Consider the following two hypothetical justifications, both starting from false premises:
1. “There’s a company downtown who will catch and kill ten feral cats and extract a special liquid from their brains, and sell it to you for $100. If I drink this liquid it will strengthen my body and make me healthier, so I am going to buy some, even though I accept that it’s wrong to kill cats just for their brain juice.”
2. “If I stop eating meat, the lack of nutrients will make me less healthy, so I am going to keep eating meat, even though I accept that it’s wrong to kill animals just for food.”
Do we find one of these arguments more persuasive than the other – bearing in mind, as I said, that the premises about health are false in both cases (that’s not to say vegetarianism has no health effects, just that the effects it has, positive and negative, are enormously variable)? I can’t know in advance what people’s intuitions will be, but personally I think that number 2 sounds moderately acceptable – i.e., even though I don’t consider it an adequate justification, I can accept someone using it as an explanation of their decision – but that number 1 seems completely wrong-headed: I don’t think people are morally bad individuals because they eat meat, but I think my opinion of someone would be lowered if I heard them say that.
Assuming I’m not alone in this reaction, what explains the difference? Partly, it’s likely to be that one is unfamiliar and one familiar, and we tend to feel more ok about what everyone does. But is there more to it than this? The obvious answer is that one talks about seeking to make yourself more healthy, while the other talks about seeking to avoid becoming less healthy. One is about seeking a bonus, the other about avoiding a harm.
But is there really a difference here? I ask because I live in what is arguably among the healthiest societies ever to have existed. The level of nutrition, sanitation, freedom from disease, and overall longevity enjoyed by the average citizen of a modern society is far ahead of what most historical humans would have had. And yet I also live in a society with an enormous amount of public and private interest in ways to improve and maintain health.
And it’s not just that health is an aspiration, something desired. It’s also to some extent an imperative – people are under pressure to be healthy, possibly facing shaming or abuse if they’re perceived to fail in this duty, and they can also use their own health as a powerful justification for the actions they undertake. Argument 2, above, sounds reasonable to my ears – and yet if someone said ‘going vegetarian would cost me money’ or ‘going vegetarian would be less fun’, that sounds like mere selfishness. Doing something for your health, though, is not selfishness but ‘responsibility’.
Is there any point at which we would stop? At which we could legitimately say ‘in perspective, I’m already really healthy, I can easily afford to give up a bit of health for the sake of pleasure/money/other people’? I’m not suggesting an answer to that, or to whether we should stop at some point: I’m just pointing out the interesting phenomena of human culture.
A related point – maybe part of any difference in reactions to the above two justifications is that the first, unlike the second, doesn’t sound like what we normally file under ‘health’, but more like something a villain would do in a film – strengthening your body with the juice from cat’s brains sounds sort of like stealing souls or sucking blood: an unnatural, unholy attempt to attain forbidden powers. Yet we don’t feel that way about most of the medical procedures that have contributed to our life expectancy. If not ‘natural’, they are at least not ‘unnatural’. What does that mean though? What is actually going on in our minds when we think this?