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John F. Kennedy's "The Soft American. And, is pursuing health a moral duty?
Hello and welcome to The Stuff They Never Told You. Before we jump in today, I want to highlight a recent podcast interview I had with Charles Love on The Charles Love Show. I’ve just finished Love’s terrific and illuminating book, Race Crazy, which came out the same day as my own. He’s amazingly well read and this interview was a blast!
Now to today’s Stuff!
From the Recent Ages
British Philosopher Herbert Spencer on physical morality:
“We do not yet realize the truth that as, in this life of ours, the physical underlies the mental, the mental must not be developed at the expense of the physical… Perhaps nothing will so much hasten the time when body and mind will both be adequately cared for, as a diffusion of the belief that the preservation of health is a duty. Few seem conscious that there is such a thing as physical morality. Men's habitual words and acts imply the idea that they are at liberty to treat their bodies as they please. Disorders entailed by disobedience to Nature's dictates, they regard simply as grievances: not as the effects of a conduct more or less flagitious. Though the evil consequences inflicted on their dependents, and on future generations, are often as great as those caused by crime; yet they do not think themselves in any degree criminal.”
From The Other Day
“For physical fitness is not only one of the most important keys to a healthy body; it is the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual activity. The relationship between the soundness of the body and the activities of the mind is subtle and complex. Much is not yet understood. But we do know what the Greeks knew: that intelligence and skill can only function at the peak of their capacity when the body is healthy and strong; that hardy spirits and tough minds usually inhabit sound bodies.
In this sense, physical fitness is the basis of all the activities of our society….
Thus the physical fitness of our citizens is a vital prerequisite to America’s realization of its full potential as a nation, and to the opportunity of each individual citizen to make full and fruitful use of his faculties.”
—John F. Kennedy
The above quote comes from President-elect John F. Kennedy in December of 1960 as he prepared to take office. Kennedy saw improving the health and vigor of our nation as, perhaps, the most fundamental objective for ensuring the future of America.
It hardly needs to be stated that the state of American health has only declined since he wrote this in 1960. In fact, in 2019, Bill Maher pointed to the Americans of 1969, the time of the Apollo 11 launch, as if they represented a heyday in the health of American society. As he bluntly stated, “Watching the footage of the 50th Anniversary of Apollo 11, I was struck by how not-fat everyone in the crowd was. We look like a completely different race of people.”
What has become normal in regards to diet, activity, and screen time is far worse than what John F. Kennedy was responding to in his article. Childhood obesity has tripled since 1970 in youth ages 6-19 and a 2017 Harvard study projected that over 57% of youth between the ages 2-19 will be obese by the time they are 35.
American life has been transformed by the Covid-19 pandemic. We’ve made this the issue of the past couple years—one that warranted a public response and dramatic changes in every sector of society. And, yet, any honest appraisal of public health will recognize the obvious: poor diet is the leading cause of death globally, as well as the biggest cause of our excessive national healthcare costs, mass pharmaceutical dependency, and of the chronic maladies that plague so many Americans, and which drastically diminishes the quality of their lives. Nothing is a greater threat to our nation’s health than the health norms that are reinforced by our culture and in almost every school. But, still, pointing this out is more likely to elicit jeers than a thoughtful response.
We hardwire our citizens for a lifetime where they are almost certain to feel powerless to food cravings and develop the attitude that eating predominately real, minimally processed, non-industrial foods is somehow a bizarrely monastic feat of discipline, which would strip their life of all color. We orient them to lives of lethargy, incessant health maladies, low confidence, and confusion as they try to make their way through a health infosphere littered with fad diets and silly exercise regimes. Regardless of how you define morality, it is hard to justify our reluctance to change the behavioral norms that lead our children towards this likely fate. Which is why I find today’s first quote so interesting.
Spencer speaks of physical morality: a belief that there is a moral obligation to harmonize one’s body to the natural order—that it is immoral to treat our bodies with disrespect. As with all moral virtues, this could be taken to extremes. To push puritanical eating, exercise, and lifestyle norms on society would be as out of whack as the sexual mores of the Puritans. (We can and should enjoy occasional feasts and treats). But, when approached in a balanced manner, as one of many virtues worth aspiring towards, physical morality seems an indispensable cultural value. To adopt this value would be among the most beneficial things a culture could do for the wellbeing of its people.
In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt takes a functionalist approach to morality, where he looks at what morality does, rather than trying to define what is moral. From this perspective, he makes the argument that morality evolved in humans to facilitate cooperation and mutual success. It is the social glue that has made society possible. He relies heavily on the work of the father of sociology, Emile Durkheim, who said that, “What is moral is everything that is a source of solidarity, everything that forces man to… regulate his actions by something other than… his own egoism.”
Our culture has become so hyper-individualized that we struggle to conceive any behavior as immoral that doesn’t cause immediate, obvious physical harm to people in our vicinity. This is a far departure from the function of morality and from its capacity to help us live well, both collectively and individually.
At the risk of being labeled a moralist, I’d argue that there is a right and wrong, and that morality is about your relationship to society as well as to the natural order (however you want to define that).
It is easy to make a case for physical morality based on the pursuit of harmony with the natural order. But it is also relatively clear from the first perspective—when we look at the impact of our behaviors on the society and relationships around us. As parents, teachers, and leaders our behavior becomes a model, which is probably the greatest influence we have on the behaviors of other people, particularly those younger than us. Regardless of whether we want it to, our behaviors influence those around us, serving to either justify a behavior or discourage it. None of us are isolated cogs and none of us are neutral forces. How fantastically motivating.
To be clear, physical morality is just one of many excellences that should be considered in the pursuit of living well. Anyone with their eyes open will be able to point to any number of great people who have not made health much of a value in their life. To go to the extreme, Hitler was a picture of temperance and health while the fantastic Winston Churchill smoked all day and paid far less attention to nutrition and exercise.
My argument isn’t meant to condemn anyone or make them feel bad about where they are, but to highlight a piece of the moral equation that is too often removed from the realm of morality. Cultivating a sense of physical morality is indispensable to the success of our society. When physical morality is internalized, it makes each individual more likely to behave in a manner that has a positive impact on those around them and to live better lives.
Thanks for reading today and sharing with any kindred spirits. If you are digging this vein, I recommend:
You Can’t Solve the Obesity Epidemic if You Can’t Discuss It (Something I wrote a while back in response to the Maher bit mentioned above)
Don’t Be a Wimp, A Cheater, or a Pop-Tart Eater (on the power of morality and moral language in shaping collective behavior)
The Kubler-Weber Test (our poor scores on this test comparable to European nations was referenced by Kennedy as cause for alarm in his 1960 article)
And if you are looking for an introduction into developing healthy habits, I recommend our IHD 30x30 Challenge!
Have a great week. Life is too short to be normal,