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.