Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al (livredor) wrote,
Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al
livredor

Health and virtue

More and more, I am noticing a really pernicious meme: the subsitution of health for religious virtue, or even salvation. And the notion of virtue that is being replaced with health was a bad and dangerous frame for morality anyway. An LJ post like this is only the tiniest of drops towards countering this bad meme, but I would rather make the post than do nothing. And of course I welcome any criticism or development of my argument.

The other week I was in synagogue for a Progressive service. The rabbi commented that the prayerbook we were using omitted the traditional practice of reciting the passage from Deuteronomy which states that if you follow God's law you will have good weather and good harvests, and if you don't you will have famines. I might question the wisdom of drawing attention to passages that you have decided to omit, but anyway. The point is that most people see this as a pretty nonsensical position; they either conclude that the Bible is rubbish, or they read it in such a metaphorical way that the plain meaning vanishes out of sight, or they don't read it at all, depending on their approach to Scripture. (The commonest Orthodox practice, by the way, is to read it, because you mustn't change the liturgy, but in an undertone because it makes people uncomfortable.)

Of course, religions come up with all sorts of devious ways to explain the problem that transparently, people aren't happy in proportion to their moral or religious virtue. For example, apologists may regard undeserved suffering as a test of faith, or they may relegate the reward and punishment business to the afterlife or other incarnations. To my mind, this kind of thing is pretty bad theology. Anyway, it's very hard for anyone taking any sort of rational approach to believe that good people get rewarded while anything bad that happens is a punishment.

However, many rationalists who would laugh hilariously at anyone who tried to take literal reward and punishment seriously, are quite prepared to accept something completely analogous when it comes to health. Everybody knows that it's important to eat a balanced diet, do proper exercise, refrain from ingesting toxins, and avoid obvious unnecessary risks. Let me be perfectly clear: I'm not denying that all those things are important and desirable.

But it doesn't follow that if you live healthily, you won't get sick or have any debilitating accidents. Everyone dies eventually. Everyone. You don't attain immortal life by following the appropriate magic ritual. And the very great majority of people get sick at some point during their life; at the very least people either die young or grow old. On average, people who make healthy lifestyle choices are healthier. But that average tells you absolutely nothing about a particular individual.

It most certainly doesn't follow that anyone who does get sick must have made bad choices. Just as Christianity goes way off the rails when it preaches that people who are rich must be enjoying God's favour because of their good moral choices while anyone who is poor must deserve it, any philosophy which argues that everybody whose health is less than perfect must have done something to bring it on themselves, is complete bullshit. Stated like that, of course, few people would agree with that position, yet many people argue as if that were a valid assumption and take positions which do very much boil down to the idea that "good", ie healthy, people get rewarded and "bad" people who deliberately choose to be unhealthy in spite of all the evidence get punished.

One parallel with bad theology is that what is considered to be healthy behaviour consists of a set of rules that are extremely baroque, not at all internally consistent, and often simply arbitrary. Plenty of people think I'm weird for keeping kosher and avoiding pork and shellfish, but are perfectly happy to cut out whole major food groups from their diet such as fat or carbohydrates. There's definitely a kind of ascetism going on. A healthy diet is a sparse one, and any food that tastes good or drug that produces good emotional feelings is treated as decadent, even "sinful". (This ties in with the false connection between health and thinness, which I'm not going to go into here because that's too much flamebait even for me.)

And there's the hierophantic aspect of authority. Who gets to decide what is healthy or unhealthy? The mysterious "They", or "scientists" or "doctors" or even "the government". Scientists are playing the role of priests here. They are initiated into the mysteries; as a scientist myself, I don't deny that it does take years of study to become one! And the ordinary lay people (now, there's a significant word, don't you think?) must simply accept the wisdom from on high. And of course, most scientists and experts don't bother to communicate directly with the unwashed masses; we get our information about health filtered down through the media, and through groups that are blatantly manipulating us, either for our own good (one hopes) in the case of government propaganda, or simply for the sake of profit when it's snake-oil merchants peddling their latest diet plan. Or perhaps somewhere in between. Of course, there are all kinds of rival cults each claiming that they have the One True Way; just observe a debate between supporters of Conventional Medicine and believers in Alternative Medicine some day.

Indeed, there's a very direct link between equating richness with virtue in bad forms of religion which have degenerated into just props for a corrupt political establishment, and equating richness with health. Not everybody has equal ability to make "right" choices. Yes, it is theoretically possible for a person in financial straits, lacking access to good education, and perhaps with a tendency towards addiction, to live healthily. But it's very unfair to hold disadvantaged people to the same standards as privileged people. Rich people are almost always healthier than poor people, and better able to deal with any health problems they do have. This does not mean rich people are morally superior, just that the definition of virtue we currently have is one that is vastly easier for rich people to live up to than poor.

There are a myriad of factors which are not within an individual's control. Of course, that doesn't mean people should give up trying, but those factors are important and being too busy rushing to moral judgements to account for them is dangerous. To go back to the economic issue, nobody chooses to live somewhere that is unsafe in terms of exposure to violence or toxins, but many people can't afford to live anywhere generally healthy. No amount of eating up your greens will prevent you from getting sick if you are constantly exposed to asbestos or can't afford to heat your poorly insulated house properly or you are forced to work unreasonably hard in a stressful job. These issues need to be tackled at a societal level, and blaming individuals who fail to be absolutely saintly in a bad situation is a huge distraction, as well as being morally wrong.

There's also just random bad luck. This is a concept that many people have a really hard time dealing with, but that's just how the world works. Sometimes a person gets sick or has an accident not because of anything they did wrong, or because they suffered the consequences of bad politics, but for no reason at all. It's easy to see why it's tempting to believe that a healthy lifestyle will keep you safe and healthy; knowing that you do all the right things allows you to be confident that you are one of the "saved", but it's a completely false confidence. You might just as well believe that if you do the right magic ritual, some benevolent spirit will keep you safe from harm. And it's not just that this belief is wrong, it's also actively harmful to people who do suffer from bad luck, because they get blamed as a psychological defense mechanism so that healthy people don't have to confront the possibility that something terrible might happen to them too.

Here's an example: I posted about a news item regarding a test for dementia being developed. And adrian_turtle pointed out that I was completely missing some huge potential flaws in the study and its presentation. The assumption is that if people do the right thing, they can prevent developing dementia. I am sure this research was carried out in good faith, but it seems likely that it was influenced by the pernicious meme that I am complaining about.

A couple of additional notes, to pre-empt the most likely criticisms I expect for this essay. Firstly, I'm not in the least saying that Christianity is terrible or any worse than any other religion. I think some of this view of virtue may be partly influenced by Protestantism, but that's a guess I can't prove. It happens that Christianity has been a dominant influence in our society for a long time, and there's nothing more to any bias in my depiction than that.

On other occasions when I've made arguments similar to this, I have found myself getting distracted into stupid debates about whether people should take responsibility for their actions. I absolutely believe that people should take responsibility and should know and accept that their choices have consequences. That's a given, as far as I'm concerned. But taking responsibility is a completely different thing from believing in magical rituals, or trying to claim that virtue is always rewarded.
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  • Mishaps

    cjwatson is working in The Hague for a bit, and since it overlaps with half term Ghoti was able to take all their children to join him. And…

  • I went to Budapest

    ghoti planned us a group trip to Budapest, all of us, her three children and four partners. Which to me sounds like a terrifying amount…

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