How Healthy Do We Want to Be?

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?

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3 Responses to How Healthy Do We Want to Be?

  1. cathal says:

    sounds right to me – the second one is justified because stopping eating meat could lower your health, just like you said. one reason why this may sound morally justified is that not only do we live in a society that values health, but also our *current* state of health is a precondition on keeping up with the commitments we’ve made. for example, if I suddenly became very ill, I’d likely not finish my phd in time, not get on the job market, end up costing others money in order to support me, and so on. If I do something that’s going to damage my health in such a way that others will have to support me, that’s bad. perhaps the limit to this kind of thinking would be where we get to a super-healthy state, far in excess of what we need to keep up with our commitments. so, let’s say I’m fit enough to climb Everest and run an ultra-marathon, but my job and family commitments require no more than that I can walk to the streetcar and stay awake all day, then it doesn’t seem morally wrong if I let myself go a little bit – nobody else will be affected negatively. In that case, getting into that state of super-health might be thought to be morally supererogatory, or even gratuitous. If I did something unreasonable to get myself into that state, like spend tons of money that I could be using to sustain the lives of my starving neighbors, then this would seem morally wrong. Similarly, eating the cat brains to get into an excessively and unnecessarily healthy state may be morally wrong, because I don’t need to get into that super-healthy state…

    • lukeroelofs says:

      So here’s a few thoughts:

      “our *current* state of health is a precondition on keeping up with the commitments we’ve made”
      But this isn’t always the case. I might make commitments that can’t be kept without improving my health, if I over-stretch myself. Perhaps you’ll say ‘you shouldn’t make such commitments’ – but then what justifies us making commitments on the basis of our present level of health?

      “if I suddenly became very ill, I’d likely not finish my phd in time, not get on the job market, end up costing others money in order to support me”
      An example based on becoming ‘very ill’ doesn’t obviously generalise to more subtle, chronic things. Moreover, by not finishing your PhD you might arguably do as much good as harm, since you let someone else take your spot, and the reduced supply of academic jobs might, at the margin, increase their wages by some tiny amount. Which someone then has to pay them. Gets complicated very fast.

      I would also wonder if doing things that damage your health might save others money if they made you die sooner – avoiding long and expensive care in your old age.

      You describe as “a super-healthy state” being “fit enough to climb Everest and run an ultra-marathon”. I think one can be healthy without being fit, and while I do think modern Canada is well above the human historical average in health, that may not be true of fitness.

  2. Eris says:

    Though the first and second statements seem incredibly and undoubtedly completely different; they are in essence one and the same. In both, one is partaking (thus creating a larger market) in the sacrifice of one life for the growth of your own. The difference could be that one is simply to ‘keep’ your health where it is while the other is to take it to new heights. I have a difficult time seeing this connection. For one, your health may not deteriorate out of refusal to ingest meat. Though currently, our knowledge of such cases is limited (mainly to specific blood types that do not require the benefits of meat, aka blood type A).

    I’m not aware of the scientific facts behind the benefits of eating meat. I know in general that it is a calorie, nutrient, protein, and vitamin dense food. Simply eating a piece of meat saves you the trouble of having to find those nutrients elsewhere. Is this excuse justified in a time such as ours? Our ancestors may not have had the energy or resources to forego on a food item that carried practically everything that was needed to survive. I am sure that we do.

    Would we comply with the killing of a feral cat because its ‘brain juice’ may be used as another essential vitamin source? Most likely, yes. Now what if that essential vitamin source was available elsewhere, but we couldn’t domesticate it. We couldn’t ‘plant’ it, we couldn’t ‘harvest it’, we couldn’t have it grown in our back yards, we couldn’t have it anytime and anywhere we wanted to. In a society with an ego such as ours, a demand such as ours, and one that expects all the benefits of life with the snap of the fingers; why would we take a longer more holistic route to the acquisition of something essential?

    The effort and time it takes, for both the consumer and the creator of the market (lets name this ‘E’), must underweight the benefits it provides (let’s name this ‘B’). When EB, we find any attempt to obtain B ridiculous. When E = B, we attempt to find an opportunity to make E<B.
    Fact is, domesticating animals is not only something we, collectively, as a society know how to do; it’s something where E<B and where there is no other equivalent. All other E’s that offer the same B do not match in the difference of the two sums (meaning that the difference between effort and time minus the benefit is the largest than any other option, aka ‘worthy’).

    In sum, there is no difference between the two other than what, as a society, we have come to consider ‘worthy’, ‘healthy’, and ‘the best use of our time’.

    To add, our concept of ‘health’ is in general, royally twisted. It shouldn’t be called ‘health’; it should be called ‘an assembly line’.

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