[cw: discussion of body positivity, diets, and exercise]
Imagine a fat woman, Alice, who very much dislikes being fat. r/fatpeoplehate is one of her most visited websites. About three-quarters of the time, she counts calories, skips dessert, and dutifully goes to the gym for an hour each day; her weight gradually drops and she feels good about herself. Then she gets fed up with her diet, eats mostly Doritos and ice cream while looking guiltily at her gym shoes, gains back all the weight she lost, and hates herself. This strategy has, needless to say, not made much of a dent in her weight.If you ask her whether she would like to love her body as it is, she would look at you dumbfounded. “Of course I don’t want to be okay with being a disgusting landwhale!” For Alice, being thin is a terminal value.
Now imagine Alice finds a more body-positive group of friends. They gently ask her to cut out the diet talk and body hate around them; they take her to buy clothes that make her feel good about her body; they invite her to join their recreational soccer league, and for the first time in her life she finds herself looking forward to exercise instead of viewing it as a grim duty. Gradually, she starts to not hate the person she sees in the mirror. And although she hasn’t lost weight, ending the diet/Doritos cycle has her doctor saying she’s the healthiest she’s been in years.
(My more anti-fat readers may feel free to replace this thought experiment with an unhappy fat woman who is part of Healthy At Every Size, then realizes how bad it is to be fat, loses weight, is more capable of doing things, and loves her body. The thought experiment should still serve.)
In this example, the major thing that has changed is Alice’s preferences. Of course, some other things have changed: she’s healthier, she isn’t skipping exercise, she doesn’t hate herself. But if a genie came up to Fat-Hating Alice and said “okay, you can be healthier, not hate yourself, and actually enjoy exercising, but the cost is that you are going to be fat for the rest of your life– not even the brief periods of thinness you have right now– and you’re going to be okay with it”, Alice would be like “what the fuck? No!”
How can we think about this within a preference utilitarian framework?
The obvious answer is to say that it’s good to change people so their preferences can be more easily satisfied. The problem with this answer is that it opens you up to wireheading. Unlike conventional hedonic wireheading, a preference-utilitarian wireheader isn’t even orgasmically happy– they just want the speed of light to be the speed of light, forever. This seems unsatisfactory.
Another answer is to say that changes in preferences are morally neutral. This seems perverse. Previously, Alice was very unhappy; now, Alice is happy. It seems very strange that the preference utilitarian should be equally okay with someone being miserable and someone being happy.
A third approach is to say that Alice was mistaken about her preferences: she thought that her terminal value was to be thin, but her actual terminal value was to love her body. Her friends didn’t change her terminal values; they changed her perception of what her terminal values are.
The problem with this approach is that it is no longer preference utilitarianism, it is just utilitarianism. For instance, you get hedonic utilitarianism if you assume that everyone’s actual terminal value is pleasure and the avoidance of pain; you get negative utilitarianism if you assume everyone’s actual terminal value is the avoidance of suffering; and so on for every variant of consequentialism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.