Oh heavens! the people they are so healthy!

I’m always amazed by Frank Furedi’s Nietzsche-like ability to make perfectly innocuous, even admirable concepts sound like curse words. For example, from this article on our culture’s fetishization of sickness:

“Governments today do two things that I object to in particular. First they encourage introspection, telling us that unless men examine their testicles, unless we keep a check on our cholesterol level, then we are not being responsible citizens. You are letting down yourself, your wife, your kids, everybody. We are encouraged continually to worry about our health. As a consequence, public health initiatives have become, as far as I can tell, a threat to public health. Secondly, governments promote the value of health seeking. We are meant always to be seeking health for this or that condition. The primary effect of this, I believe, is to make us all feel more ill.”

While I’m not sure that I would call examining one’s testicles introspection, it could be justly argued that men over, say, 50 doing so occaisonally may prove more useful than the average afternoon brooding session. I don’t deny that the obsession with physical health does tend to induce the “normalization” of illness, nor that governments, especially (a point my brother has made before) in a system of at least partly government-run healthcare, take the prerogative of intruding themselves more and more on our ability to make decisions regarding our health. However, that by no means entirely negates the value of “health-seeking” in general. Isn’t that, after all, what survival is?

But Furedi is one of these professorial Marxists for whom a single moment lost from re-distributing income in society is a total waste. It is just as extremist a view as that of the health nuts. This is a man that a year ago was bewailing the fact that people no longer identify themselves by their political faction, that they were searching for gasp “personal meaning.” And as intellectually solid as it may seem to moan about moral concepts of right and wrong, good and evil giving way to healthy and ill, I would say that the process is both overstated and, to the extent that it exists, somewhat of a move to re-ground those terminal abstractions in something concrete. For one thing, it’s not like ethics was ever entirely divorced from survival concepts: at least two of the first five books of the Bible, for example, while couched in authoritarian moral-directive language, are pretty much pure health-and-lifestyle manuals (circa 2000 B.C.). I think Plato and Kant have exercised a deceptive influence, because considerations of personal and group well-being have been pervasive in ethics, whether it be hellfire in the afterlife for the Revivalist preachers or some sort of statistical well-offness for the utilitarians. So natural is the urge to connect morals and resultant well-being at some level that I was convinced until the age of 17 that Kant’s categorical imperative was founded on some sort of utilitarian principle.

Perhaps I’m one of the “morally illiterate,” but I find very few a priori moral directives very helpful anymore, and they always seem to be pierced by innumerable valid exceptions. In science, rules are assumed to provisional and subject to revision; in ethics, they tend to override any other consideration. As a result, we wind up with completely deracinated dogmas, and even great minds like Kant deceiving themselves into believing that a utilitarian principle is actually an a priori one. If we actually take the concept of health seriously, but not only in a reductive physical sense, it might restore an element of clarity to our thinking which has been lost in the decline of archaic ethical structures like religions.

And finally, I am quite aware of the role of medicalization in reducing humans to a position of dependency and helplessness. This point has been made, from quite a different extremist angle, by the ultra-libetarian Dr. Thomas Szasz, for example. Then again, people have said much the same thing about, for example, evolutionary psychology. What Furedi, Szasz and Richard Lewontin for that matter don’t seem to realize is that the perceived loss of control over one’s own mind and body (although, as B.F. Skinner pointed out, the results of such a theory, if correct, cannot actually be called either a loss or gain, since they were that way all along) is counter-balanced by the parallel development of technology that allows the manipulation of our biological systems. In other words, maybe someon’s “melancholy temperament” today would be diagnosed as mild schizophrenia, but on the other hard on the heels may come a treatment to cure it. So just like anything else there are two sides to the issue, but it seems to me that if the premises neurobiology are correct humanity in fact has more control over the mind and mental and emotional states today than ever before.

p.s. One might expect that intellectuals of Furedi’s ideological temperament would be more open to this trend. After all, it seems so recently (well, ok, it was 40 years ago, but I discovered it relatively recently) that Michel Foucault published Madness and Civilization to decry the wealthy and powerful élite shutting off and isolating the proles by labelling them as “insane.” Well, these days the élite are much more likely to identify themselves with the plebes by slugging a few Prozac with them. And if that’s not class solidarity, what is?

p.p.s. As evidence of the rather authoritarian and hierarchical basis of ethical norms, I might point out the near-total lack of development of a moral code regulating the interaction of nations, where there is no body invested with supreme authority to impose such a thing and whose behavior as a result frequently, as has been often noted, resembles strongly that of myopic psycopaths. Many people would take this as evidence of the efficacy of ethical norms, at least on a group or general level, which I don’t necessarily disagree with. However, if it is just a matter of my own actions, I generally trust my own instincts more.

3 Responses to “Oh heavens! the people they are so healthy!”

  1. Dave Says:

    I think Furedi does have a point. Let’s confine the discussion to the government’s puritanical nanny recommendations about eating and drinking. Beware of the dangers of drinking coffee. Not that there is any thing unhealthful about it, but it is a stimulant and people enjoy it so it must be bad. So only drink one cup a day and ditto for beer. And you should not eat anything with much salt in it, because it might increase blood pressure in people who already have high blood pressure, but mainly because it tastes good. Recently I read that salt kills 150,000 people a year, over three times the number killed in automobile accidents. See: http://www.cspinet.org/salt And, don’t eat eggs or oysters because of the cholesterol, but oops, cholesterol in food doesn’t really matter, because you synthesize cholesterol endogenously. So we won’t talk about that any more except to say that eggs and oysters can transmit salmonella and vibrio bacteria and can kill you. Also, now that everyone has stopped smoking we are all getting fat. Not that people follow the government’s recommendations, but if worry shortens your life they may be counterproductive. At very least the medicalization of diet succeeds in ruining or at least diminishing life’s small pleasures. Also in a more psychiatric vein, don’t forget the medicalization of body habitus. No longer do we have fat people and skinny people but now millions have eating disorders such as morbid obesity, anorexia nervosa and bulimia. Curt, you are a philosopher. Explain to me how all this is better than the old discredited philosophy of “eat drink and be merry.?

  2. Curt Says:

    I would find it difficult to explain that since I don’t find it to be true. But let there be no mistake, that’s not what Furedi is getting at. He’s not just railing against the diet fads and all that. He seems to also think that checking for prostate cancer is overly narcissistic. You’re a doctor, explain why that isn’t an excessive reaction. You are suggesting that the health craze actually lowers our quality of life by messing with our mental and possibly physical health, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with you. But Furedi is objecting not on quality-of-life but on moral grounds; he seems to think that even caring about one’s own health and quality of life at all is narcissistic and immoral, which I find just as unreasonable as the health nuts, and I find his bitching about moral imperatives to have a bit of totalitarianism in the same way as when the government gets involved in health issues. As Nietzsche said of Kant: “the categorical imperative smells of cruelty.”

  3. Dave Says:

    I’m no fan of Furedi. In fact I’ve never heard of him or read his stuff. It is ironic how the underlying motive for many of these web personalities and authors remains opaque unless you know their history. I have some interest in the history of Marxism and I have noticed the much of the verbiage you hear from today’s left can be traced almost word for word to old tracts written by Stalin’s propaganda masters. Of course the fact that they talk about equality and justice for all is no indicator of their real plans for you. On the right many of the editors of conservative publications that I respected now stand revealed as crypto- Catholic totalitarians, in the wake of the Shiavo episode. I guess that is why it pays to study history and philosophy, if only there was more time.

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