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Why fat pills are bad for you Beware shortcuts to human flourishing

No pain, no gain. Credit: Buda Mendes/Getty


September 23, 2021   5 mins

Consider, for a moment, a world in which magic actually worked, where the things that we most deeply wish for in life could be achieved with a spell or a charm. Forget for a moment that such things don’t happen. Would there be anything problematic with such a world?

Two spring immediately to mind. First, and most obviously, we should fear the power that this sort of thing would place in human hands. We couldn’t be certain whether it would be used for good or ill – or rather, knowing what human beings are like, we would rightly fear its destructive potential.

But also, and less obviously, I think it would threaten to undermine the way in which human beings make sense of their lives and come to find meaning within it. If I can make myself immediately slimmer, say, with a quick bit of hocus pocus, then it would make no sense to think of my getting slimmer as the story of overcoming my inner demons, of struggle and achievement. There would be no inner drama in front of the fridge or the toaster. In such a world, diets would lead to two different types of weight loss: physical and existential, as in what Kundera calls “the unbearable lightness of being”. That is the deeper problem with magic. It robs life of its meaning, of its weight.

I was thinking of magic when I pondered my reaction to Tom Chivers’s piece for UnHerd about diet pills. He was writing about technology not magic, of course. His concern was to defend “fixes” to various social ills and specifically to defend technology against the charge of “solutionism” defined as the “foolhardy belief that technology can sidestep thorny social or political problems”.

Those, like me, who have a problem with “solutions”, think there is something wrong about – for example – a quick pharmacological fix to obesity. Pop a pill and you will be thin. That simple. What’s wrong with getting what you want like this, Chivers asks? Nothing at all, he concludes. But I don’t think he gave the solutionist argument a proper run for its money. So here goes.

The one area where there is widespread anxiety about the use of technological – especially pharmaceutical – fixes is within the field of elite sport. Here we call it doping. And why do we worry about doping? Because, ultimately, it drains sport of its meaning. If we allow any and every chemical fix to enter sport, then the difference between success and failure would be achieved in the lab and not on the pitch or piste. And that would rob sport of the very reason we find it compelling – that it is a battle of wills, of skill and of human courage. To replace all this with chemistry, where the winners are the ones with better lab teams, would fatally undermine the very existence of sport.

“Modernity is a surprisingly simple deal” wrote Yuval Noah Harari. “The entire contract can be summarized in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.” It is a brilliant aphorism, and it sums up what is at stake between me and Chivers. He welcomes the (technological) power to change the world for the better; I worry that this process has an unexpected effect on the way human beings construct meaning in their lives.

“The simple technological fix” impacts meaning because, in my view, meaning is overwhelmingly a question of narrative. Meaning is held by the stories we tell about ourselves and who we are. Human meaning is narrated. Not just through the so-called seven ages of man, but through thousands of little mini narratives all overlapping and interweaving. What Salman Rushdie calls the “Oceans of the Streams of Story”.

And “technological fixes” represent a jump or a glitch in the narrative — a going from one place to another that does not respect or, even acknowledge, the inner logic of the story.

This is all a bit abstract – meaning generally is – so let me offer a small example. At the end of the Monty Python film The Life of Brian, as Brian is about to die on the cross, a spaceship of little green aliens comes down from the sky and rescues him from his predicament. Everything in the story so far has been about the life of a first century Jew. And yet here, right at the end, the ridiculous intervention of little green men becomes a kind of absurd parody of human redemption.

Set aside for a moment the idea that for some the resurrection is also a kind of absurd skip in the story – and I can see the argument even though I disagree with it. What is going on here is a knowing reference to the kind of thing people have been complaining about since Euripedes. Sometimes also known as the deus ex machina, it is the sudden arrival of something that has no connection with what came before, and which solves the problem that has built up within the story in such a way that renders all that came before irrelevant and unimportant. Monty Python do this as a deliberate joke. But when it happens in most stories it is experienced as a kind of cheat, robbing the whole story of its meaning. This was precisely Nieztsche’s beef with Euripedes whom he held responsible for the death of tragedy, the meaning making matrix of the ancient Greeks.

