When Good is Bad

The language people use to describe their health demonstrates moral complacency

On a recent short flight, an air hostess offered a snack to an enormously fat American lady sitting next to me. “No, thank you,” she said, “I’m good.” If the question of what people eat is a moral one, she looked as if she hadn’t always been good, to put it mildly.

Nowadays, when you ask people how they are, they are as likely to tell you that they are good as that they are well. It is as if you were inquiring after their moral rather than their bodily condition.

Of course, the two have seldom been more closely linked, health, diet and safety having replaced faith, hope and charity as the desiderata of the virtuous life. Since so many modern illnesses are the consequence of overindulgence in one thing or another, an inquiry after health is indeed a moral one. Oh Lord, we have eaten those things that we ought not to have eaten, and not eaten those things that we ought to have eaten.

To English ears of a certain age, however, it still sounds strange for someone to say, in any sense whatever, that he is good. Surely, that is for someone else to say? One doesn’t blow one’s own trumpet, however pleased with oneself one secretly is.

“I’m good” – so often heard these days – has a complacent and almost boastful ring, very different from that of “I’m well, thank you.” No one could say, “I’m good, thanks be to God.” No one is good by mere luck or good fortune, let alone by divine mercy.

People who are good listen, often with rapt attention, to their bodies. Their body tells them what to do and they do it. Alas, virtue is not always rewarded and, the perfect regimen notwithstanding, illness sometimes – indeed always, in the long-term – supervenes. When that happens, do people say, “I’m bad”?

Not often. They revert to the adverbial – not well. At most they say that they are feeling bad, which is not the same as being bad, of course. There is an asymmetry in our moral assessment of ourselves: goodness comes from within, badness from without. People, as a general rule, don’t ask for an explanation of their good behaviour: only their bad is mysterious to them. In many years of medical practice, no one has ever asked me, “Do you think it could be my childhood that makes me so nice, doctor?”

If the fat lady on the plane had wanted the snack, would she have said, “Yes please, I’m bad”

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