Immanuel Can —
Today I will be discussing the issue of whether having making unhealthy choices is “immoral,” which may make some people uncomfortable to read. I am not attempting to shame anyone, especially since I would be included in the shamed group. I’m trying to explore a concept often embraced, but rarely discussed, in Fat Acceptance.
Ya know how our parents tell us when we’re little that we can be anything if we just put our minds to it? As adults, we know it’s a lie. There is no end to the vocations I would never be qualified for, regardless of a single-hearted pursuit.
My genetic endowment and environmental upbringing pretty much prevent me from joining any sort of professional sport short of curling.
But that doesn’t stop me from playing on the company softball team and thinking I’m the Mark McGuire to Mutual of Omaha’s Sammy Sosa in Accounting.
Or, to quote the ever excellent Avett Brothers, “Ain’t it like most people, I’m not different/We love to talk on things we don’t know about.”
And that’s what I’m going to attempt today… a philosophical dissection of an oft-used phrase in Fat Acceptance: health is not a moral imperative. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll refer to this as the Mantra.
I’m not sure why I’ve been thinking about this lately, but I have used it before myself to deflect criticism of people who have an unhealthy lifestyle which can lead to weight gain: eating too much and not exercising.
I’ve always interpreted the Mantra to mean that nobody is under any moral obligation to engage in healthful practices or abstain from unhealthful practices. I believe this is true in the same way that nobody is under any moral obligation to wear seatbelts in cars or helmets in motorcycles or be compliant with their meds.
Is it it a good idea to wear seatbelts or helmet, or be compliant with your meds? Sure. But are you acting immorally if you don’t? I don’t think so.
But then I started to think about it some more.
Maybe there are circumstances under which it would be immoral to intentionally endanger your life. The strongest case to be made is for parents. As a parent, my moral obligation extends to my family, and so when I choose to act in a way that increases then health risks in my life, then my decision is no longer an act with isolated consequences.
I have often used the example of a job I had working with mentally retarded/developmentally disabled adults in order to illustrate a point regarding the judgments of others against fat people. I worked for a company that helped MRDD adults start their own businesses if they were too high functioning for sheltered workshops (basically, assembly lines for easy-to-assemble products), but not yet ready for competitive employment (McDonalds).
The businesses they began were small, simple ones, like recycling cans or toner cartridges, or supplying simple vending machines in office buildings. The man I worked with, Jim (name changed obviously), wanted to start a greeting card company, and it was my job to help him.
Jim was in his early 40s and had a traumatic brain injury (TBI) that severely impaired his ability to move and communicate. He used an electric wheelchair, as he was paralyzed from the waist down, and from the waist up had minimal motor control. He could not speak, but instead used a computer that had both preprogrammed buttons (for eat, drink, sleep) and a QWERTY keyboard.
Jim was responsible for his TBI because when he was 21 he went out with his friends and while drinking and driving had a horrible crash that forever altered his life. It also forever altered the life of his newborn daughter, who would only know her father as a man confined to a wheelchair and a keyboard by is own irresponsible actions.
Is drinking and driving immoral? Yes. Does the immorality of drinking and driving increase with the added knowledge of a child at home? I believe so, yes.
Yet, I myself have received a DWI when I was young and foolish and a single father. When I did not have custody of my son, I was the typical 23-year-old running around, getting drunk and, in several instances, getting behind the wheel. I received my first, and only, DWI when I thought my friends had abandoned me at a club and, living about an hour away, figured (in my inebriated state) that my only option was to drive home.
I was pulled over swerving down the highway doing 105.
Even without the obvious endangerment to others, if I had magically only been risking my own life, I believe this would still be an immoral act, both in endangering my own life and risking a future for my son that could have easily been swapped with Jim’s.
I no longer drink (unless there’s a wedding with an open bar, then V and I flip for DD status) because I recognized that my behavior was out of control. I now engage in safer, slightly more responsible recreational activities that do not pose the same grave threat to my life, my family’s life or to strangers around me.
Now, I know some people may be cringing between the drunk driving/unhealthy lifestyle analogy, but I believe I am consistent in my Fat Acceptance views: it is lifestyle, not weight, that determines health.
I believe that being fat is not a health risk, but I do believe that if you rarely eat fruits and vegetables (as I have spent MUCH of my life guilty of) and avoid exercise (as I have spent MUCH of my life doing), then you increase your risk for all those metabolic diseases that are typically ascribed to weight alone.
I believe that engaging in unhealthy behavior — in the absence of a legitimate reason for engaging in that behavior — is self-destructive and that self-destructive behavior can be immoral (again, depending on the circumstances).
For example, if you are impoverished and in order to make ends meet, you have to purchase cheap, highly processed, unhealthy foods in order to meet your basic caloric requirements for survival, then this unhealthy behavior is not immoral, since your choices are limited by your economic circumstance.
If you can’t exercise because some physical condition makes it painful or uncomfortable to do so, then this unhealthy behavior is not immoral, since your choices are limited by your physical circumstance.
While researching this subject, I came across Immanuel Kant’s description of the categorical imperative, which is based on three formulations:
- Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.
- Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end.
- Therefore, every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends.
An example given by Kant is that lying under any circumstance would be forbidden since if lying became universally acceptable, then it would be no longer possible to believe anyone and language would be rendered useless.
Benjamin Constant challenged Kant’s construct by explaining that under these laws, a circumstance which could arise where a murdered asks you where to find his next victim and by not lying, you essentially condemn the victim.
Constant basically draws a clear distinction between a moral imperative and a hypothetical imperative. While a moral imperative is universal and unbending, a hypothetical imperative depends upon the circumstances.
Which brings us back to health.
Health is not a moral imperative, but it is a hypothetical imperative. If you have the means and ability to choose health, but do not choose it, then your self-destructive behavior may be labeled immoral.
But here’s the kicker: the only person who can label your behavior as immoral is yourself.
Nobody else knows the truth of the circumstances surrounding your health choices. They can infer certain things, but even if you explain all of the financial, physical, emotional, psychological reasons for making the choices you do, they will still have a vastly incomplete picture compared to your own knowledge of the situation.
And so, whether health is a moral imperative or a hypothetical imperative is a moot point entirely.
The fact is that my morality is none of your business.
The ultimate list of moral imperatives, especially in the Judeo-Christian culture of the United States, is the Ten Commandments. Among those commandments is the one forbidding adultery (but not fornication, oddly enough). Jesus takes it a step further and says that not only is adultery forbidden, but so is lust.
Therefore if lust and adultery are on in the same, then abstaining from lust is a moral imperative (and as far as I know, there aren’t any hypothetical circumstances under which adultery or lust can be justified). And if society wants to begin passing judgment on our success or failure at adhering to moral imperatives, then those who choose unhealthy lifestyles will have no trouble turning the tables.
And finally, health choices cannot be gleaned simply from the size and shape of a person. We all know thin people who do nothing but eat crap and play video games. The current environment encourages society to assume that all fat people are making unhealthy choices and that all thin people do not. So the moral imperative, even if justifiably applied, is not fairly applied across the board.
The same attention to the morality of strangers is not directed at thin people, only the fat. Therefore, attempting to ascribe moral value to a person based on their health choices, which is in turn based on their body size and shape, is would be akin to ascribing moral value to a person based on whether they steal cars, which is in turn based on their race or skin color.
In conclusion, it seems to me that saying “Health is not a moral imperative” is an oversimplification of the concepts underlying it. It would be more accurate (but probably less effective) to say “Health is a hypothetical imperative, which is none of your damned business.”
Read my response to all the comments here [not the link I use in the comments].