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A Humanist Perspective on Body, Health and Diet

Andrew Copson's picture

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Humanists seek to live good lives without religious or superstitious beliefs. They use reason, experience and respect for others when thinking about moral issues, not obedience to dogmatic rules. They promote happiness and fulfilment in this life because they believe it is the only one we have. Humanists value personal freedom and choice because they contribute to personal happiness, but only as long as they do not interfere with anyone else's freedom, happiness or security. The 'golden rule' observed by many humanists, 'Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself', means taking the wishes and needs of others into account, and this is an important element in many questions of health. Treating yourself well, however, is just as important and many humanists would say that we cannot treat others well and have respect for their human dignity if we do not have respect for our own.


Humanist ethics are not a case of set rules but the application of general principles and that can make ethical questions to do with health sometimes very difficult. Drugs are a good example of such a health issue.


Drugs – an ethical choice?


The humanist moral perspective, aimed at living a happy fulfilled life and helping others to do so, can lead to a range of opinions about recreational or illegal drugs. There is no doubt that taking drugs is pleasurable, at least in the short term, or people wouldn't do it. But there are real concerns about the consequences, short-term and long-term, for the individual and those close to him or her, and for the welfare of the community. There is a case for saying that drug use and abuse are health issues rather than moral ones, and as such are a matter of personal choice. The great libertarian philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote:


The only purpose for which power can rightfully be exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.


But one's own good often overlaps with the common good – if I neglect my health or harm myself, this will affect my family and friends and the wider community (I could become a burden on the NHS or be unable to hold down a job), and this harm to others makes drug abuse a moral issue. It is also a moral matter if we take into account the energy and enterprise that is often wasted in the pursuit of drugs: the self-absorbed and selfish lives of many addicts and the time and effort and money that could be better spent on improving the world. Even the land used for the cultivation of drugs could be producing food for the hungry.


And some philosophers have thought that even activities which only cause harm to oneself are wrong because they destroy things that are very precious – one's own freedom or autonomy (addicts certainly have a reduced ability to choose freely or independently) and the capacity to reason, the highest human attribute. Addicts often lose control over their own lives – they may drift into unemployment, homelessness, crime or prostitution, which reinforce their need for drugs and make recovery more difficult. Risking that loss of autonomy could be seen as an immoral choice.



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