Consider all this in relationship to the diet pill fix for human obesity. Chivers concentrates on the simple fact that being thin, however achieved, would bring happiness to the formerly obese. It is instructive that those who argue this way tend to reach for the word “happiness” to express the benefit of what they describe. But in the meaning-creating world, happiness is often considered a rather thin idea, superficial even.

Some of us – most of us perhaps – seek a life that has a meaning that is a great deal more than happiness. We want a life that has a meaning and purpose that is deeper than mere personal happiness. And the technological fix — the deus ex machina of modernity — can threaten to undermine all of that. It can make our life absurd. All that struggle with overeating. All those hours on the therapist’s couch. All that human-all-too-human effort. And in the end the “answer” is a small pill. Suddenly, the story of my struggle with food looks absurd. It’s the “little green aliens” answer to my weight problems.

The science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke once formulated three laws that grew out of his writing. The third, and most famous, is “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. Technology is not the same as magic, of course. Magic is fantasy, technology is reality. But in meaning terms they can be “indistinguishable” and have similar effects.

This is why religion as a meaning-generating activity holds magic in such low esteem, why the Bible has such harsh things to say about it. Magic is not so much about the supernatural — that was the world view of the whole ancient world, indeed of the world before, say, the 17th century. No, magic is problematic because of the power it wields, and also because it is the “get rich quick” approach to human salvation. Magic is to human meaning as winning the lottery is to prosperity. Both disrespect the process by which we can tell a noble and compelling story about who we are. Technological fixes — fixes that represent a radical discontinuity in the story of human endeavor — can do precisely the same. “Go the bloody hard way” Wittgenstein advised his students. And I completely agree. Those who offer shortcuts to human flourishing should be routinely distrusted.


Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.

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Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago

Thank you Giles for articulating this so well.
I think there is another problem with any easy fix in life, there is always a price to pay further down the line.
To imagine that a human problem can be made to disappear with a pill is not to have faced reality yet. Valium, downers, uppers, fat pills, HRT, ADHD drugs, opioids, all only help superficially and temporarily. The pain and distress, if left unaddressed fundamentally, will pop up and manifest again, quite possibly even worse than before, never mind the chemically induced side effects.
Wittgenstein’s advice is good, wish I’d had it as a student.

Last edited 2 years ago by Claire D
Ray Hall
Ray Hall
2 years ago

I suppose that for previous generations a country where almost everyone lives in homes with gas, electricity , and even more importantly, clean running water would have been fairly magical.
My back of the envelope assumption is that a lot of people are miserable unless they have got something to be unhappy about .

Martin Smith
Martin Smith
2 years ago

Whole aisles in vast warehouse-like supermarkets full of edible products that have no discernable nutrional value, peopled by the wobbling obese who ‘live’ on them. Don’t worry, there’s a pill for that.

Last edited 2 years ago by Martin Smith
Tom Lewis
Tom Lewis
2 years ago

It would appear that Giles’s memory of “The Life of Brian” is somewhat at odds with the film, but heh ho, why let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Richard Parker
Richard Parker
2 years ago
Reply to  Tom Lewis

Not just me who remembers Brian being picked up by the spaceship after falling from an unfinished stairwell whilst being chased by legionaries then? Thank God for that.

