This column will change your life: don't blame the lazy. It may not be their fault

14.12.2013 14:20

As we stumble again into the season
of overindulgence – that sacred time
of year when wine, carbs and sofas
replace brisk walks for all but the
most virtuous – a headline in the
(excellent) new online science
magazine Nautilus catches my eye:
"What If Obesity Is Nobody's Fault?"
The article describes new research on
mice: a genetic alteration, it appears,
can make them obese, despite eating
no more than others. "Many of us
unfortunately have had an attitude
towards obese people [as] having a
lack of willpower or self-control,"
one Harvard researcher is quoted as
saying. "It's clearly something
beyond that." No doubt. But that
headline embodies an assumption
that's rarely questioned. Suppose,
hypothetically, obesity were solely
a matter of willpower: laying off
the crisps, exercising and generally
bucking your ideas up. What makes
us so certain that obesity would be the
fault of the obese even then?
This sounds like the worst kind
of bleeding-heart liberalism,
a condition from which I probably
suffer (I blame my genes). But it's a
real philosophical puzzle, with
implications reaching far beyond
obesity to laziness in all contexts,
from politicians' obsession with
"hardworking families" to the way
people beat themselves up for not
following through on their plans. We
don't blame people for most physical
limitations (if you broke your leg, it
wouldn't be a moral failing to cancel
your skydiving trip), nor for many
other impediments: it's hardly your
fault if you're born into educational
or economic disadvantage. Yet almost
everyone treats laziness and
weakness of will as exceptions. If you
can't be bothered to try, you've only
yourself to blame. It's a rule some
apply most harshly to themselves,
mounting epic campaigns of self-
chastisement for procrastinating,
failing to exercise and so on.
But who says it's correct? The
philosopher John Rawls is often
interpreted as saying it isn't. The fair
society, he famously claimed, was the
one we'd have constructed if we'd
been behind a " veil of ignorance " –
without knowing if we'd be born rich
or poor, strong or weak, good at
maths, or sports, or nothing. "We do
not deserve our initial place in the
distribution of native endowments,
any more than we deserve our initial
starting place in society," Rawls
wrote. You don't deserve praise for
being born sighted rather than blind,
or growing up wealthy. Do we really
deserve praise for having, or blame
for lacking, "the superior character
that enables us to make the effort to
cultivate our abilities"? Two rival
notions of willpower do battle among
psychologists these days. One is that
it's a learned skill. (You can, for
example, teach children distraction
techniques to resist temptation.) The
other is that it's a depletable
resource: if forced to use lots in one
domain – resisting impulse purchases
because you're poor, say – you'll
have less left over elsewhere. Either
way, it's something you might have
less of thanks to luck or upbringing,
not a magic power that lazy people
inexplicably refuse to use.
None of which means effort
should never be rewarded, or that it
isn't sometimes strategic to make
people – including yourself – feel
bad: guilt's a great motivator. But
when people fail to act in their own
interests, moralising might not be
justified. I'd start a movement to
campaign for the rights of the lazy
and weak-willed, but I suspect I'd
have trouble signing people up.