Philosophy in the World: Health and Nutrition

Throughout this semester in Philosophy 102, my definition of what philosophy is has evolved tremendously. Prior to this course, I saw philosophy as a field of ancient study dominated by famous Greek and Roman thinkers. I imagined it to be sophisticated discussions of vague concepts – predominantly pertaining to thinking and knowledge. However, as the course progressed I was able to see the importance philosophy plays in modern day, and its relevancy to daily life. This caused a change in my preconceived notions, helping me arrive at a new definition and enabling me to view the world from a different lens. In this paper, I will start by defining what philosophy means to me. Next, I will provide an example of how I practice philosophy according to my definition, focusing on my diet. Lastly, I will apply that definition to a popular health and nutrition documentary, What the Health, thereby establishing its philosophical nature. Ultimately, this paper will provide another interpretation of philosophy, demonstrating an additional way in which it can be applied in the world.

My definition of philosophy is based upon Socrates’ belief that “the unexamined life is not worth living” (Plato, “Apology,” 13). This statement was recorded by Socrates’ pupil, Plato, during the former’s trial. When charged with corrupting the youth and impiety, Socrates rationalizes his actions by referring to his personal philosophy (5). In his explanation Socrates refers to himself as a gadfly, gifted by God to the Athenians (9). Socrates tries to show to the Athenians that in his role as a gadfly he is “fastening upon [the Athenians], arousing and persuading and reproaching” them (10). Without the harmless nuisance that Socrates imposes, the state of Athens would not be critical of its actions, as it is Socrates who constantly challenges the status quo. In fact, Socrates’ method of inquiry has been coined the Socratic Method, as it is unique to the way he practiced philosophy. An example of this method can be found in Socrates’ conversation with a clergyman named Euthyphro, in which he is trying to define piety (Plato, “Euthyphro,” 4). Socrates asks Euthyphro many questions, and just as the latter reaches a response, Socrates cleverly reveals the fallacies of that answer (5-8). This method of inquiry, although often vexing and irritating, results with individuals questioning their beliefs and trying to identify the reasons behind them. Evidently, Socrates was a bit careless in his method, as it concluded with growing resentment towards him that culminated with his execution at trial (Plato, “Apology,” 4). Nonetheless, the example with Euthyphro, a clergyman that cannot define piety, imprinted upon me the importance of questioning one’s beliefs. This idea has become the foundation of my personal definition of philosophy. Like Socrates, I believe in the necessity of examining one’s life. Where I diverge from Socrates is that I apply this idea not to vague concepts and words such as impiety, but to established activities or actions that have become so ingrained in my life that, unless I consciously question them, will go unnoticed. One such activity is the way I eat, which was a topic I put under philosophical scrutiny this year.

As a consequence of starting university and living on my own, I began to think more about the decisions I was making regarding food. When I was living in my parents’ home, I seldom questioned what I ate – I would just have whatever my mother had prepared that day. However, switching to eat at my campus residence cafeteria, there were far more food-decision to be made. Instead of unthinkingly settling into a habit, I decided to practice what would later become my definition of philosophy and examine this aspect of my life. I started by searching online for dietary guidelines and advice, however I soon realized that the plethora of contradictory information will be impossible to navigate effectively. I quickly identified documentaries as a better way to learn about health and nutrition. This strategy enabled me to practice my current definition of philosophy with people doing just the same; namely, filmmakers determined to shed light on an unexamined part of life. One such filmmaker, Kip Andersen, is what I believe to be a modern-day gadfly, and it was his film, What the Health that inspired me to continue examining this aspect of my life and change it.

