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The Value In Sweet Drinks

Mario Tama
Getty Images

New York City's ban on big sodas raises big issues.

Consider: modern political thought starts with the recognition that, as philosopher John Rawls put it, there are different, competing and incompatible conceptions of the good. We live in a pluralistic word.

Religious wars, political upheavals, the discovery and settlement of the New World — all this established the fact that there are wildly different conceptions of how to live, of what makes for a good life.

The great ambition, or maybe fantasy, of classical liberal thought is that it would be possible to set up a society in which radically different and incompatible conceptions of the good could flourish. The trick would be to come up with a constitution (or what Rawls called "a basic structure") that anyone, regardless of their world view and value system, could accept.

The rest is history. For the last two-hundred plus years we've been hashing out the limits of the liberal vision in our daily lives and in our domestic and international politics. And it isn't easy: there's lots of stuff that some people value (drinking alcohol, for example, or driving on the sabbath, or same-sex love, or free speech on some topics) that others find profoundly unacceptable.

This is what I had in mind, in my recent piece on the New York City soda ban, when I wrote that you can't go ahead and ban something, just because it's bad. I was appealing to the point that we aren't entitled — the mayor is not entitled — to take for granted that we know what is bad and what is good. These values are always up for grabs.

Now, in one sense this is a crazy point and I freely admit it. Soda-cup size is not fundamental; it's the sort of thing that governments can surely regulate without trampling on basic human rights or conceptions of the good. I wasn't trying to make a general "government, hands off" point.

But that's not the end of the story. What the mayor, and what some of the readers of this blog seem to have thought, is that the science of public health simply settles the matter.

Drinking large sodas makes you obese; being obese makes you more likely to get sick. Therefore, drinking soda in large quantities is bad. And therefore it is good to ban it, especially since government or, rather, society ends up bearing so much of the cost of taking care of sick people.

This is just a terrible argument. The same reasoning can be used to ban just about anything. Why not prohibit skateboards? Kitchen knives? Automobiles? Use of these things is dangerous; if we banned their use, we'd prevent injury. We'd save money. We'd save lives.

What these examples bring out is the simple fact that a thing isn't bad just because, looked at in isolation, it poses a danger. Knives, cars and skateboards have a place in a good life, even if they are dangerous.

Now we come to large containers of soda. Do they have a place in anybody's conception of the good life?

I'll tell you this. They don't have any place in my conception of the good. I don't even drink soda. I grew up in the seventies and my parents didn't let me drink soda. I don't let my kids drink soda, except for special occasions. I don't even drink organic, locally-produced soda!

But to judge by behavior, there are lots of people who do value soda in large quantities. Am I, is Mayor Bloomberg, in a position to judge for them that they are wrong to value soda as they do?

And now we get to the nub:

There's no controversy about whether large quantities of soda belong in a healthy diet. Is there a link between extra-large sodas and the rise of obesity? I'm prepared to accept that there is.

But this leaves the big question unanswered. Does drinking large sodas (and here you can substitute your favorite vice: drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco or pot, eating high-fat foods, sweets) belong to anyone's legitimate conception of the good life even though it is dangerous?

No public health statistics will solve this for you. It is a question about value. In particular, it is a question about the value of pleasure.

Soda has no place in my conception of the good. But pleasure does. And it seems to me that the attack on soda and candy — an attack that is really just getting going, I fear — like the older and still ongoing attacks on drugs, tobacco and alcohol, is an attack on the value of pleasure. We've left the domain of public health, here. We are squarely in the domain of value.

There are many other issues at stake in the soda debate. For example, it might be said that consumers are actually the victims of Big Soda's manipulative super-sizing and that New York City is well within its rights to try to take measures to protect consumers. I'll return to this question next time.

You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

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Alva Noë is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture. He is writer and a philosopher who works on the nature of mind and human experience.

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