Junk food feeders are criminal child abusers? Really?

By David Hunter

Public Service Announcement: Sensitivity Advisory Sticker – Caution Post contains sarcasm.
In the interests of our more sensitive readers not taking offence I recommend they skip this post on the grounds that it will contain gentle sarcasm, disagreement and a certain amount of me asking “Is that really what they mean to say?”*

Blog Post:
The Oxford Practical Ethics Blog is typically very good, hence when there are posts that seem shall we say not quite as thought through as they might be it seems worth mentioning this and raising some debate. Presently Charles Foster has an interesting post: Should you be prosecuted for feeding junk food to your child?

where he makes the following argument:

Fast food permanently reduces children’s IQ, a recent and unsurprising study reports.
What should be done? The answer is ethically and legally simple. Parents who feed their children junk food, knowing of the attendant risks, are child-abusers, and should be prosecuted. If you hit a child, bruising it, you are guilty of a criminal offence. A bruise on a child’s leg is of far less lasting significance than the brain damage produced by requiring a child to ingest toxic junk. A child injured by a negligent or malicious parent can also bring civil proceedings against the parent.”

I’m interested in this topic because of my interest in moral obligations and because it is relevant to the paper I am writing on the ethics of how we describe choosing not to breast feed, where I am leaning towards describing this as harming rather than merely failing to benefit children. Nonetheless I’m amazed that someone is arguing this strongly and bluntly – even if there is a moral duty to look after our children’s health it is unlikely that this is a legally enforceable duty in any but the rarest cases of wilful neglect, since it will compete with the many other moral duties parents have and is unlikely to be an absolute duty. Hence it would seem that Foster is giving a relatively simplistic analysis which leads me to ask if this is really what he wants to say?
There are three main faults with the argument which I will take up below:

1. Is it a harm? And should it trigger intervention?

There seems several difficulties establishing the line of argument given by Foster. Firstly we have to establish that junk food feeding is harmful and furthermore it is harmful enough to trigger state intervention. It is also worth questioning whether the analogy between physical violence towards children and feeding them junk food holds up to close scrutiny.

In regards to the first it is tempting to say as Foster does that having an IQ lowered is considerably worse than getting a bruise and hence we should see this as a harm. However I think this is too quick. Assuming the evidence is solid I think we can agree that the child who is fed fast food is worse off in one way than a child who is fed other food, but is this enough to say that they have been harmed?
This raises the distinction between failing to benefit and harming. Presumably there is at least a moral duty (and sometimes a legal duty) not to harm, but on many accounts of morality any duty to benefit will be weaker. So how should we characterise feeding junk food to children, is it a case of harming or failing to benefit? After all lots of decisions are likely to impact on IQ scores (some researchers have suggested having more siblings lowers IQ scores for example) and it seems unlikely we want to prosecute in all of these cases. So ideally we would like to have an account of which of these actions count as harming.

I think this is a genuinely open question and an interesting one. If we eschew the consequentialist rejection of a morally relevant difference between harming and failing to benefit then I think it comes down to working out what the appropriate baseline is – behaviour leading to outcomes that fall below that baseline being harmful. For all the talk of protecting the best interests of children I think that in reality the standard we hold parents to is much lower than this, it is about avoiding significant harms to their interests. There are different ways we might work out such a baseline, we might look at societal norms, species norms or develop some kind of normative account (perhaps sufficientarian?).
But in any case it is clear that simply showing disadvantage doesn’t get us straightforwardly to harm as Foster seems to assume.

Nonetheless if we grant that it is harmful, does this straight away lead to the conclusion that we ought to prosecute?

Well I doubt it, since it is also worth thinking about why we might prosecute those who bruise children. This is presumably in part because we think that their behaviour may escalate to more serious harms. Likewise someone who bruises a child intentionally seems to have a different blameworthiness than someone who does it accidentally. Presumably the junk food feeders aren’t trying to lower their children’s IQ, so they fall into the second camp rather than the first. So at worst they are negligent rather than active abusers. Now of course negligence can itself be abusive but I think it is generally considered that there is a higher threshold needed to justify state intervention in cases of negligence as opposed to active abuse. Again whether this crosses this threshold is an open question, but for Foster’s argument to be complete he would need to show both that this is a harm and the negligence leading to this harm is sufficient to trigger state intervention a far more complicated argument than he has given us. And I suspect difficult in light of the next two points.

2. Is the evidence good?
So far I’ve proceeded on the assumption that the evidence is good but it doesn’t seem that compelling. Foster refers us to the Daily Mail’s reporting of the story – while it is hard to decipher the Daily Mail’s science “reporting”, it seems to suggest that higher socio-economic status parents feed their children less junk food and hence have a higher IQ – ignoring debates about whether IQ tells us anything about intelligence, this is hardly shocking news, stop the presses: the privileged in society are better off on a number of measures, gasp! This tells us nothing about whether junk food is the culprit for lower IQs. But even assuming that the Mail failed to report accurately and we charitably assume the differences identified are controlled for socio-economic status the difference between the two groups is pretty small

“By the age of eight the ‘junk food’ children had IQs up to two points lower than their healthy counterparts.”

Nonetheless small differences can still be statistically significant. That said given the potential consequences of this suggested intervention for both the parents and children I’d prefer to not rely on the results of a single study – it would be better if a meta-analysis of the evidence was conducted.

In any case taking the existing piece of evidence one wonders whether harms done to the child and parents by the removal of a child are genuinely commensurate with having reduced its IQ by 2 points? At the very least we would want to carefully study the impact of having your parents incarcerated on IQ…

3. Justice
As picked up by commentators this is a problem that impacts particularly on those of lower socio-economic status since they feed their children more junk food. Hence this might well be a situation where injustice comes into play. In other words people in poor socio-economic circumstances make poor decisions in part because of those circumstances. Hence it might be appropriate to try and do something to alleviate those circumstances rather than punish the people who are in them largely through no fault of their own. This one might think would be particularly the case when there is a large industry devoted to encouraging and feeding off people making these poor decisions.
Foster’s response to this line of argument is disappointingly dismissive. In the comments he says:

“What conditions are ‘generative of poor eating habits’? There are only three that I can see: (a) Ignorance, (b) Wilful refusal to do anything about the known facts – which I’d summarise as laziness, and (c) an inability – and probably a financial inability – to feed properly.”

This is a reasonably austere account of moral responsibility and causation, where little room is left for social impacts. While I’ll agree that many of those who feed junk food to their children could choose to do otherwise, that many of them don’t especially those in worse socio-economic conditions suggests that there are significant social forces at work here that make the choice to do otherwise considerably more difficult than it is for a Fellow at Oxford. Given this it seems harsh to punish these parents for something that emerges in a significant part from their unchosen circumstances by locking them up. Instead if we want to have genuine societal change why not regulate those who are providing junk food for parents to give to their children?

*. No disrespect intended to those who have raised concerns about the nature of debate here at the JME Blog, merely a gentle ribbing.

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