Socrates, Obesity, Masks, and the Value of a Life.
Last night, I had been up for a total of fourty-eight hours. Why? “My dreams are a cruel joke… they taunt me.” So, what is the nature of this subconscious teasing, I hear you ask? Recently, I have seen a swarth of memes propagating a noxious idea. That, if a person is obese, consumes junk food, alcohol, or cigarettes… that they have no right to admonish another for not wearing a mask in public. (Even during a pandemic!) Allow me to unpack why this thinking, although alluring, is misguided at best.
In Euthydemus, Socrates outlines what one might consider the litmus test for a valuable life. But, how can one value any life, I hear you ask? If you are a philosopher your pen is already drawn – your eyes darting from left to right (Value? The incredulity!) – however, I also sense a prickling of the ears, a focus drawing…”How can one value any life?” Ah, an interesting question, is it not?
Welcome to the table, dear friend. Grab a chair. I must admit, I’m very glad you asked.
To begin his analysis, Socrates questions: “And are not health and beauty goods, and other personal gifts?” Well, I think we can both agree on that one. “Can there be any doubt that good birth, and power, and honours in one’s own land, are goods?”… I know, I know. I agree again too. “What do you say of temperance, justice, courage: do you not verily and indeed think… that we shall be more right in ranking them as goods than in not ranking them as goods? For a dispute might possibly arise about this.” Obviously… but what is his point? He continues by explaining that we have omitted one good. Namely, good fortune. You would agree, wouldn’t you, that good fortune is by necessity a good? Ah, but then how could we forget wisdom? Surely, dear reader, if these other ideals are considered goods, you must agree that wisdom is also a good? But!
And here is where he gets us, tricky old dog that he is:
“On second thoughts,” Socrates adds… “how narrowly have you and I escaped making a laughing-stock of ourselves to the strangers?… I mean that there is something ridiculous in again putting forward good fortune, which has a place in the list already, and saying the same thing twice over. Surely wisdom is good-fortune; even a child may know that.” And, in order to be happy, a person must use rightly all of those qualities, aforementioned (health, courage, beauty). And that to use them wrongly would be worse than not having them at all…Which, would appear to put wisdom at the very base of the foundations of a valuable life. But wait, we are not done yet!
“O tell me, what do possessions profit a man, if he have neither good sense nor wisdom? Would a man be better off, having and doing many things without wisdom, or a few things with wisdom? Look at the matter thus: If he did fewer things would he not make fewer mistakes? if he made fewer mistakes would he not have fewer misfortunes? and if he had fewer misfortunes would he not be less miserable? and who would do least… a poor man or a rich man? (A poor man) A weak man or a strong man? (A weak man.) A noble man or a mean man? (A mean man.) And a coward would do less than a courageous and temperate man?” (Of course.) Well, now we reach the point. It is not from any of the goods we gather that we may value a life, but rather our ability to choose how we use those goods. And, even a bad quality (when used wisely) can be considered far more valuable than a good quality used unjustly. The decision to use any quality through agency and wisdom, is what gives any quality of life it’s actual quality. But then I’m afraid, dear reader, we must admonish those who have pushed the meme we began with. The recent Covid-19 pandemic has caused us all (or at least those unacquainted Socratic method) to forget this brute fact of reason. That it is the reason for which a person does something that counts as to whether they are living a valuable life. A person could, for example, be morbidly obese and use this physically unhealthy state as a catalyst to show others how to pull back from the precipice. To heal themselves, and others. To do good. Whereas, there are many people who consider themselves healthy, who use their health as social currency to point. To damage. To do harm.
So, allow me to pose a simple question to those who have pushed this poor group-think, as I am likely to hear today, on any number of the social media outlets of which I am a part, that if a person chooses to degrade their health in some way… that they should have no choice in the way in which others regard their health, also.
Can any person who has claimed, or shared the above honestly state that they have not consumed or done anything which would degrade their health, in any way? I think not. Or, is it wiser to take care of your own affairs, or the affairs of another? Your own, undoubtedly. As Nassim Taleb would say, to do a good job at anything, one needs skin in the game. Well, then, it would seem the negation of those reasons which I outlined would have an impact that might be considered two fold: It is unwise, and so unjust to take care of the affairs of another before one’s own. To condemn when you have, in fact, committed the same sin… but much worse than this: It is a negation of the very value of another life, to remove from them their choice in place of your own. And only because you believe yourself so righteous, and them so foolish.
As with personal wisdom comes the value of any life, which must be measured thusly:
Not in the eyes of another, or by the standards of another;
but by its own.