Social Question

iamthemob's avatar

Does the idea of "personal accountability" sometimes cause more harm than good?

Asked by iamthemob (17176points) November 19th, 2010
27 responses
“Great Question” (6points)

It’s generally accepted, including by me, that we should all be personally accountable for our actions and choices.

However, I think that at times we assume that there is actual free choice when there isn’t any. For instance, the rising obesity problem in the U.S. is estimated to cost over $100 billion dollars for taxpayers.

Many look at the problem and think it’s unfair for the taxpayer to shoulder the cost of someone else’s choice to eat poorly and not exercise enough. However, many lower-income people have little choice in the area of what to eat, most restaurants being fast food. Further, if they work long hours for low pay, they often only have the time and money to feed their family with the worst food because it’s the fastest and the cheapest. Also, we have evolved in an environment where salt and sugar is rare, so we biologically get cues to gorge, essentially, when we encounter those flavors. And, of course, fast and junk foods trigger just those taste buds.

Given the above situation, who is personally accountable – the poor trying to feed their family, or the companies flooding them with these options? Is it the government for subsidizing the basic components of these foods?

When we claim that something is “their choice” or/and therefore “their fault,” in what situations are we failing to look past the person and see other causes?

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DominicX's avatar

I just don’t think “I’m poor so I had to eat fast food” is a good excuse for being obese. Rice and beans are some of the cheapest, easiest food out there and they’re never going to get you fat. Fruits and vegetables are like that in general; they’re not expensive and they’re not going to make you obese. It’s really the result of people who would rather eat at fast food places then prepare food themselves or put much thought into what they’re eating.

I do agree that we can’t ignore other causes, but in looking at other causes, we can’t ignore personal responsibility either. There are often multiple causes that could be contributing.

ANef_is_Enuf's avatar

I think so, yes. I do believe that in many cases, obesity is caused by far deeper underlying factors than “poor choices.”
Very much as you said, people with limited budgets or limited time are hard pressed to eat well. Sometimes it isn’t an option at all, particularly if you receive your food through donations from a church or other group. Don’t quote me on this, because I don’t have time to look up a source right now, but I’m almost positive that the lower your income is.. the more likely you are to be obese or to have obese children.
I agree that issues with salt and sugar are way bigger than we allow them to receive attention for. Of course everyone knows that consuming excessive amounts of either is terrible for our health and waistline, but acknowledging how powerful the effect is that they have on our subconscious is hardly ever talked about.
Then you take into account how many people are sensitive to artificial sweeteners or msg, which have both been shown to stimulate appetite (possibly more than natural salt or sugar), yet very few people know this. And often consume artificial sweeteners in an attempt to lose weight – all while more and more information comes out that they may contribute to weight gain.
The solution is ultimately to eat whole foods and an all around less processed diet, but if you’ve ever tried to do that on a strict budget, you know how difficult that can be.
If you’ve ever carried extra weight, the deflated fat cells release hormones that constantly stimulate appetite. Even after you’ve dropped the extra weight. The drive to eat is instinctive, it isn’t necessarily something that you can turn on and off. People like to chalk it up to willpower, but it isn’t willpower at all. It is about fighting nature… and nature hasn’t yet caught up with our fast paced, overprocessed world just yet. I consider myself a health conscious eater, but when my husband and I were both laid off I gained about 20lbs. Not because my attitude towards food had changed, but because my food budget had changed. I also learned that when I added msg to my diet, that I craved it almost constantly. That may just be my personal experience, but it did a lot to change my views of obesity and the people who are struggling to cope with it.

@DominicX it isn’t necessarily about “I had to eat fast food,” but in many cases people eat diets high in processed pastas, canned goods, pre-made foods, high sodium meals, etc… all because they last. If you can’t afford to go grocery shopping every week to replenish your pantry, you want food that is going to keep, and nourish. Human beings will always be drawn instinctively to filling, high fat foods over those that aren’t. It’s just the way our brains work.
I do agree that choice factors in bigtime. I don’t think personal accountability should be ruled out. However, I don’t think people realise just how difficult that choice can be for many people.

wundayatta's avatar

For me, this is a case of “am I my brother’s keeper?” Sometimes, our interests are so intertwined, we can not separate out much of anything. We, as a society, will be better off when all of us are better off. We have to pay for all our health care (in the stupidest possible way imaginable), so it is all of our job to make sure we all become as health as we can be.

Many people already are working with folks in lower socio-economic groups. We educate and seek to increase access to healthier foods by bringing in supermarkets and farmers markets. We seek to improve education levels and income. We know these are the things that will help folks get healthy, and we know that healthy people lead to a change in the way medical dollars are spend.

I say that last because I don’t believe we will ever reduce health spending. It will just shift. If we no longer have to pay for diabetes care and emergency room care, more money will shift into longevity care or oncology or plastic surgery—whatever people seem to want and whatever will keep the hospitals and other care provision sites full.

