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Not everything is a moral decision

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I think a lot about morals. It’s difficult to explain why, per se, but I do. In this moment, however, I find myself incredibly tired of them. I’m sure we’re all tired of talking about New Year’s resolutions by now, but the number of people online and in real life who seem to need to tell me about their resolutions (or intentions or goals or unnamed thoughts) continues to impress.

Part of my objection is society’s unending insistence on attaching moral values to any lifestyle choice one could possibly make. It is good to eat vegetables and bad to eat processed foods. It is good to exercise and bad to sit and watch TV.

Sometimes this works in your favor, I suppose. Having the moral high ground is always satisfying. Yet everyone, at some point or another, loses the high ground. And then the whole system comes down on you, feeding feelings of shame and inadequacy.

And somehow this whole system affects you even when you know it’s not logical. Yes, eating certain foods and engaging in certain behaviors can lead to a longer life and decrease the amount of time we spend suffering from physical limitations. But our society is organized around the idea that everyone has the right to choose for themselves what they value most in life. If someone prefers not to exercise and accepts the potential risks that follow that decision, that decision affects them and perhaps their loved ones. So why should society as a whole have the right to censor them?

Occasionally, when I bring this up, people tell me that certain lifestyle choices lead to higher healthcare costs for society as a whole. There are two issues with this. First, if we go down that road, we also need to ostracize everyone who drinks frequently, smokes, uses illegal drugs or engages in any activity that doctors don’t recommend. Second, I’ve never heard of anyone experiencing serious pain because of someone else’s medical bills. I suspect that a lot of this is a polite way for people to say, “I think that being thin is important and morally good, and I think that the only way to be thin is through a stereotypically healthy diet and regular exercise (and that anyone who has those things will automatically be thin).” Which is ridiculous— plenty of thin people don’t have healthy lifestyles, as any time with college students will tell you. Plenty of people with healthy lifestyles aren’t thin. And being thin has no inherent moral value whatsoever.

More concerning to me, though, is the need to announce all of these choices to everyone you know. In my limited working experience, I once spent some time working in a team of undergraduate students, spending a large amount of time with the same people. It became regular for every student to announce what exercise they had done that day and to either celebrate their progress or make excuses for not exercising that day. If one person reported running so many miles, someone else had to report running that many miles plus one the next day. When we ate together, everyone had to comment on the nutritional value of their meal — and often other people’s meal. One person said, “You know, [insert food I was currently eating here] is like super high calorie.” He didn’t say this once; he said this at least weekly and often every other day. This did not appear to bother the other members of our team.

This doesn’t only happen among young students working closely together. It happens between friends, among families — really anywhere that people interact. And it is not harmless. The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders reports that 30 million people suffer from an eating disorder in the U.S. As many as 65 percent of American women ages 25 to 45 report having engaged in disordered eating at some point in their lives. Untold numbers of people waste time feeling ashamed of not going to the gym every day.

And even people doing everything “right” don’t benefit — not really. They must constantly report their good choices, reaffirm their own worthiness by judging the less good.

So, instead of a resolution, here’s the plan: We all stop perpetuating this ridiculous system. Stop telling your friends and coworkers and family members about your latest workout or salad or cheat day unless they tell you that they want to know. Give yourself permission to stop feeling ashamed of the “wrong” choices but, more importantly, stop monitoring and passing judgments on other people’s choices.

Contact Sarah Myers at smyers3 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Sarah Myers '21 is pursuing a BA in International Relations while also studying Physics, Mandarin, and German. She enjoys writing about politics, ethics, and current events. She spends her free time reading and convincing herself that watching Chinese television counts as studying Mandarin.