A Philosopher's Blog

Weight Discrimination?

Posted in Business, Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on August 25, 2010
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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11 Responses

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  1. Emily C said, on August 25, 2010 at 9:01 am

    Obesity is largely (no pun intended) a matter of choice.
    Disability, skin color, etc, (usually) isn’t.

    The health consequences of obesity are staggering – your health costs premiums, insurance rates, and indeed your national and local taxes are predicated on supplying aid to the overweight.

    Substitute smoking for obesity [in fact I just had to hire a car and they have a no smoking car (they fine you if they think you smoked – I guess they have a trained employee or dog!!) or a smoking car where you pay extra (supposedly a cleaning charge)] another shockingly highly health cost. Just imagine re-routing all that money to care and research on non-self-inflicted health issues.

    • T. J. Babson said, on August 25, 2010 at 9:51 am

      Emily–Turns out that smokers use fewer lifetime medical resources than the healthy types who live forever. The same is likely true of obese people as well.

      • freddiek said, on August 25, 2010 at 10:01 am

        Government resources? Personal resources? Both?

        “In 2002, the five most expensive health conditions were heart disease, cancer, trauma, mental disorders, and pulmonary conditions (Chart 4, 25 KB). Heart disease and trauma ranked first and second as the two most expensive conditions in terms of total health care spending; however, with respect to per-person costs, cancer was the most expensive and heart disease the second most expensive.11

        Taken together, these five conditions accounted for a substantial proportion of total health expenditures in 2002.”

        And neither heart disease nor cancer can be attributed solely to obesity or smoking.

  2. T. J. Babson said, on August 25, 2010 at 4:16 pm

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

    Some might argue that eating disorders are not really a matter of choice, and that many people are unable to maintain a healthy weight. I guess here we will go with the following approach:

  3. kernunos said, on August 25, 2010 at 9:32 pm

    How about science telling us for years that breads and cereals should be the biggest part of the food pyramid? what about all of the nutritional information some of us got through the public school systems that helped people along this path? Hell, many kids don’t even need to take gym class anymore. Competition may effect their fine sensibilities.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 26, 2010 at 4:01 pm

      I don’t think it is fair to blame science for people being fat. After all, the nutritionists who recommended the food pyramid also recommended that people not eat until they become obese. This criticism is like saying “how about car makers telling us to buy cars” and blaming them when people drive stupid.

      • kernunos said, on August 29, 2010 at 10:29 pm

        I am not blaming science, in fact my sentence was kind of incorrect because science cannot tell us anything without people. I was just pointing out that people may have been misguided by nutritionists/scientists who had influenced text books that was part of some health teachers curriculum at some public school where Suzie/Johnny attended. Then Suzie/Johnny(maybe not the smartest tools in the shed) after not exercising much become fat on a diet proposed to them by our low-level intelligencia. I’m all for personal responsibility in the end but there is nothing worse than arming people in life with false advice from people that are trusted to give correct advice.

  4. Andrew said, on August 27, 2010 at 2:22 pm

    I’m rather tired of the trend of using various excuses or justifications in order to make it acceptable to treat the overweight/obese differently. While I can understand the justification (more weight = more wear and tear on the furniture), I feel the only acceptable (to myself) way to approach this is with an all or nothing approach.

    Either you charge EVERYONE for their wear and tear on the seat in general, with a weight charge rate that increases and decreases with each person’s weight or you charge no one. A 100 pound person would still charged for putting some wear on the machine, and a 300 pound person is charged more for putting more wear on the machine.

    The alternative is that you charge no one, accepting that some customers are going to put more or less stress on the chairs and operating as normal, or getting bigger chairs.

    This may be the cynic in me speaking, but this seems less like a “our business can’t do well because all of our chairs are breaking due to the obese” situation and more like a “we’re going to nickle and dime a group of people using various arguments (that have already been made in other cases) simply because it is publicly acceptable to do so” situation.

    While I hesitate to make this line, and understand the already stated difference between weight and skin pigmentation, I look forward to the time in which my eventual children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the size of their bodies but by the content of their character.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 27, 2010 at 5:46 pm

      It could be argued that people do get charged for the wear and tear as part of the fee (it is just not stated explicitly), hence charging the large more would thus be acceptable.

      It could be that some people are doing as you claim-targeting the obese because they know they can get away with it. However, the argument about extra wear could still have merit.

      Good points, though.

    • kernunos said, on August 29, 2010 at 10:35 pm

      Paying per pound would be a good idea. after all a plane is not rated for take-off number of passengers but take-off weight. Just ask Aaaliyah….if you could. This wasn’t obesity related but it goes to show you what some extra weight can do to a plane’s ability to fly.


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