Sunday, January 6, 2008

Studies Show...

...that living in the suburbs can be bad for your health. If so, our recent set of debates that frame the question of suburbia in moral terms is beside the point - if the burbs turn out to be bad for our health, we can surely expect that the government will ban them soon enough.

Many people claim to be libertarian because they oppose such paternalistic laws that ban unhealthy practices like smoking or eating fatty foods. That may be so, but I suspect the quick move to embrace the libertarian label misses a deeper dynamic. I am inclined to distrust such laws - whether banning smoking sections in bars, requiring motorcycle helmets, or forbidding us from eating trans-fats - NOT because they are paternalistic (I'm kind of partial to paternalism, at least in my own household), but because they deprive us of the possibility of actual moral self-governance. Reducing government regulation increasingly to the sphere of prolonging life is, in many instances, based on a deeper set of liberal commitments that the only value of living is longevity itself. Such laws aren't propounded to govern our appetites: they are enacted so that we come to embrace the ultimate Hobbesian appetite, the overriding secular commitment to the belief that life of the body overrides all other considerations. The only "moral" laws that are permissible are those that have to do with extending our lifespans; the only "sin" you can commit is purposefully compromising your own longevity.

Such paternalism is, ironically enough, a consequence of a certain kind of libertarianism. One of the heroes of libertarianism is John Stuart Mill, whom libertarians adore because of some passages in his book On Liberty (they can valorize Mill only by ignoring many of the other passages in this and other works, including various passages in which he approves of the enlightened ability of elites to practice communism and others in which he commends enslaving "barbarian" peoples in order to make them productive members of the global economy). The passages that they especially like establish the "the harm principle": governments are not to forbid any activity unless it results in actual harm of individuals. While Mill hems and haws about what constitutes "harm," he appears to set a fairly high bar that harm would have to be discernible to a widespread group of people. In the wake of the materialist philosophies of Hobbes and Locke, "harm" increasingly can only be understood to be physical in nature, and in most instances when some action you commit results in the physical harm of some other person. When we discuss Mill in my classes, this is automatically what 99.9% of my students assume harm to mean. Legislation that prevents "harm" comes to be defined exclusively in terms that are "measurable," and the only way to measure any such harm comes to be solely in corporeal terms.

Living long lives becomes the sine qua non of modern liberal polities. "Morals" legislation becomes impermissible in favor of legislation that prevents actions that would shorten our lives. While initially a ban on harm committed by some against the physical well being of others, the logic of self-preservation and the avoidance of physical harm ultimately extends to preventing the ignorant from harming themselves. Paternalistic laws forcing people to be healthy are a logical outcome of a certain life-obsessed libertarianism.

Those who apparently reject the imperative of long life - initially and most obviously those fighting in religious wars, people who evince some commitment to soul over the health of their bodies - are to be regarded with abiding mistrust. The very imperative that led to the wholesale ambition to limit religion exclusively to the private realm ironically comes to motivate our contemporary health fanatics who would now ban activities that would result in perceived forms of self-inflicted harm. People who apparently disdain the health of their bodies pose a serious threat to the logic of liberalism: if they don't value self-preservation above all, then the entire social contract is under threat of dissolution.

But here is the ultimate irony: what appear to be laws regulating our moral behavior are actually motivated by a deeper impetus to reduce morality to non-existence. Our character, ethos, soul, is literally immaterial, and hence inadmissible before the public bar: the kind of person we are - husband, wife, father, mother, citizen, clergy, worshiper, neighbor, teacher, student, friend - is irrelevant so long as it does not involve personal health. A good example of this is seen on our college campuses: our administrators don't dare to say a word about what would constitute a moral education for our students, but they don't hesitate to intervene in the students' lives when it comes to matters that touch upon their health. We had a "Student Affairs" (ahem) administrator visit a class I was teaching this past semester to address "morals" issues on today's campuses. When speaking about excessive drinking he was able to speak about it exclusively in terms of physical health, and when I raised the question of "the hook up" culture, he framed the issue in terms of mental health! The very institutions once charged with helping to shape character no longer recognize the legitimacy or even existence of such a responsibility: they are in the business of making you into good consumptive liberals who will someday obsess about your cholesterol levels but heaven forbid a word should be said about what might constitute a good marriage.

What matters above all is that we crave life, that the physical status of our bodies overrides every other consideration. Only then will it be possible to build the universal and homogenous State of satiated and peaceful last men.

This doesn't mean that I don't continue to be critical of the suburbs. I merely want the terms of the debate to be about the state of our souls, and not reduced - as is increasingly the case - the health of our bodies.


Kevin J. Jones said...

Is this theoretical analysis about longevity too much?

An alternative is to claim that people are easily persuaded to ban cigarettes because cigarette smoke smells bad, only low-class people smoke, and treating lung cancer costs everyone money.

Anonymous said...

I get the spirit of this post more or less... but you have to remember that every part of the community has its role. Why would you expect student affairs folks to take any approach other than a mental/public health one in talking about a campus "hook up culture"? If you think your students ought to learn about faithful, Christian marriages, invite a priest to lecture. I wouldn't expect my dentist to be able to fix my car.

Anonymous said...

An alternative is to claim that people are easily persuaded to ban cigarettes because cigarette smoke smells bad, only low-class people smoke, and treating lung cancer costs everyone money.

I wonder why nobody seemed to notice that they smelled bad forty ot fifty years ago? Maybe tastes in smell change? The other two arguments (as has been often pointed out) could be used to ban most what is eupemistically called "fast food".