Rants and Screeds on Wants and Needs


Tom Chivers asks: Are diet pills immoral?

“Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral,” answers Melvin Kranzberg. I know that I overuse that quote, and I know that it’s not watertight philosophically; but it gets you thinking in the right direction. What Kranzberg is urging us to do is not to take a reductionist approach to the moral questions of technology, but to interrogate it on the ground of human society – the society which produced that very human technology.

Technology is generally developed in order to meet human needs – or at least that’s how it started out, because more recently technology is developed to meet human wants rather than needs. It’s not clear to me when that line was crossed, but there’s obviously quite a lot of ground between the invention of the first fishing net and the invention of plastic cases that cover your mobile phone with a BTS logo.

It’s important to distinguish human needs from human wants, because unlike our needs, our wants are shaped by society. Wants spring from needs, but while needs are mostly unchanging, desires can be radically different from place to place, and time to time. This is because, while we are born with needs, we are trained to want. That training takes different forms depending on the society, and of course in our capitalist society there are capitalist mechanisms for training.

On the whole, I think fulfilling human desires is a good thing. Not always, but most of the time, giving people things they want makes them happier. So why not?

There is of course an entire religion founded on answering the question “why not”.

The desire of a thoughtlessly living man grows like a creeper. He drifts from one life to another like a monkey looking for fruit in the forest. When one is overcome by this wretched, clinging desire in the world, one’s sorrows increase like grass growing up after a lot of rain. But when one masters this wretched desire, which is so hard to overcome, then one’s sorrows just drop off, like a drop of water off a lotus.

Gautama Buddha, Dhammapada Ch. 24

We are – and should be – suspicious of our desires, but that’s probably the wrong place to start. It might be more productive to start in a more modern place; to start, in fact, where Chivers starts his essay; with hamburgers, specifically fake ones. The hamburger is a particularly apt example, because its invention and subsequent spread are intimately tied up with processes of industrialisation and globalisation under capitalism. We don’t see that, of course, because all we really want is a burger, not a semester of lectures about the environmental impact of the meat industry, and so:

Making fake burgers takes a fraction of the energy and land that making a beef burger does and fewer cows end up dead. But, and this is crucial, I still get to eat a burger. There was an alternative way around this, of course. Instead of developing a low-impact way of fulfilling my desire for a burger, we could have encouraged me not to want burgers any more, or (more likely) to suppress it. We could have run advert campaigns fronted by earnest celebrities telling me that burgers are bad. We could even have simply banned burgers. And maybe it would have worked. But then I wouldn’t have got to eat a burger, and I wanted a burger.

This is – accidentally, I assume – the case against fake burgers. It starts from the assumption that wanting a burger is justifiable; yet of course the ethical case against meat says that this assumption is not justifiable, any more than murder is justifiable – hence the tired old slogan of meat is murder. We have plenty of desires that aren’t justifiable, if we’re honest with ourselves; some are trivial but some are downright criminal. These desires come from deep within us, but they are shaped by – you guessed it – the societies we grow up in; and in this case it’s a society that trained us to believe that eating meat is justifiable.

We know this is the result of training because there are societies, and even subgroups within our own society, that do not believe this, and do not train their children to believe this. Depending on your background, there can be various religious and cultural prohibitions on eating all or some meats – not for the same ethical reasons as vegetarians, but that’s besides the point. So it’s clearly possible to take the path that Chivers talks about, and shape a society in which eating meat is discouraged, and even banned. (Whether this itself is morally justifiable is a separate question.)


Back to diet pills. 

Last week, the neuroscientist Stephan Guyenet wrote a piece about a promising pharmaceutical treatment for obesity: that is, an actually effective weight-loss pill. I thought it was exciting, but several people responding to me thought it was “dystopian” or “depressing”: people should diet and exercise. We should change society and behaviour, not rely on pills.

But again: I think that’s just wrong. Changing society can be good! We should make cities more walkable; we should make food healthier and exercise easier, and doing so would probably reduce obesity and improve health. But for some people that won’t be enough, because not everyone has the same levels of food craving or impulse control. A pill that makes their job easier, that levels the playing field, would also be good.

Changing society can be good! When we talk about changing society, what we’re talking about is changing behaviour; and when we talk about changing behaviour, we’re really talking about changing desires. And that’s what Chivers is referring to here; ways of changing people’s behaviours, which will in turn train their desires. The diet pill is a shortcut that will tame the desire, which will enable people to change their behaviour more easily, reversing the direction of causality. But why do people find that depressing?

But I do think that for some people, there’s a tendency to confuse motive and means: they think that because many of the things we want and enjoy have harmful side-effects, so the things we want and enjoy are bad in themselves. Like Puritans opposed to hunting not because the animals suffer but because the hunters enjoyed it, we think that because we sometimes need to suffer for noble purposes, that suffering itself is noble. It’s not.

Well, it can be; it all depends on context. But it’s not suffering that people are looking for here, it’s struggling. Struggling is what makes our lives difficult, but also what makes our lives worthwhile; managing the appropriate amount of struggling is what makes life worth living. Too much struggling causes suffering, but so does too little, and when we hear about the diet pill we’re thinking, that’s too little – because unless we’re one of them, most of us aren’t thinking about those poor souls for whom obesity is a serious medical condition, but of our day-to-day struggle for a healthy diet.

But there’s another reason why I find the prospect of diet pills depressing, and it’s the same reason why I find the meat-free burger depressing. 

People who worry about solutionism (“foolhardy belief that technology can sidestep thorny social and political problems”) say that, instead of finding technological quick fixes for society’s ills, we ought to concentrate on the root causes: to change our social structures, to change our behaviour, to change policy. I strongly disagree. We should do both.

I believe that we should do both as well! But the truth is that we don’t. The capitalist organisation of society that produced the desire for hamburgers creates poor incentives for addressing root causes, because it’s very difficult and nobody makes money from it, while creating great incentives for technological quick fixes which you can make money from. Obviously it’s not quite as cut-and-dried as that, but the real world is still a long way away from the ideal world in which we do both; and the danger is that the technological quick fix actually creates yet more disincentive for addressing the root causes.

This argument for diet pills is thus misleading, even if not intentionally; on the surface it looks like an argument for innovation, but in reality it’s an argument for the status quo, in preference to real change. “People want to fly, they want to drive, they want to heat their homes,” Chivers writes – but people didn’t want to take a cheap flight to Barcelona for the weekend before planes were invented, and they didn’t want to take an SUV on the school run before cars were invented (I’ll accept that people have always wanted to heat their homes – hard to dispute that one).

Is people getting what they want a good thing? Getting what you want is not the wellspring of happiness, and in any case being happy is not the only good in life. Technological solutions are all well and good, but they always have costs; changing society is often better, but it also has costs. And finally, we need to beware of people telling us what our desires are, especially if they want to sell us something; the seemingly harmless desires we can see on the surface often mask more unhealthy desires below. So my answer, perhaps inevitably, is that people getting what they want is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.

Postscript: Giles Fraser also attempted a reply to Tom Chivers’ article, but it is unfortunately calamitously bad. I strongly recommend that he reads something, anything about magic that isn’t a Harry Potter book.

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