The Ethics of Self Improvement
Farrokh Alemi, Ph.D.
Chapter 8 in “A Thinking Person’s Weight Loss and Exercise Program”
Anyone who seriously thinks that it is possible to improve people’s willpower, must ask: “What if we succeed?” What if people achieve their resolutions, get their wish, but come to regret it. Helping people get to their resolutions, begs the question of what if they resolve to do what is not in their best interest.
Sure, many obese and sedentary people would use this book to lose weight and become more active. They would choose to change their environment to encourage a healthy set of habits. Some, frustrated by years of attempting to lose weight, would rejoice upon success. A morbidly obese person would find that he can keep to his exercise regimen. He would find himself and revise his sense of self worth. A sedentary soccer mom, coming out of years of child rearing, would find confidence in losing weight and becoming active again. But there is another group of people who are in marked contrast to those who stand to benefit: a group of people who succeed in their resolutions but continue to overindulge to the point of harming themselves. I am referring to a teenager who wants to lose weight despite the fact that she is already thin. I am referring to a runner who wants to exercise more despite the fact that he already does plenty. This book can help both groups of people. It can help those who have resolved to have healthier habits as well as those who ignore health, in order to look good, to feel wanted, or to fulfill some other externally imposed resolution. They may succeed in accomplishing their resolutions but fail in having a better, happier life. This book shows how we can revise our environments to achieve our objectives. The question is—to what end? If we can redo ourselves, who is it that we want to be?
We can falsely claim that the techniques presented in this book are a set of tools devoid of any value judgment. After all, we don’t tell the reader what to wish for. As scientists, we are not the one making the resolutions. Individuals make their own choices; we only help them remain committed to their choices. In fact, in order to avoid the typical debates and value judgments, we have painstakingly avoided discussion of any particular diet or exercise program. We have not made recommendations because others, better informed individuals, are doing so. We are also not suggesting a course of action because we truly believe that the best course of action is a personal one. The best advice is to engage in problem solving and not to rely on what has worked for others. But, despite claims of neutrality of science, despite claims of uniqueness of each person’s resolutions, a set of tools that improves our willpower is inherently dangerous for the individual as well as for all of us collectively. At the individual level, the tools can be used to lose more weight than needed. Collectively, the book may be used to create a new social mindset, where the power to lose weight is taken to extremes.
The problem is not unique to us and this book. In the report of the Presidential Council on Bioethics in the Fall of 2001, in a book entitled Beyond Therapy, commissioners discuss the plethora of pills and therapies directed at getting well people better. The commissioners raise concern about a pharmaceutical industry that manufactures “desire” itself, and reshapes what we want. These include enhancement drugs that help us develop more muscle; medication that makes us feel happier; drugs that remove wrinkles, medications that delay aging, and pills that enhance sexual performance. All of these innovations are working to create a new sense of who we are. Beyond Therapy laments what scientists might be doing to the dignity of life, to what it means to be human. Scientists might point to individual freedoms run amok. But, when many individuals make the same choice, a social norm emerges that pressures others to follow. In the end, some people may be forced to lose weight because their friends are doing so.
If everyone improves, is better at sex, happier in day-to-day life, has less anxiety, has no hair loss, no wrinkles, no aging, what becomes of the few of us who do not want to follow? When social norms change, everyone is pressured, even people who did not set out to change. A personal choice of losing weight may, if followed by many, have a rippling effect. It may generate new social norms. These norms may pressure others to lose weight. For example, when social norms change, some options disappear. Many manufacturers may move away from producing and marketing food items that do not fit social norms. For example, the growth of the Atkins diet has led to a drop in demand for bread and a possibility of major manufacturers changing the nature of these products to appeal to the new low-carbohydrate diets. In the end, a personal choice is not so personal after all; if it ripples through the society, it affects us all.
