Social Psychologist Jonathan Haidt uses an interesting framework in his argument that liberals and conservatives fundamentally have different values – or at least, different weights on five universal values.
One of the values, purity, stands out. It’s what a social psychologist might invoke to explain religious prescriptions to avoid pork, the halo effect we get around doctors and other health care professionals, or why we have the adage ‘cleanliness is next to Godliness’. Ultimately, it describes the sense of moral good we do when we do ‘pure’ things – why we naturally assume natural fibers are better than synthetic ones, why we revile instinctively at pollution, why baptism is seen as a ‘cleansing’ of sin.
Keep that in mind, and consider the following – in a small study of 60 participants, it was found that those who bought organic foods tended to display anti-social behavior.
In other words, there is some small bit of evidence that when you use your willpower to do good in one area of life, you give yourself license to be more selfish in other areas of life.
Similar to the above, people’s purchasing and consumption of organic food – here considered a moral good under the label of purity – needed less of at least two other of the moral ‘flavors’ outlined in Haidt’s theory – “reduction of harm” and equality.
But organic food is not the only way we eat to be pure. In fact, I’d argue it’s not even the main way we eat to be pure. Today, during a conversation, this thought struck me as someone said, justifying their purchase of egg whites and vegetables, “I’m trying to be good.”
They were dieting or following a particular diet anyway that required them to use their willpower to deny foods they wanted.
If you gave me five minutes, I could probably name two dozen people I know personally who are attempting to ‘be good’ with what they eat. This rarely materializes in them eating ‘more’ of anything, despite us being told to eat more fruits and vegetables. Instead, it’s always ‘less’ of something. To be good, they need to eat less fat, or sugar, or alcohol, or salt, or dairy, or gluten, or non-organic foods, or caffeine, or beverages other than water. The list goes on and on.
Nevermind the ineffectiveness of most dietary approaches to get any sort of sustainable happiness – what kind of damage is our fascination with diets doing to society as a whole? If let’s say, one-quarter of the whole of American society is currently dieting, how much less ‘good’ is there to go around? Are we giving less to charity and more to low fat, organic food companies in raw dollars than is socially maximizing? Are we ignoring our spouse or our children’s needs because we were ‘good’ today and avoided salt? Are we less challenging of racist and bigoted beliefs that we hold because we ate turkey bacon today?
There is some evidence that this may be the case. This is a philosophy blog, not a scientific one, so I can’t assign p-values here. Instead, speculation is welcome. Does dieting make us, well, more evil? Does being hangry all the time make us less able to see the needs of others?
I, for one, am going to look for this. I’ve noticed more and more that people who treat me in an anti-social manner are almost always somewhat hungry (by their own hand via dieting) or not sleeping. I’ve noticed a lot of back patting when someone lectures me on the fruits of eating organically. They have their moral narrative in life, and they needn’t any longer look for opportunities to act to improve equality, or reduce harm. No, instead, they stick to a particular diet and that diet guarantees they’ll get into Heaven. Or something.