What the Health is a film which traces back the astonishing growth in chronic diseases -specifically heart disease, cancer, and diabetes- to diet. In the film, Andersen investigates the causes behind the rise in these illnesses, echoing Socrates in his inquiries. On the What the Health website, Andresen’s start as a filmmaker is described as an “awakening;” Socrates uses similar language, comparing the Athenians who learn from his questioning and get frustrated by it to those who are “suddenly awakened from sleep” (Plato, “Apology,” 10).  Much like Socrates, Andresen goes to experts in their field, and questions them about matters to which he expects they would have answers (like a clergyman knowing the definition of piety). However, he finds that getting an answer is far more difficult than one would anticipate. Throughout the film, Andersen’s use of the Socratic method unveils shocking information about the dietary misconceptions so commonly accepted by our society. After viewing this film, I began watching countless other documentaries about food, nutrition, and what composes a healthy diet. Some of the information I came across shocked me, not so much the facts but the possibility that they are not known by most people, and that in many cases, the opposite is held true. For example, dairy is believed to strengthen bones, but it has been found that in countries where dairy consumption is the highest, so too are the rates of osteoporosis (What the Health, 29:47). This is but a mere example of the information What the Health and similar documentaries have discovered. The volume of uncovered statistics, coupled with consistently reliable sources, has pushed me to examine my life in terms of diet, ultimately adopting a vegetarian lifestyle and reducing the amount of animal products I consume. Although at the time I did not attribute this quest for knowledge as philosophy, I have now realized that I was, in fact, practicing my own definition of philosophy. Moreover, this definition parallels that of a great Greek thinker I once considered far-removed and irrelevant in my daily life.

As demonstrated, through Philosophy 102 my notion of philosophy has significantly shifted. From an ancient study, my definition of philosophy has evolved to mean examining aspects of one’s life to reach meaningful conclusions. Such a definition enables me to dissect different parts of my life, for example my diet. Moreover, this definition has allowed me to appreciate others’ philosophical journeys, like that of Kip Andersen through his film. Ultimately, I am now able to identify philosophy when I see it in the world. This helps me lead a more informed life, and one that I -along with Socrates- would argue is worth living.

Kip Andersen’s Film Website: http://www.whatthehealthfilm.com

What the Health Film Trailer:

Works Cited

What the Health. Directed by Andersen, Kip, and Keegan Kuhn. A.U.M. Films & Media, 2017.

 

Kant Discussion

Questions:

  1. The Golden rule “Treat others the way you would like to be treated.” in The Kantian Perspective: Fairness and Justice,  Hypothetically if the Golden rule took into account of circumstances would the choice of being moral or immoral stay the same?  For example if your child had an illness and you couldn’t afford the medicine to cure it so you resort to stealing money from another person to buy the medicine. If the person you were stealing from were to switch places with you including the circumstances you have, do you think they would judge your morality with the Golden rule?  
  2. Take the example from above, according to the fundamental principle of morality do you think the person who is stealing  moral or immoral? Think about the person’s maxim, if the description was “If my child is sick and I have no money, I will steal money from the rich to buy medicine.” If you think of its universalizability is it morally correct or immoral?

Discussion of how these questions relate to the philosophers view:

  1. This question relates to the perspective of the golden rule mentioned in The Kantian Perspective: Fairness and Justice.  Treating others the way you would like to be treated is a rule that most people would like to follow, however in this society it is unjust.  Kant favors fairness and consistency rather than the total amount of good that the outcome will bring.
  2. It relates to Kant’s argument that maxims are the main factor to determining if an action is moral or immoral, in the example above it shows how the person stealing money for their sick child is immoral.; if tested by the universal maxim.

What we discussed in class:

  1.  How morality based on maxims change by how you phrase the maxim. Kant doesn’t talk about the values you have to have, he focuses more on the maxim and if it brings consistent fairness to all. In our example if the maxim was “If my child is sick and I’m too poor to buy medicine I will steal from the rich.” we said that there were better ways to approach the situation so therefore, it is morally bad. Some said that Mill’s perspective of doing whatever brings the most good is more useful in determining whether something is good or bad than Kant. We came to a conclusion that Kant is hard to understand and to really determine whether an action is good or bad really depends on how a maxim is phrased and the situation.

 

Kant Discussion Summary

The first set of questions I asked in my discussion were as follows: To what extent do you agree with Kant’s view of duty and consequences?  If someone acts according to their moral duties but the consequences are objectively bad (short-term, at least), is it still morally right?  What about Hitler?  

