This week, New York (City) Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced New York City’s proposed plan to ban sugary beverages over 16 ounces (or more than 25 calories per 8 ounces) in fast-food restaurants. This means next year, New York City residents might have to cross city lines to score a Big Gulp at the local 7-11. Mayor Bloomberg said high-sugar, high-calorie beverages need to be banned because, as we all know, Mountain Dew makes people fat.
I think we’d all agree that there is something going on with the waistlines of a not-insignificant number of Americans. Americans are getting fatter. As a portly American I can personally attest to the fact that Americans, as a nationality, are a chubby bunch of folks. But — as much as I agree that America does have weight issues, I’m not too certain that a wholesale ban on sugary soft drinks is the way to win America’s battle of the bulge. Here’s the reason why:
Americans love freedom. That is, we love the idea that the word “freedom” represents: being unrestricted, self-determination, not being controlled by fate or necessity, liberty. Every American possesses the freedom or liberty do what one pleases — as Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
The idea that our liberty, the freedom to do what we choose, is infringed upon (especially when the infringing is by the government), is inherently unappealing to many Americans. The notion that the government would restrict the exercise of one’s unalienable liberties is seen by some as downright un-American. Of course, how unAmerican banning sugary drinks is depends on what philosopher you read.
Liberty, defined as the freedom to do as one pleases, is often divided into two types:
- freedom from
- freedom to
Liberty, as “freedom from” is defined as freedom from restraint or interference by law (e.g. the concept of “natural rights” — As Thomas Hobbes writes, “a free man is he that in those things which by his strength and wit he is able to do is not hindered to do what he hath the will to do.”). Liberty, as “freedom to” is any right that we have the power to do, (e.g. freedom of speech or religion).
This is not the point I am trying to make.
The point that I am trying to make is that when we define freedom or liberty from a philosophical point to view (although some people argue that there is a distinction between the two, most people use them interchangably), we think that a being that possesses liberty is one that is autonomous, that is, free beings are self-legislating and directed by their (freely chosen) sense of reason or rationality. Philosophers such as the German philospher, Immanuel kant, argue that our rational choices are the result of of rationally-held beliefs. When we think in a clear, rational manner, Kant says, we will make ethically correct decisions. So what we choose to do, including what we choose to eat or drink, not only affects our health, but is also a moral decision as well. A person who chooses to drink a soda pop may be doing a bad thing to do healthwise — but he might also be doing a bad thing, period.
But, here’s the thing: if we see drinking sugary beverages as a moral choice in addition to a health choice, we run into the question concerning the role of government in legislating morality. The English philosopher John Locke wrote that governments are never successful when it comes to legislating morality (Locke famously wrote that forcing non-believers to go to church does no one any good). We might say that the ability to make our own rational choices outweighs any reason to curtail the availability of individuals to purchase high sugar, high calorie beverages. And Kant states any attempt to legislate on behalf of rational individuals is morally impermissible (as this denies said individuals the right to exercise their capacity to use their own rational judgment).
So at this point, we say that Bloomberg’s proposed soda ban is bad because the act of interfering with an individual’s ability to freely purchase a beverage of their choosing interferes with our ability to choose for ourselves. To respect an individual’s ability to choose, we must respect their choices, whether we find (the choices) objectionable or not.
We might be satisfied with a Kantian response to Bloomberg’s ban, but we have a problem: namely, governments have the right to restrict freedom — if the restriction is in the interest of preserving freedom. For example, murder is illegal. The government acknowledges that not allowing murder restricts some individuals, but making murder illegal also preserves the freedom of others (i.e. people who are not murdered). If banning sugary beverages serves the greater good, then a ban on sugary beverages may be justifed. In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill wrote
As soon as any part of a person’s conduct affects prejudicially the interests of others, society has jurisdiction over it… it is impossible for a person to do anything seriously or permanently hurtful to himself, without mischief reaching at least to his near connections, and often far beyond them. (63-7)
Mill says that when we believe that our actions affect no one but ourselves, we’re mistaken; our actions can reach far beyond ourselves. Proponents of the ban say that the costs of obesity outweigh an individual’s right to engage in behavior that results in higher medical costs for society at large. According to this argument, proponents of the ban aren’t overextending the reach of the Nanny State or vegan meannies who don’t want anyone to have any fun. They are simply civic-minded citizens who are looking out for the whole and trying to to what is best for everyone.
….although that doesn’t explain why milkshakes and alcoholoc beverages are exempt.