Saturday, January 05, 2008

Why Immanuel Kant was right

A letter in today's issue of the British Medical Journal warns that the obesity epidemic in the U.K. is so bad that action must be taken now; no more studies or research, says the letter writer. Do something now!

What does she think should be done? It's a question of infrastructure, she writes; we need to build more bike lanes and sidewalks and remove the physical obstacles to biking, walking, and swimming.

That sounds like a great idea to me. I live in a city famous for being bike-friendly. I bike to and from work when the temperature is above freezing (round trip: 6.5 miles) and walk the rest of the time, and I love it.

But I haven't lost any weight doing it, and I don't expect to. That's not why I do it. I bike and walk because I love the feeling of getting somewhere under my own steam--always have; I walked to and from high school, 2 miles each way, even though there was a bus I could have taken. My brain works better when I'm in motion, so I get a lot of my best ideas while I'm walking or biking. And the efficient part of me likes combining daily exercise with basic transportation--killing two birds with one stone.

The trouble comes when we pose such social changes as means to an end, ways to drop pounds, rather than an end unto itself. The philosopher Immanuel Kant spoke to this kind of mistake in his writings. In his view, all means to an end have a merely conditional worth because they are valuable only for achieving something else. In order to have value, something must be worth doing for its own sake.

Bingo! Let's build bike lanes and hiking paths and public swimming pools because we think there's intrinsic benefit in people biking, cycling, and swimming. Conflating weight loss with these activities just muddies the waters. What will letter writers propose when said improvements don't result in massive weight loss? I shudder to think.

13 comments:

KateHarding said...

You know, I really hate it when people exploit fatphobia in an attempt to advance causes I actually support.

Phledge said...

I understand where you're coming from, Kate, and by and large (pun intended) I agree with you. Philosophically, anyway. But to be the creme brul...um, the devil's advocate, I'd rather see good things come from wrongheaded motivation than to not see good things at all. Hell, yeah, put up more bike lanes. Hell, yeah, increase police presence so kids don't feel unsafe walking to school. Hell, yeah, make gym memberships less expensive or covered under healthcare dollars. (Shh! Don't tell them it won't work! :))

Harriet said...

Exactly. Expedience is a time-honored philosophy too.

KateHarding said...

I hear you, but my fear is what happens when all those people don't lose weight, and the ones who spent the money thinking they were guaranteeing themselves a thinner population freak out.

Also, I just hate it when progressives throw fat people under the bus, period.

mumboj said...

We had a lot of public swimming facilities, lidos, local authority gyms, school playing fields etc, that were sold off because they were not considered ends in themselves for those of lower incomes. The children of the more resourced classes kept their facilities for their children and rightly so.

The supreme irony for me is to advocate replacing what we could not justify selling financially or morally. Now we must replace it at greater cost apparently for people we didn't care about enough in the first place to refrain, this is to help prevent something we are constantly told is the fault of a group that the medical establishment is helping to demonise.

I wonder how does this woman square that circle?

Jennalynn said...

This is a crusade I've been on for years. We need to separate the co-joined twins DIETANDEXERCISE.

So many people see exercise as a punishment for being fat, not something that makes ALL bodies healthier.

Putting the emphasis on getting us all moving, regardless of weight loss, would help society much more.

Meowser said...

Yeah, it does seem like most of these people are under the spell of, "Everybody get on that bike and the pounds will just melt away!" Like no fat people ever ride bikes. Or walk. Or do anything but sit and sit and sit and sit. (Right now I have a herniated disk and CAN'T sit for more than a few minutes at a time. I walk HOURS a day. Why am I not disappearing?)

This is why I don't diet. It's because I know that sometime during my lifetime, I will not be allowed to purchase the foods I like. At some point, they will restrict our food purchases -- we will not be allowed in restaurants or bars or coffeehouses or allowed to purchase food at entertainment venues of any kind unless we are under BMI 30 (professional athletes excepted), and at grocery stores we will be restricted to those few items deemed to be "dietetic" (whatever the diet fashion happens to be at the moment), and if thin people attempt to purchase food for us they will be prosecuted. We will also be required to purchase pedometers and have them randomly checked by police. Disabled fat people will automatically assumed to be disabled solely because of their weight and will be put in starvation jails. Because that's what it will take to get all or nearly the entire fat population thin -- a total starvation police state.

Therefore, I am getting it while I can.

Harriet said...

I'm laughing *and* crying, Meowser.

Dreaming again said...

Starvation doesn't work ..even if you're fat. Once you've turned off your metabolism, your body starts to digest muscle and store fat.
Then you die of malnutrition and overweight with severe muscle atrophy.

mary said...

I hope it never gets that bad meowser! I am stockpiling BOGO chips now! And REAL sugar...a product I know is meant for moderation but I prefer to this to certain man made products.
I think Kant was right Harriet. It's like getting stickers in school. It always troubled me because, as I told the teacher, my kids needed to do things that weren't always pleasant in life and the reward had to be that they kept something right. ( a guinea pig that lived because it was fed, no star needed)
Isn't being able to read a gift in itself? As you said, the mental break while riding a bike and good way it makes you feel...though I'd take hot chocolate for shoveling snow any day! : )
What else do I need for my stockpile?
And will they allow me to go gray if I decide not to color my hair? : O

RioIriri said...

"In order to have value, something must be worth doing for its own sake."

Which has been a problem I've had with "exercise" for a long time. For one, it is literally painful for me. For another, I feel like it's a huge energy expenditure that doesn't accomplish anything. I wish all those people in spinning classes were charging batteries or something. :)

Harriet said...

Great idea!!

Kevin Gowen said...

The philosopher Immanuel Kant spoke to this kind of mistake in his writings. In his view, all means to an end have a merely conditional worth because they are valuable only for achieving something else. In order to have value, something must be worth doing for its own sake.

That is not what the categorical imperative states. It states, (in one of its formulations):
"Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means."

Kant said that people, including one's self, should never be used as a means to an end. For example, don't masturbate, as you are using yourself as a means to your own pleasure. Don't engage in premarital or homosexual sex, as you are treating the other person as a means to your pleasure. Don't murder, because you are using the victim as a means only. (these examples are Kant's, not mine)

The formulation of the categorical imperative having to do with means and ends (the second formulation) has absolutely nothing to do with tasks as the way you describe. Kant was talking about human interaction, not building bike paths or taking out the garbage.