Human Exceptionalism

Life and dignity with Wesley J. Smith.

When “Health” is Unhealthy


I discuss “our dangerous obsession with health” today over at my First Things On the Square biweekly column. My launching pad is a very good article written by Yuval Levin–who often appears on The Corner, among other laudable venues–discussing how “health” has become our overriding societal purpose. This raises problems, I write.  From my column:

Elevating “health” to the ultimate purpose of society turns it into something other than health. The original definition of the term is elasticized to include a hedonistic sense of entitlement to obtain whatever our hearts desire. Health becomes understood as a prophylactic, if you will, against suffering. In such a milieu, ethics become transitory because we justify our behavior by feelings rather than robust principles of morality—which after all, sometimes require us to eschew what we want and what feels good in order to do what is right.

I discuss this at some length in the context of reproductive extremism as a reflection of our sense of entitlement to both destroy a gestating child we don’t want and the kind of child we do. 

I conclude with a prescription for restoring balance:

Happily, we don’t have to invent the answer that can restore balance. Back in 1975, the ethicist Leon Kass focused his considerable intellect on this very problem, writing:

Fundamentally, it is not mere life, nor even a healthy life, but rather a good and worthy life for which we must aim . . . Indeed, though there is no such thing as being too healthy, there is such a thing as being too concerned about health. To be preoccupied with the body is to neglect the soul, for which we should indeed care “first and most.”

In other words, if we individually and collectively practice virtue—even when it means accepting suffering—we will make Nietzsche a false prophet by promoting health and pursuing happiness in the overarching context of protecting the equal moral worth of all human life.

Or, as the Rolling Stones once put it, “You can’t always get what you want.” Sometimes, we have to do our part contributing to a moral society by accepting that hard truth.


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