Chris Milburn
Chris Milburn
2 years ago
Reply to  Tom Lewis

I had to go back and watch the clip to remember when it occurred in the story of Brian. No marks against Mr. Fraser from me for this one small issue, as I think his article is wonderful.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago
Reply to  Tom Lewis

Yeah, I dont remember the aliens – just the ‘I can see your place from here” quip

Chris Milburn
Chris Milburn
2 years ago

Thanks to Mr. Fraser who articulates so clearly the problem I have with Chivers – not only with his view on diet pills, but lockdown, etc etc. Almost everything Chivers writes – even when I agree with his premise – seems to miss something about our humanity. I would prescribe Chivers a strong dose of “The Master and His Emissary” as I think it would do his soul good and help him to see the holes in his worldview.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Milburn

he s a utilitarian ‘rationalist’ sort of person. There’s something a bit superficial & happy clappy about people like that

Mangle Tangle
Mangle Tangle
2 years ago

No, it’s darker than that. Vulcan, almost.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Milburn

Someone who thinks we should act on evidence and not emotion, when for example, considering medical treatments etc. Can’t see what there is (or ought to be) to object over that. So we should prefer a surgeon operating on us who tried very hard, refused to use the best and most modern easiest to use modern instruments, and killed twice as many patients as his colleagues.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Fisher
Dave Corby
Dave Corby
2 years ago

Excellent article.
Another reason that what you are saying is true is that the magical fix ignores the root cause of the problem.
OK – so you could take a pill and get thin – but why were you overweight? Perhaps it was due to some genetic disorder but more likely an underlying anxiety or pain. Or just boredom with life and lack of self-discipline?
Taking the pill just removes, probably temporarily, the symptom, and can extend the hidden damage from the original problem. Damage that is likely to be harming many other areas of your life.

Peter LR
Peter LR
2 years ago

I suppose that as Tom Chivers believes ardently in evolutionary naturalism, there is little need for meaning in life when the parameter of value is utilitarian survival of the fittest.

Gareth Rees
Gareth Rees
2 years ago

This is a muddled, confused, and ultimately disappointing argument by Giles whose articles I generally look forward to. I certainly admire the man and would lunch with him at any opportunity. The nail in the proverbial coffin, however, is that it is crystal clear that Giles has never taken the time to watch ‘Life of Brian’, one of the greatest stories ever told. That itself is a sin.

rodney foy
rodney foy
2 years ago
Reply to  Gareth Rees

I agree. For example, equating life with sport, and popping a pill with doping, is muddled and confused. Is falling back on a pill to avoid suffering actually cheating?

D Glover
D Glover
2 years ago
Reply to  Gareth Rees

STAN: I want to be a woman. From now on, I want you all to call me ‘Loretta’.

REG: What?!

LORETTA: It’s my right as a man.

JUDITH: Well, why do you want to be Loretta, Stan?

LORETTA: I want to have babies.

REG: You want to have babies?!

LORETTA: It’s every man’s right to have babies if he wants them.

REG: But… you can’t have babies.

LORETTA: Don’t you oppress me.

REG: I’m not oppressing you, Stan. You haven’t got a womb! Where’s the foetus going to gestate?! You going to keep it in a box?!

LORETTA: crying

JUDITH: Here! I– I’ve got an idea. Suppose you agree that he can’t actually have babies, not having a womb, which is nobody’s fault, not even the Romans’, but that he can have the right to have babies.

FRANCIS: Good idea, Judith. We shall fight the oppressors for your right to have babies, brother. Sister. Sorry.

REG: What’s the point?

FRANCIS: What?

REG: What’s the point of fighting for his right to have babies when he can’t have babies?!

FRANCIS: It is symbolic of our struggle against oppression.

REG: Symbolic of his struggle against reality.

It was satire then.

Mangle Tangle
Mangle Tangle
2 years ago
Reply to  Gareth Rees

To err is human


Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 years ago

I know where Giles is coming from. There is an absurdity to modern life at the moment. We have it so good that much of what gave life meaning in the past is now rendered obsolete, think family, monogamy, religion, etc. Education is now reaching this stage where it has devolved from the pursuit of knowledge to the formation of little and easily controlled minds.
Going off on an angle here, but I used to be a huge fan of the game World of Warcraft because of the path you needed to take to develop your character. For instance, players had to work really hard to grind enough gold to buy a mount which made travel across the world much faster. Epic weapons and armor required teams of players enter dungeons and slay god-like beings. As the game progressed, however, the developers, in seeking to include and garner more players, made the game easier. Mounts were practically given away. Monsters became so feeble that a single player could slay five of them under 30 seconds. Much of the game could be done solo, thus the community aspect withered away. Everyone now had an epic mount and walked around in gleaming armor armed with the best sword in the world. It was around that point I stopped playing. The game had become so ‘casualized’ that it had rendered itself meaningless.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

