Is it Ethical to Be Healthy?


There’s no secret to living well: eat a diversity of whole foods, all or mostly plants; stay active; drink lots of water; get a decent night’s sleep; and avoid in excess pernicious activities like drinking and drug-use, smoking and sloth. But it’s easier said than done: too often, fried foods, sitting still, rocks-glasses full of whiskey, and staying up to 2am are more attractive than their healthier counterparts, and we indulge in those things we know we oughtn’t to. And so we get fat, or too easily out of breath, and then we feel guilty or worried.

So some of us make New Year’s resolutions; fewer stick with them; others say fuck it and suffer premature illness; and others consult the advice of experts, whether in offices or in books. And it’s that last resort that kinda bugs me!

It’s not that I don’t think people should be healthy—Wall Street executives aside, most of us have our roles in trying to make the world a better place, and we can’t perform them without first possessing a basic level of wellness—but that being healthy is commonsense for anyone who’s received a basic nutritional and physical education. Of course, there are also those in positions that require additional research: someone with a recent diabetes diagnosis might read up on which foods are best for them to eat; those who decide to become vegan should maybe look into which vitamins and minerals they need to be conscious of getting more of. But when people pursue Nutrition in its extremes, it tips over into narcissism. “The food-crank is by definition a person willing to cut himself off from human society in hopes of adding five years on to the life of his carcase,” George Orwell once obnoxiously wrote of vegetarians—”that is, a person out of touch with common humanity.” But maybe, in more general terms, he had a point.

Though they’re not morally mutually exclusive, the more people worry about their own selves and their own diets—say, about which leafy green possesses the most ideal carotenoids—the less they often seem to worry about other people, animals and the planet we inhabit together (a broadened, modern-progressive definition of Orwell’s “common humanity”). So what if rice-farming uses a third of the world’s freshwater? Who cares if overfishing tuna is destroying the oceans? If quinoa is good for you, who gives a darn about the Andeans who can no longer afford that former staple of their diet?

So much worrying about yourself requires money and effort, but most of us only have so much of either; when we have the time and financing to worry so much ourselves, we should instead use those resources to worry about others: the question to ask isn’t, which food is best for me? But, which food is farmed in the way that’s most beneficial to the land? Does the company farming it pay its workers fairly? Are the animals we want to eat treated well? That is, ask not if this chicken is good for you, but if this chicken is good for chickens! (Obviously, it’s not.)

But as I’ve argued elsewhere today, nobody’s perfect, least of all me. Not everything we eat or do is going to help ourselves, let alone others; I often eat and shop and live unhealthily and unethically, but I’m always trying to be better, too: to buy more locally (I only bought, like, two Christmas presents on Amazon this year!), to eat more nutritiously and, most of all, to think more about the health of everyone and everything that isn’t me. That’s something we should push ourselves to do with the time we might devote instead to obsessing over which berries bear the best antioxidants.


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