The Fat Man

I am the fat man whose sinful rolls stop the trolley

Eviscerated for the young and attractively thin.

I am the ferret who died of COVID so you wouldn’t,

The mouse given cancer so you won’t be.

I am the lab-bred beagle, the man who marches for the bald eagle,

The old woman set aside like a mine from which all gold has been extracted,

The son of God given freely by a father who never asked.

I am the eternal short straw,

The lesser good, the lesser number.

Because nobody likes a fat man

Except at Christmas.

I’ve been reading Peter Singer, The Most Good You Can Do, and this poem is, I guess, a critique of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is he philosophy of mathematicians, holding that morality consists of ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’. I hate maths. Anyway.

Singer reckons that any discretionary expenditure (think doughnuts, movies, new clothes and definitely new mansions) is unethical if not spent on reducing suffering (and by suffering he doesn’t mean yours). If you accept that therefore you’re morally obliged to spend all your spare cash on the poor and stuff, you’re then confronted by the question of bang for your buck; how can you, with your widow’s mite, mitigate the MOST suffering for the MOST people. This then leads to complicated discussions along the lines of ‘Should charity begin at home?’ (answer, poor people of the west, stop your fucking whingeing!), ‘Would I prevent more suffering by curing five hundred cases of sciatica than one case of terminal starvation?’ and ‘If I’m an international aid donor and I see a kid drowning in a pond, wouldn’t I save more people by spending the ten minutes donating aid rather than fishing the kid out?’

Well look, here’s the thing. The only reason any of us bother about suffering in any case (and many of us don’t) is because we have empathy. We care. Utilitarians (ie the people who engage in these greatest good/greatest number debates) apparently have less empathy than your average person, in other words they care not more, but less. It may be a better use of your time and money to save ten starving third worlders than to buy the woebegone kid next door an ice cream, but our humanity (in the best sense) depends on our feelings, not our reason. We don’t number crunch our ethics; we’d be monsters if we did.

So I’ve decided to stick up for the fat guy. The one who – in the famous utilitarian ‘trolley’ thought experiment, gets shoved on to a train track to divert a trolley which would otherwise run over a bunch of innocent kids, real housewives, or whatever. I like fat men better than I like kids, I think that’s it basically. And who’s to say it wasn’t their destiny to get run over that day: they may have grown up into a bunch of Nazis and Trump supporters!



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