I’m more inclined to support Giles’s argument, but I don’t think happiness automatically follows weight loss – rather better health follows. A measure of happiness should also follow, but it is not a given. I also agree that meaning and purpose is the ideal goal, but happiness is also linked to meaning and purpose.
I do think that happiness is the ultimate state even though it can be elusive – is is a kind of affirmation that you are balancing all the good with a bad, the challenge and the successes and managing to be closer to satisfaction.
I also leave space in life for miracles and magic, both of which I have experienced and if combined with wisdom, both contribute to happiness.

Chris Milburn
Chris Milburn
2 years ago

If you read carefully, you will see that the whole point of his article is that happiness does not follow weight loss. Your use of the word “but” in your comment seems to indicate you’ve missed his point.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago

THERE is no such human state as “happiness’ per se – only contentedness (not wanting) s atisfaction (jobs and meaningfulness) and love (kindness and connectedness)

Andrew D
Andrew D
2 years ago

Giles’ argument could be equally applied to other technological fixes. The contraceptive pill and viagra seek to bypass or remove the human realities of unwanted conception and unwanted flaccidness. Are we to disapprove of these too? Perhaps we should (although easier to do if you’re not a beneficiary of either).

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew D
A Spetzari
A Spetzari
2 years ago

Am I the only one who finds this a somewhat bizarre and weak argument? Not to mention curmudgeonly.
For what it’s worth I also didn’t agree with Tom’s nonchalant acceptance of a quick fix – but mainly because in that specific case I don’t think it would address the underlying cause of the issue (obesity); either lifestyle and/or genetic propensity among other factors.
However I really don’t buy the wishy washy logic behind Giles’ argument – that a quick fix is a bad thing purely because it doesn’t chime well as a narrative in line with the human condition, its “story” or suffering.
Obesity might not be quite as bad as a direct fatal illness (although arguably not far off given its strain on the health services and now known exacerbating effects on Covid amongst countless other maladies), but it would be a bit like arguing that the smallpox vaccine removed a vital part of the human condition and suffering and so therefore a bad thing.
Weak and actually a bit sadistic
We might have difficulty accepting quick fixes as part of our human condition, and it’s clearly a healthy thing to be sceptical of these as so often things that are too good to be true are just that. But let’s not confuse that scepticism as being the reason not to try and fix things. That’s plain stupid.

Last edited 2 years ago by A Spetzari
Nick Dougan
Nick Dougan
2 years ago

Should we also forgo the benefits of modern medicine? This argument would seem to apply also to that. I would probably already have died a grim and embarrassing death without it – I doubt that I would have found it more meaningful.

AC Harper
AC Harper
2 years ago

Rector disparages modern miracle story… perhaps turning the water into wine was a magical fix that reduced meaning?
Or perhaps the diet pills (an injection actually) free the individual from worry and health issues arising from their weight so that they may seek true meaning in activities once beyond them?

Alka Hughes-Hallett
Alka Hughes-Hallett
2 years ago

The irony of “Having to eat to survive” and “having to diet to survive for longer”.

Why don’t we also make a pill for all those in the 3rd world who are without food. End of world hunger.

If the problem of world hunger can only be solved by bringing food to those who don’t have enough then why can’t the problem of obesity be also solved by not eating, exercising control and exercising? After all , it’s affecting one’s health . Stop eating.

I know , I know 
. Complex’s mental health problems etc etc . I am mindful of mental health and aware it exists but as for a pill for obesity
.!!!! I’m certainly missing something.