These discussion questions relate to Kant’s central views on morality; specifically, his views on what makes actions moral.  Kant, as explained by Shaffer-Landau in “The Kantian Perspective: Fairness and Justice,” believes only in the intention of an action and not in its consequences to determine whether or not the action is moral.

In our discussion, these questions led us to recognize some imperfections in Kantian ethics.  For example, if we always do things with good intentions, but they consistently lead to bad consequences, there must be some sort flaw in the morality of those actions.  However, we mostly agreed that Kantian ethics in this sense works to some extent, as he highlights that ends don’t justify the means, which can be used to argue against Hitler’s morality.

 

The second set of questions I asked my group were: Who decides what is intrinsically good?  If people have different paradigms of morality, how can we fully universalize moral actions?  These relate to Kant’s central idea that good actions must be universalizable, and that some actions are intrinsically good.  

Through these questions, we discussed the lack of clarity in Kantian ethics regarding how we know which actions are intrinsically good, and how this affects the universalizability of actions.  We agreed that this highlighted another flaw in Kant’s teachings, as everybody has a different moral compass, and some actions can therefore not be universalized.  We did, however, agree that, to a great extent, people do have very similar moral compasses because of social construction. So, the Kantian view would be applicable in many cases, just not all.

Discussion summary on Kant

If your maxim seems moral at first but there is a big chance that in the long run, it will lead to bad consequences is it still a moral thing to do? For example, we have a man who wants to go to the war because he wants to protect his land and community. There is nothing wrong with this maxim. But same time he has kids and they are staying without his support and protection alone. They have no chances to survive this war without an adult person being around. Is it still morally right to go to war or should he stay at home to take care and protect his own family?

 

It’s hard to tell for sure because if kids can survive without parent then its morally right to go and fight even if no one will take care of them and a chance to be killed is high. Also, if everyone will stay at home to protect their own family then no one will go and protect society and later it might lead to even worse outcomes. Most obvious one is that all people in this society might be killed by enemies. Then it’s a moral duty to go and fight. Kant does not clarify what is more important, to protect family or to protect society. Which goes first? It might depend on a degree of certainty. What are the chances that kids can do well without parents present?

 

Keeping in mind story from the previous question. Is it easier to give an answer to that situation with Mill’s perspective on morality that consequences are only that matter?

 

If he knows for sure that his kids will die then it is immoral to leave them. Probably if he is the only single parent in this community his absence in the army will not play a big role and his kids will be safe. Then he will increase total utility by staying with them. But if he is a general and without him, it is impossible to win a war then it’s immoral, on a long run if enemies will win then he and his kids will be in danger anyway as well as other people who live there. Yes, it is easier to give an answer to that question from Mill’s perspective because his moral frames are clearer. Kant doesn’t give you any values to rely on when you make your judgment. So even if a situation seems straightforward it might be impossible to say if it’s a right or wrong thing to do. That might be the main problem with Kant. Overall Kant moral test depends too much on the context of the situation and more information you have less clear it is what is right or wrong.

Mill Discussion Summary

In my discussion group we discussed the overlapping circles that Mill proposed, in which there were “just actions” overlapped by “moral actions” further encompassed by “actions that bring happiness”. We agreed that not all just or moral actions would necessarily bring happiness; i.e. in the case of telling someone a harsh truth while they believe a lie, you are acting justly and it is moral to tell others the truth; however, that did not bring any happiness to the person. We were informed (by Jeremy) that utilitarians would likely consider the long run, and suggest that knowing the truth would give the person happiness in their later life, but the fact that it might not bring happiness later was a point of contention around this theory.

We also discussed the importance of the subordinate rules in determining the nature of an action. An action can be good, yet bring no happiness (i.e. donating to a false charity) but because of the subordinate rules, can still be considered a good action because it is usually a good action. It seems almost out of character for Mill to suggest this in our eyes because this comes about as close as you can as a utilitarian to considering intent of an action. We discussed whether or not this fit into a utilitarian model, because it seemingly disregarded the outcome of actions. Thus, we said that it seemed more like an easy way for Mill to address intents and bring the nature of actions as close as possible to that end without stepping over the line, keeping the “fail safe” of “usually good”.