These are not just academic and detached musings. There was a time when obesity and fat bellies were considered signs of people who were well off. Artists and painters would depict women with large bellies as symbols of beauty. Men of stature would seek to have large fat stomachs. Obesity was sought after. There was a time when going to the beach was for the sick. People would consider a pallid face attractive; a suntan pointed to peasant origins, not a vacation. These are just a few examples of how individual choices are helping rewrite the options available to others. Once again, personal improvement is not that personal after all.
The myth of benign scientific progress is not true. Technologies enable new social norms and, inevitably, they prefer some norms to others. The value-free technology is a farce. In the end, technologies serve to inherently reinforce some—not all—social norms. They are not value-free; only disguised to appear that way.
What we have proposed in this book will make many people succeed at losing weight and exercising more. Even though we do not say so overtly, the nature of prevailing social norms is to use this book to diet and exercise. For some, this course of action would be beneficial; but for others it may be disastrous—perhaps even life-threatening.
So what are we to do? We see the devastation of obesity and the repeated frustration of people trying to lose weight. Naturally, as scientists we would like to help. We do not ask whether it is good to lose weight and exercise—it is, for many. We see people trying and we would like to help. We see a functional problem of getting from A to B and we would like to find an optimal solution. This is the nature of science. The larger questions of what life is, what dignity is, who we are, are questions scientists do not typically answer. Yet, obviously, we are concerned if tools and techniques we propose are used to poor ends. We are concerned if an ecological approach to behavior change leads to clashes between people who share the same environment. We are concerned, if our approach leads to social norms that force many to change against their own desire.
We are concerned but not to the point of abandoning access to our proposed methods. Contrary to Bill McKibben, who in his 2003 book entitled, “Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age” seems to worry that progress might end our society; we seek a road in between. We want our tools in the public domain and accessible to all but we also want them to be used for good. Gary Greenberg, in his 2004 essay on “After Nature,” criticizes the Presidential Council for defining the problem yet, like us, shrinking from its responsible solutions. He argues that the Council’s recommendation to cajole people to think more about these issues misses the point for collective action. He calls for regulation. It is difficult to understand what shape and focus such regulation will take without restricting self-improvement—which seems to be part of the American experience and, perhaps, the very definition of humanity.
So, where does this leave us? How can we orient our tools for good? We define “good” as better health. We claim that weight loss and exercise are worthy resolutions if they improve the individual’s health. This is a simplification, however. At the extreme, among the obese and the anorexics, appropriate exercise and weight maintenance do not necessarily produce better health. Some run to feel good. Others diet to change their self-image. Are we condoning such practices that are not purely for physical health? Is losing weight to feel good a legitimate reason—and what message does this send to an anorexic teenager who wants to lose more? When do we reach the point where, as McKibben said, “enough is enough”?
We have very little to offer to help safeguard these tools from people who want to harm themselves. Our only solace that our methods would be used for worthwhile causes is that this is an approach that connects the individual to his or here environment. Contrary to most technologies, here is a tool that reconnects us to the nature of things and to people around us. It is a tool that highlights our dependencies and our links to one another. In their essence, then, the tools in this book have built-in qualities that should prevent people from misusing them. An anorexic person who becomes aware of how her or his environment is coloring body/food perceptions may change his or her resolution. Being aware of the environment may help people understand the value of their resolutions. In the end, the technology of reconnecting with our environment will make us more natural and less technological.
We end this book with the hope and desire that the reader has gained better understanding of willpower and would resolve to improve his or her health and not just lose weight. We are reassured that this is the most likely effect because our tool is one that raises awareness. In the end, in the choice between good and evil, our methods are likely to lead to more good because these tools are built on increasing knowledge and linkages. Of course, we can be wrong and we may have added to the perplexities of modern life. We may see a surge of anorexics modifying their environment in order to lose more weight. We worry about this possibility but think that chances are this will not happen because “A Thinking Person’s Diet and Exercise” starts and ends with thinking. And only good can come out of thinking—out of honest assessment."