John Hicks
John Hicks
2 years ago

Perhaps Mr. Fraser is best comforted wearing horse hair underpants when lining up for his next Pfizer, Moderna, AZ MAGICAL vaccination.

Paul McManus
Paul McManus
2 years ago

I’m not sure that there isn’t some sort of belief here that if we try hard enough we can achieve anything. For those who do manage (through willpower, therapy, personal nutritionists/trainers) I agree, the narrative can be wonderful and life-affirming. But what about those who fail? And there are far more of them than there are successes. What’s their narrative?

A pill may not address the underlying cause of the problem; it may not give its user the kind of satisfaction we assume comes through having to endure and finally overcome terrible hardships (which is the narrative of virtually every fairy story: if you suffer long enough you will be happy in the end). But if you’ve been fat and unhappy and you’ve tried and failed and tried and failed and tried again to lose the weight, wouldn’t that magic pill take some of the pain away from living with self-disgust and loathing?

I think it might.

I’m with Mr Chivers on this one

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
2 years ago

The fact that some people have found meaning in struggle and suffering doesn’t imply that we would all be better off if only we suffered more. The people who have struggled with their weight don’t need another lecture about how the struggle is good for them. If they are finding the struggle a source of meaning then they already know that, and don’t need the advice. If, on the other hand, they find struggling with their weight a form of meaningless suffering, acerbated by all the blaming they get for their condition, why not let them out of that personal hell?
I’d vote for extended life expectancy producing years you can spend with your grandchildren over a narcissistic personal struggle with weight issues as a source of increased meaning in life, any day. And shouldn’t your family, whom I assume wants to extend your life because they love you and don’t want you dead get a vote here too?

Last edited 2 years ago by Laura Creighton
David D'Andrea
David D'Andrea
2 years ago

Not sure that further extension of lifespan will lead to greater proportion of life spent with grandchildren, as opposed to eg institutional life in a nursing home, as an empirical reality across the general population

Drew W
Drew W
2 years ago

Great piece Giles, thank you.

Last edited 2 years ago by Drew W
Mangle Tangle
Mangle Tangle
2 years ago

Brilliant article- thanks

Moro Rogers
Moro Rogers
2 years ago

Hmm. I was planning on flying to Hawaii in a few days, but after reading this article I’ve decided to swim. Swimming would be a REAL triumph of the human spirit.
But seriously, I know it’s better to control one’s weight with diet and exercise. I suspect diet pills have their downsides. Exercise makes me feel good. It’s also time-consuming and HARD. I wouldn’t disparage folks who felt like they needed diet pills because their choice was insufficiently, uh, magical.

Michael Coleman
Michael Coleman
2 years ago

Thought provoking, which is why I read Unherd.

But if we extend Giles argument ad absurdum we are left asking our neighboring caveman if using a fire to stay warm and cook our meat is somehow a cheat in life’s great struggle. The first human controlled fire was really magic!

It’s not the fat pill that is diverting the “life streams” but the totality of our technological advance, which has exposed the meaning-giving deities and reduced the need for life affirming work.

John Riordan
John Riordan
2 years ago

I’m pretty sure Brian is not rescued at the end by the little green aliens. He’s rescued by them by accident as he falls from the top of a tower about halfway through the film. I always thought the point of it was to introduce a deus-ex-machina as pointless in the context of the fact that it made no difference in the end because Brian died anyway.

Anyway, the rest of this piece is quite interesting, but I can’t help but observe that the draining of meaning caused by the progressively easier existence that technology-driven modernism brings is what most of us would call a good problem to have.

And if you disagree, go back 100 years to before penicillin when our health services mostly catered for thousands of people at any one time dying slowly of tuberculosis. This was fixed with a simple course of pills. Are we really saying that there was a cost to this in the form of the loss of some existential mission statement?

Last edited 2 years ago by John Riordan
Peter Shaw
Peter Shaw
2 years ago

Formula 1 racing is fixed by the technical superiority of the car and yet people still watch it and think it is about the drivers. People can be stupid