Finally, we discussed the merit of distinguishing sensual and intellectual pleasures. As intellectual creatures, are we capable of saying which is truly better? We experience both, and even among humans, some people prefer sensual pleasures more than intellectual pleasures. Who is to say that a person who lives their whole life craving gourmet foods or thrilling experiences is more dissatisfied or discontent with their lives than someone who chooses to pursue academics/intellectual pleasure? How does one quantify the satisfaction of eating good food and compare it to the satisfaction of reading a good book? We agreed that it would largely depend on personal preference as opposed to a strict rule of what humans prefer. Granted, though intellectual pleasures might be more useful in life, it is impossible to measure and therefore have a solid case that sensual pleasures are beneath them.

Mill Discussion

My first question stems from Mill’s argument that “a test of right and wrong must be the means, one would think, of ascertaining what is right or wrong, and not a consequence of having already ascertained it.” (Chapter 1, page 1) I’m curious to know if my classmates agree with this because, if so, I’d like to know what that kind of test would look like. I would personally argue against it due to the individuality of morals.

Q. Do you agree with Mill that there should be a test of what is right or wrong? If so what would that look like? If not, why?

What gets classified as right or wrong really depends on the situation, so it can’t be defined through a test. An act that could normally be thought of as wrong, could be seen as the “right” thing to do depending on the circumstance. What gets defined as right or wrong is not a straight line, sometimes our morals lead us to disagree with justice.  Additionally, definitions of right and wrong are very individualistic. Perhaps within a community or society, there are general rules of right and wrong, but every individual has their own experience/beliefs, therefore having their own definitions.

My second question prods at the argument Mill makes that “utilitarians look not just to one’s own happiness, but to that of all concerned with action; impartiality between one’s own happiness and that of all others” (Chapter 2, page 5). Though I would like to believe this is true, I don’t necessarily agree with it. Capitalistic societies profit on inequality and creates systems that protect and maintain these very inequalities. Therefore, I believe that those who profit most from capitalism would find happiness in others discomfort.

Q. Do you think Mill’s idea that one cannot be truly happy if others are not stands true today? If so, how can we ensure the happiness of others?

Since society depends on all individuals (the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts), than Mill’s statement must be correct. If it is known that others are suffering, no one can be truly happy, there would always be a sense of guilt. For example, living in Vancouver, where there is such an evident split between rich and poor, it should be hard for the rich to go downtown and see the amount of homelessness, and be guiltlessly happy- and say they could, they would not be moral people.

Discussion on Mills Utilitarianism

  • Utilitarians argue that reaching the “greatest happiness principal” and avoiding all pain is the ultimate goal in life (pg. 5 of Utilitarianism by Mill), which is a similar view of Epicureans.

Does the “avoidance of pain” make sense in reality? We have all experienced pain in our lives, some worse than others, but can you argue that certain pain teaches us life lessons, provides experience and personal growth? Do you agree that pain can result in good eventually, or do you think that pain should be avoided above all else?

During my groups discussion, we agreed pain can sometimes result in happiness and personal benefit and/or benefit of others. Because pain could potentially result in good, it complies with Mills philosophy. Emotional pain is similar to physical pain in the sense that if we learn from our mistakes, for example touching a hot stove element, it teaches us to not do it again and provides us knowledge that hot things will hurt us. By enduring emotional pain in ones life, happiness can be achieved. Therefore, pain should not be avoided at all costs, considering it can be beneficial.

  • Mill states that there are two types of pleasures: sensual pleasures that Epicureans were fond of, or “pig pleasures”; and Intellectual pleasures (pg. 3-5 of Utilitarianism by Mill). He argues that intellectual pleasures are of more quality that sensual pleasures.

What is your opinion on this? Do you find this insulting to people who mostly enjoy sensual pleasures/or are incapable of enjoying intellectual pleasures?