Personal accountability is collective accountability, and collective accountability is personal accountability. We all benefit when everyone does well. In fact, we do better than benefit. It helps the middle class get richer, as well as the rich. Our world and our economy is not a zero sum game. When lower income people make more, they don’t take it from the rich. It is new money, that they have created, and when they spend it, we all get richer.

Most people don’t understand that, and quite a few don’t believe it. Most people don’t understand how inter-dependent we all are. Most people think in terms of personal accountability, and don’t look at the larger picture. I don’t know—maybe they don’t think they can understand. Of course, that lack of understanding is what provides “work” for people like me. Sigh.

iamthemob's avatar

Personal accountability is collective accountability, and collective accountability is personal accountability.

I really couldn’t agree with you more, @wundayatta.

TexasDude's avatar

However, many lower-income people have little choice in the area of what to eat, most restaurants being fast food.

The sooner we bust this myth, the better. Fast food only has the illusion of being cheaper and a family of just about any budget can go to the grocery store and purchase oats, lentils, beans, boneless chicken (when on sale), tortillas etc for just a few dollars (and less in the long run, compared to eating Mickey D’s every day). The claim that eating healthy is expensive is a myth and the only reason poorer people tend to eat a lot of fast food isn’t solely because it’s more available to them (like I said before, cheap, yet nutritious foods are available at any grocery stores) but because of a lack of education about the healthy alternatives I mentioned, which would really be cheaper in the long run.

So yeah, bit of a tangent, but it’s not McDonald’s fault for making people fat, and it’s not necessarily their own faults either… It’s the fact that not many people are aware that you can buy groceries that are both inexpensive and healthy. Just because you aren’t buying $3.00 organic tofu apples from EarthFirst Market doesn’t mean you don’t have access to healthy food.

iamthemob's avatar

@Fiddle_Playing_Creole_Bastard – How is this the myth, when in general people seem to think that if you’re fat, it’s your fault?

Please, nobody is blaming McDonalds. But there are a combination of factors that need to be examined as causal – the point is that if we look at free choice, it’s not always as cut and dry as people think it is. That’s the myth.

As stated above, this isn’t about discounting people’s choice, but it’s about whether we are preventing solutions by discounting contributory factors outside “personal accountability.”

And we’re not talking about the fact that people can only afford one type of food. It’s that generally the foods that are the cheapest are the ones causing much of the problem. This article talks about at least one study showing the price differences.

JilltheTooth's avatar

@Fiddle_Playing_Creole_Bastard : You are absolutely right, but you don’t address one key point…time. The working parents in the lower socio-economic range are often spending their shifts at manual, exhausting labor, working for an hourly wage, the more hours, the more wages. By the time they get home the fatigue factor and the lateness of the hour are often antithetical to the preparation of a healthy family meal.

CyanoticWasp's avatar

People are responsible for their own condition. Period. I don’t believe in gods, ghosts, UFOs or astrology, but I do believe that, and it is the foundation of my entire world view.

We don’t all get an equal start, the brains and muscles and looks… and good health… aren’t distributed much more equitably than the money is. We all have accidents of birthplace and parents that give some of us an edge over others… and less than others. But we all have our lives, and what we do with them is our responsibility, and only our responsibility.

Can we make some allowance that some people had an awful start and couldn’t overcome various handicaps and fell behind instead of moving forward? Sure. Can we even make some provision for people who had all the advantages and still made one or more bad choices that put them in a trap? All right, perhaps we can even give them a hand once in awhile.

Should we make whole swaths of our society caretakers for the several millions who if given the chance would just ‘rather not be bothered’ taking care of themselves or their families? No. We do, but we shouldn’t. Nearly everyone has the capacity to take care of himself or herself if given the chance, the motivation and the duty to do that. We take all of that away from too many and entrust their care to too many others. People can, and more to the point, should, take care of themselves.

@wundayatta I’m surprised that you would say ersonal accountability is collective accountability, and collective accountability is personal accountability. Oh, it has a nice ‘ring’, but it’s false, to the extent that it’s not totally meaningless.

iamthemob's avatar

Should we make whole swaths of our society caretakers for the several millions who if given the chance would just ‘rather not be bothered’ taking care of themselves or their families?

And no one on this thread appears to be advocating that.

CyanoticWasp's avatar

Oh, goody. Since we already have that, then, can we start to disband it?

iamthemob's avatar

I don’t think you should ask for my permission after your treatise on individuality and personal responsibility. You go ahead and do what you want. ;-)

BarnacleBill's avatar

The problem with obesity isn’t from fast food. If you look at Earl Butz, farm subsidies and the ingredients in cans, the problem is processed foods. Things in cans, frozen food in boxes, all pack weight on people. And the cheaper the food, the more of it is corn filler.

Obesity is the price we pay for cheap food.

