choose dogma because they fear decadence, and they feel (consciously or subconsciously) that dogma is the only thing that protects them from it by preventing them slipping into decadence and losing their self-discipline.

    In the situation at hand, dogma is what Manne fears: the dogma of what she has been told she is supposed to do and how she is supposed to look has caused her enough pain that she rejects that tradeoff.

    I haven’t been able to read the article yet, but I assume she’s not saying that a person should launch themselves wholesale into decadence. I would expect her to say that in the context of diet and nutrition, the mental scarring and ongoing frustration that dogma can create may warrant abandoning that dogma and allowing oneself to risk a bit of decadence.

    Then again, decadence versus dogma is a false dichotomy. There’s no magic balance between the two, but there’s a constructive path forward in the form of transcendence, deliberately building oneself up so that one set of desires does not dictate one’s actions. Practicing transcendence means taking on challenges, growing as a person, and increasing one’s ability to be constructive to deal with other liabilities.

    As for the ethics, each person has to judge the odds for themselves. What do they think the risk is to their physical health if they have dessert, versus their mental health if they don’t? Are there other choices they can make that influence the probable outcomes? If a person exercises for their physical and mental health, can they allow themselves to stop worrying about what they look like? How do we manage the stress our responsibilities create for us?

    Philosophy should allow us to explore and traverse constructive paths forward, not draw us into a vortex of trying to establish one side or the other of a false dichotomy as objectively superior. At least, that’s how I apply it.

  4. This part is unforgivable and exposes a tainted, delusional worldview:

    “patriarchal forces — the forces that tell girls and women in particular to be small, meek, slight, slim and quiet…”

    Let’s break down what the “patriarchy” is supposedly demanding of girls, according to the lens through which people indoctrinated like this see the world:

    1. “Small” – Women are smaller than men, across the board. Is biology a patriarchal system? Is she saying that by ballooning out into an obese woman, she will achieve equality with taller men and their more dense body structures? Or is she just saying that the patriarchy demands healthy women? (Historically, that’s not even true, if old European paintings have taught me anything.) But even if it were true that the patriarchy desires fit women, survival in a state of nature also demands a healthy body. If anything, “patriarchal” structures (like agriculture and cities) have made it possible for obese people to even exist in the first place. In some utopian feminist treehouse-jungle, fat women would just be eaten by tigers.

    This is even dumber when you consider that NOBODY likes, wants, or respects a fat man. As if the patriarchy loves fat dudes but not fat women. She’s already veered into insanity, and it’s just getting started.

    2. “Meek” – This is also a product of biology, not culture. Men have higher levels of testosterone, which means they generally take more risks, are louder, more aggressive, and act out more physically, compared to women. If women were as aggressive as men but with otherwise the same biology, they would be getting themselves killed in violent confrontations with men at obscene rates throughout history. It’s not likely that the demographic balance between men and women would even be sustainable that way, which means over time women would just go back to being largely “meek” again, as less aggressive women would outlast more aggressive ones. Instead of celebrating the unique qualities of women, this philosopher thinks that it’s unfair that women aren’t just…men.

    3. “Slight” – Again, this is just a biology problem. She is raging against nature. Adding more fat onto your bones doesn’t make you less “slight” really. She would still probably shorter and lighter than any man with similar percentages of body fat. Gaining 200 pounds doesn’t defeat the “patriarchy” here.

    4. “Slim” – Men do generally (not always) prefer women who are not morbidly obese. But women also prefer healthy men. Men and women both have more respect for healthy, tall, and attractive males, and this is reflected in business hierarchies, mating preferences, and even incomes. There’s literally no gender disparity here. She’s just so self-obsessed and egotistical that she can’t acknowledge that men face the same problems she does. If people disrespect her for being fat, she sees this as a sexist problem for some insane reason, and not a “being fat” problem, even though fat men have it just as bad or worse.

    5. “Quiet” – See number 2 above. Yes, calm and rational women are more desirable than loud and abrasive women. This goes for men too in many cases, but there are exceptions for males because men are biologically the more aggressive half of the species. In a state of nature, adult men do most of the risk taking, food-hunting, tribe-defending, house-building, fighting, and dying. They don’t need or want screaming, argumentative mates for the same reason they don’t need women to fight in wars for them. Obviously, a lot of this is mitigated when men set up nations with police forces, farms, governments, cities, and laws that make fighting and hunting for food less necessary. But the biology of the species doesn’t change, and it’s not because there’s some evil patriarchy calling the shots.

    This should be common sense, and educated persons shouldn’t need to be told these things. But here is an educated “philosopher” who thinks that women are generally more gentle, smaller, and less aggressive than men…because the patriarchy “tells” young girls to be this way. It’s just nuts, and it’s all held together, ironically, because educated men will do anything to appease their female and feminist colleagues, even when they KNOW it’s nuts.

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