My group discussed the fact that each human is different and therefore enjoys different things. If someone enjoys gourmet food or nice clothing, also known as “sensual pleasures”, then there should be no judgment in what they choose to enjoy. On the other hand, if someones personal taste is more intellectual, or they prefer to indulge in “higher pleasures”, then that is their own choice. It is somewhat insulting that sensual pleasures were referred to as “pigs pleasures” considering it is someones personal choice to indulge in these, also keeping in mind that an intellectual (Mill) wrote this philosophy, making this biased.

Questioning Epicurus

A reoccurring concept in Epicurus’ philosophy was that pleasure is the Ultimate Good which can be achieved by removing pain. However, Epicurus does not advocate for gluttony; oppositely, he believes that the same amount of pleasure can be received with less. For example, in his letter to Menoeceus Epicurus states that “plain meals offer the same pleasure as luxurious fare, so long as the pain of hunger is removed” (2). This idea was again clarified by Cicero in De Finibus where he claims that Epicurus considers the “complete absence of pain… to be the limit and highest point of pleasure; beyond this point pleasure may vary in kind, but it cannot vary in intensity or degree” (2). Puzzled by this concept, I posed the following question in my discussion group:

  1. Do you agree with Epicurus that once pain is alleviated all subsequent pleasures are virtually the same? Do you think pleasure has a point at which it “plateaus”?

The group came to a consensus on this question. We thought that although on a basic level Epicurus is right -any food will bring pleasure in the form of removed hunger- his view takes the idea of pleasure as the absence of pain to an extreme.  One group member countered Epicurus by suggesting that based on social class something that brings pleasure to one person may not do so for another. Continuing with the food example, a person that is used to luxurious food may find no pleasure, or perhaps even pain, if forced to eat certain foods. Furthermore, the pleasure that a person accustomed to extravagance will receive from eating luxurious food will be equal to the pleasure another person will receive from more modest food, yet Epicurus would likely claim that the former is fulfilling an unnecessary need. Ultimately, the group agreed with Epicurus fundamentally, but believed that his definition does not allow for complexities and so, is overly-simplistic.

Next, I began considering what an Epicurean society would look like. Specifically, I was curious about if a society with people that attempt to placate themselves to reach a state that others may describe as ‘neutral’ would push itself to innovate (Cicero 2). This lead me to pose my second question:

  1. What would society look like if Epicurus’ doctrine was adopted? Would it be different than society now? Would innovation exist in such society?

To my surprise, most of the group said that they believe society would stay the same. To support their claim, they referred to Epicurus’ letter to Menoeceus in which he admitted that sometimes people may suffer pain to get more pleasure in the future (2); thus, they will still strive to innovate to make life more pleasurable. On the other hand, some group members thought that a mass adoption of Epicurus’ theory will result with quasi-communism. Although the group did not come to a clear conclusion, there were strong arguments made for both sides. Ultimately, I believe that what an Epicurean society would look like strongly depends on one’s interpretation of the text and its application to modern society.

Epicurus and the gods

Epicurus suggests in his letter to Menoeceus that hyper focus on the gods results in people tending towards using the gods to ‘commend their own ways and condemn  those who do not’ follow the same ways. He however also suggests that all that happens in the world can be ascribed to physical principles. This formed the basis of the discussion questions:

  1. Was Epicurus deliberately vague about his position on the gods because of the religious environment in which he lived?
  2. Did Epicurus believe focus on the gods distracted from the pursuit of a good life?

We believed that it was entirely possible that Epicurus did not entirely dismiss the existence of gods at least not explicitly because he existed within a society in which such a position was punishable by execution and hence his suggestion that the gods whilst existing were removed from interfering with the natural order of things. However we also discussed the possibility that he did genuinely believe pursuit of godliness to be a distraction from living a good life in that the individual could be consumed by a desire to reach ever higher levels of perceived piety and hence stray away from satisfying their necessary natural desires.

Ultimately we concluded that it was perhaps a bit of both with Epicurus at least never explicitly disputing worship of the gods but making it clear that he believed that hyper focus on them reduced the ability for one to live their best life.