Obesity is a socially sensitive subject in America. However, in attempting to be accepting of all of humankind’s shapes and sizes, certain practical issues tend to intrude. One example hits especially close to home…or, shall I say, on the way home. On my recent Delta Airlines flight, when I arrived at my seat the large woman on the aisle of my row exclaimed to my brother and me, “Ooo yay, little people!” For the duration of the three-hour flight, I sat on half of my seat and leaned heavily towards my brother’s. The flight was fully booked, and I had no desire to offend this obese woman or cause a scene. However, upon reflection, I realized that I paid for my full seat and was only allotted half of it.
Drawing the line between one person’s individual freedom and the individual freedom of another presents a precarious dilemma. Should extremely obese people be forced to buy two seats? It’s still an open question in America, but according to a January 2008 Canadian Supreme Court decision they should not. The court ruled that airlines could not charge extra for a second seat for someone whose obesity constitutes a disability. The ethical issues surrounding obesity are complex, largely because the causes of obesity are complicated. Some people argue that,in addition to simple overeating, genetic makeup, metabolic disorders, or psychosocial problems can also cause obesity. On the other hand, if a person pays full price for his or her seat, isn’t that person entitled to all they pay for? The issue is that both the obese and the non-obese each have a legal contract with the airline carrier in purchasing the one seat. Therefore, they both have rights that must be respected.
There is no clear solution to this predicament. Clearly, if an obese person can afford two seats, it is beneficial to society—or at least his or her neighbors on the plane—if he or she purchases them. However, an obese person is under no legal obligation to do so. When the personal freedom of one person causes discomfort for another, the extent to which the law can interfere often becomes blurred. In the end, whether one person pays for another seat or another person loses half a seat, someone must make a sacrifice.
(Image by kevindooley used under a Creative Commons license.)