Like water, stupid health fads flow forth constantly. One of the most recent is “live water.” This has apparently become big in Silicon Valley, once again proving the old Dungeons & Dragons adage that intelligence is not the same as wisdom. Or perhaps showing, once more, that the folks in Silicon Valley are not as smart as they think they are. Or perhaps they are just pranking the rest of the world.
If you are not familiar with it, live water is supposed to be untreated water—you know, the sort of water one finds literally falling from the sky. While it is easy enough to get your own live water, it can also be bought at a rather high price.
As is usual with such things, part of the problem is live water is being actively pitched by (somewhat) charismatic people who are either skilled in deceit or engaged in willful self-deception. One reason this is worrisome is that people are wasting money on water that is just, well, water. The other obvious problem is that if live water is really “live”, then it stands a good chance of being contaminated with bacteria, viruses, various microorganisms, toxins and other things that sensible people do not want in their water. This is, after all, why modern civilizations work hard to have clean water and people with wilderness experience are careful to decontaminate the water they drink. In addition to concerns about scams and health issues, there is also the philosophical concern of the ethics of belief.
In popular culture, epistemology (the study of knowledge) is best known from the problem of the external world and the problem of other minds. The problem of the external world, as exemplified by movies like the Matrix and shows like Legion, is about the question of how we know that there is a really real world for real. The problem of other minds, as exemplified by the movie Ex Machina, is about the question of how I know other entities have minds. The ethics of belief is a less flashy, but important, problem that raises questions about what we should believe and under what conditions.
John Locke, in his discussion of enthusiasm, argued that “the one unerring mark by which a man may know whether he is a lover of truth for truth’s sake is the not entertaining any proposition with greater assurance than the proofs it is built upon will warrant.” Locke lays out a convincing case for this which focuses mainly on the consequences of not following his principle. In addition to the more mundane harms of entertaining unsupported beliefs, Locke also notes that a person runs the risk of coming under the influence of the Prince of Darkness—something obviously best avoided. This view is expanded upon by a later Brit.
In his “The Ethics of Belief”, British philosopher W.K. Clifford uses an example of a shipowner who sends an unsafe emigrant ship to sea by convincing himself that the ship will be fine. Of course, the ship sinks and he collects the insurance money without any guilt. Clifford contends that the sincerity of a belief does not exculpate such a person because they have no right to have that belief. Clifford goes on to argue that people are obligated to get into a position in which they only believe based on adequate evidence.
In the case of live or raw water, the scientific evidence is overwhelming that it, at best, has no benefits and, at worst, can cause severe health problems. As such, the people selling it based on unsupported beliefs are violating their epistemic duties—they are believing without evidence and, in fact, believing in the face of extremely strong evidence to the contrary. So, if they are engaged in the sort of sincere rationalization that Clifford describes, they are also acting unethically—after all, the evidence is readily available and well established. If the sellers know that they are engaged in potentially dangerous scam, they are also engaged in a different sort of unethical behavior. But what about the consumer?
In Clifford’s example, the harm is being inflicted by the believer on others. In the case of a consumer who has false beliefs about live water, they are only harming themselves. On the one hand, it does make sense to argue that a person should not harm themselves, that they have a duty to themselves in this matter.
At the very least, they owe it to themselves to act based on beliefs that are well supported, so that they can make informed choices. In the case of the live water, the consumers claim to be drinking it for the health benefits. As such, false beliefs about the water will cause them to act contrary to their intent: they want to be healthy, but their false beliefs can lead to health problems.
On the other hand, it can be argued that people have the right to believe as they wish when doing so only harms themselves. So, if someone wants to ignore evidence and believe that live water is healthy, they have the liberty do so. This could be seen as going along with a right I have argued for in the past, the right to self-abuse. This right is based on Mill’s principle of liberty—that people have the freedom to do as they wish, provided they do not harm others, even if they do harm themselves. However, it can be argued that even the right of self-abuse does not allow people a right to hold beliefs without adequate evidence.
In the case of self-abuse, a person has the right to self-harm. However, this does not give others the right to harm them through deceit. So, for example, a person who knows smoking is harmful and smokes is acting within this liberty. A person who lies to others who would not smoke if they knew it was harmful does not have a right to lie. As such, it can be contended that the right to self-abuse requires that a person know they are abusing themselves—that they are not harming themselves via self-deception So, a person who thinks that the water is healthy and would not drink it if they knew it was unhealthy is not exercising a right to self-abuse, but is acting in foolish ignorance.
This could be countered by pushing the point that people have the right to hurt themselves even if they are doing so out of a form of willful ignorance—that the right of self-abuse extends to information assessment and decision making, even if the person would not engage in this self-harm if they knew the facts. That is, people have a right to self-harm through willful ignorance even if they do not actually want to harm themselves. To me, this seems fundamentally incoherent—but other people no doubt have other intuitions. In any case, do not drink live water unless you are interested in some real-life Oregon trail experiences.