Bad Habits

This is the outline text of Peter Marsh's lecture to the Institute for Cultural Research at the King's Fund, London, November 17 2001.


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In Praise of Bad Habits

ICR Lecture – November 17th 2001

In this lecture I will try to do 3 things. First, I want to present a perspective on the level of concern (some might say 'obsession') with dietary, health and lifestyle correctness that characterises contemporary Western societies, and the UK and the United States in particular. This pursuit of novel, narrow concepts of so-called 'health' and 'fitness' has led us to create new outcasts – those who fail to conform to the increasing catalogue of prescriptions for what is 'best for us' – those who, contrary to the advice of self-appointed arbiters of modern rectitude, persist with 'bad habits'.

Secondly, I want to argue that this zeitgeist of 'health' has some unfortunate and unsavoury historical predecessors, which might serve as warnings to us. The forces which lie at the root of what I will refer to as 'healthism' might be rather less benign than we have been led to believe.

Thirdly, I want to argue that a number of trends evident in our cultures run counter to what we might take to be our evolutionary heritage. The idea that we should seek to remove all risks to our lives and to our bodies, avoiding what previously might have been seen as pleasurable or 'fun', might prove to be 'unsustainable' – leading to patterns of living for which our stone age brains are simply not yet designed.

In case this should seem to preface a simplistic, reductionist or neo-Darwinist account of the human condition, I should also declare from the outset the philosophical framework, if that is not too grand a term, in which my remarks will be made. At the Social Issues Research Centre we have been trying, not wholly successfully I must admit, to revive a perspective which seems to have all but disappeared in recent years – that of a left-of-centre, libertarian position. The word 'libertarian' has largely been high-jacked by the extreme political right – particularly in America – while the left has moved increasingly towards lifestyle coercion and what has aptly been described as 'focus group fascism' – if Mr Blair's focus groups think something is 'bad', then let's ban it in pursuit of easy populism – a rather novel approach to democracy.

All of this is a great pity. And we seem to have moved a long way away from John Stuart Mill who, in his essay On Liberty, said:

"Neither one person, nor any number of persons, is warranted in saying to another human creature of ripe years that he shall not do with his life for his own benefit what he chooses to do with it. All errors he is likely to commit against advice and warning are far outweighed by the evil of allowing others to constrain him to do what they deem his good."

I find nothing in this original concept of 'liberalism' that is incompatible with a just and caring society, which believes in redistribution of wealth and support for its least advantaged members. And I say all this because I am fed up with being labelled as a 'conservative' by right-on, middle-class, self-appointed guardians of what passes for political correctness these days. I'll just get that off my chest …

I should also, I suppose, based on previous experience of floating some of the points in this lecture, issue a health warning. In the way that a humble packet of peanuts now has a label which says 'Contains Nuts' – just in case we were unaware of that fact – and an electrical screwdriver has a sticker which warns 'Do Not Insert in Ear' – this lecture may contain statements and arguments which may give rise to intellectual and psychological distress. Your statutory rights are not affected by this warning.

   Part 1