CyanoticWasp's avatar

I’d say “convenient” instead, but otherwise agree with @BarnacleBill. There’s not a lot of food that’s cheaper than the raw and unprocessed ingredients not packaged in pre-measured and attractive containers with easy-to-follow cooking / reheating directions. But the other thing about processed foods is the amount of sugars, fats and salt that is used to aid preservation… and keep you coming back for more.

Since I’ve started doing most of my own cooking—not all, but a higher proportion of it than most people I know personally—I’ve noticed the labels a lot more than I ever did in the past.

Coloma's avatar

We’re all big boys & girls, ( I’m assuming, lol )

Make a pot of soup and forego the fat burger, not that diffecult.

Yep, we are the captains of our own ship, steer it where you will.

iamthemob's avatar

@Coloma – so, prior to the Surgeon General’s warning on packs of cigarettes, for instance, you’d agree that anyone who died due to cancer or other complications caused by cigarettes would clearly have gotten it solely because of their own choices, and regardless of knowledge of the tobacco companies, or the prevalence of smoking at the time the started, their choice was totally free.

Coloma's avatar



I smoked for a long time and would never think that the tobacco industry was responsible.

I bought ‘em, I smoked ‘em, at my own risk.

iamthemob's avatar

Hmm. Smoking was prescribed to my grandmother, as well as many, many others in order to help her lose weight after her pregnancy. The companies denied there were health risks, or that it was addictive after they knew it was.

I don’t know…I don’t advocate the abdication of personal accountability, but the fact that the company, government, etc. should be freed from having accountability themselves is the problem that I see with an overemphasis on the choice of the consumer being the only real important factors.

CyanoticWasp's avatar

I don’t disagree that we can get bad advice and make bad choices regardless of advice, @iamthemob, but in general we’re responsible for the choices, even if they end up taking us down paths that trap us into addictions, unworkable mortgages and other contracts, etc. (I do agree that those who manipulate us into making bad choices by fraud and force—and that could certainly include tobacco executives and others who knew the truth of the product—have to be accountable.) A bad choice made by taking advice given in good faith is still our choice.

iamthemob's avatar

@CyanoticWasp – I completely agree. And those who make bad choices should shoulder a lion’s share of the responsibility for them. However, we should also make sure that accountability doesn’t stop there unless that’s all there is. And I think many are using personal accountability as a shield against their own liability for the situation.

Coloma's avatar

I agree, in the sense that promoting a product with documented health hazards is not cool. is still the individuals choice to supercede the documentaion.

iamthemob's avatar

When low-fat products hit the market, the obesity problem in the U.S. actually accelerated – because high sugar content, e.g., was substituted for the fat. But people thought they were going for a healthier option. The advertising/health information can get confusing. Global warming is a universally agreed upon fact in the scientific community – or it was, until oil companies began to fund their own studies that, surprisingly, came up with information against global warming, or inconclusive, etc.

The problem with “documented health hazards” is that there always seems to be a contrary study, until it’s way too obvious, and often that’s way to late.

Again, when we stop at the personal choice of the consumer, and I only use obesity as an example, I don’t think we’re getting the whole story.

Coloma's avatar


True. Like all the studies on coffee consumption..gah!

Bottom line, we can find a yeah or nay for everything….pick your poison. lol

iamthemob's avatar

@Coloma – surely. And in the end, we need to really figure out who needs to get the nay. ;-)

ratboy's avatar

The cult of “personal accountability” seems to rest on the fear that someone somewhere may somehow get something for nothing. The entire notion of “choice” is largely nonsense—the notion that one should be accountable for his every choice presupposes a level of rationality totally at odds with human nature. Choosing, particularly choosing badly, is often something that happens to one rather something that one does.

woodcutter's avatar

It isn’t so much that working people are too tired to cook decent meals. If you own a microwave you can overcome the time/ exhaustion factor. There still needs to be the desire to do it. I have been and at times still find myself too burnt to do up a big meal. It’s no excuse really as grocery store food isn’t more expensive than burger joints. Where did that urban myth come from? Probably from someone with no ambition. Kids are fat because they sit on their asses too much now. For whatever reason they don’t move around anymore and that will make anyone fat. There’s no conspiracy, just a lazy and fat assed America with all their electronic gadgets.
I went to “the poor people clinic” where our ex family doc donates her time once a week.I needed her signature on some paperwork to show our new doc. Anyway, while waiting for the papers to come back out front, where all the “patients” were, I could not help but notice how fat all these people were. Now I understand that there may be underlying causes for that but it was the the fact that almost everyone in that waiting room either had a Droid or some other kind of highfalutin phone device with all kinds of sounds and videos and ringtones, etc. Even those who where young enough to be exercising looked chubby. It just looks like on the surface these people have slanted priorities in life. They go for the toys using what available resources they have instead of taking care of themselves better. Not trying to pick on people but this is what I see, and I usually see what is there.

DerangedSpaceMonkey's avatar

I think that everyone should be held accountable for their OWN actions, but not the actions of others and certainly not the actions of their ancestors.

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