How much harm would you inflict on someone for a luscious head of hair?
by Zoe Weil
My husband and I attended the Manhattan Short Film Festival this year where we watched 10 films and then voted for the one we thought should win.
I voted for Álvaro Carmona’s The Treatment. In this provocative movie, a bald man and his (presumed) spouse visit a treatment center for baldness. Meeting with a representative of “the treatment”—which consists of a $6,000 pill that permanently ensures a full head of hair—the couple learns that there is a side effect. Within a couple of days, a cousin of the man will die. But the representative quickly assures the client that it might be a second cousin he only sees at an occasional wedding.
As one would expect, the couple is incredulous and horrified. Still, the representative—who shares a photo of his baldness before his treatment—offers his head as a tactile example of what the client will experience in perpetuity if he takes the pill.
The couple strokes his hair, and we witness their resolve to resist the treatment weakening. The representative reminds them that people die all the time. The couple leaves conflicted, and it seems they are considering the treatment. Then, in the lobby, they run into one of the man’s (bald) cousins, whom they haven’t seen since a long-ago wedding. He is arriving for his own meeting with the representative. And so ends the film.
The premise of The Treatment is ridiculous, of course, but it is also a brilliant way of telling an extreme version of the story of our everyday lives. People with means regularly spend significant amounts of money on things that they believe will improve their lives, whether their physical appearance (e.g., cosmetics and nice clothing), their pleasure (e.g., vacations to far-off places and costly forms of entertainment), their status (e.g., expensive jewelry and luxury goods), or simply their preferences (e.g., foods they like and a purebred dog).
Most people don’t consider these choices as having an ethical component—and certainly not one as stark as that described in The Treatment—but they are on the same spectrum as the film’s obviously unethical choice. They are all examples of putting the fulfillment of our desires above others’ lives. For me writing this, and virtually everyone reading this, we cause tremendous harm through our choices but are rarely encouraged to reflect upon our complicity.
Our cosmetics may be tested on animals killed solely for our vanity. Our flights to go on vacation significantly contribute to climate change—killing people and other species, creating a refugee crisis, and destroying habitats. The clothes we buy may carry a trail of suffering to people and other species. When we spend money on luxury goods we do not need, we tacitly accept the deprivation of others we could have helped with that money.
Many foods we eat—particularly animal products—cause unimaginable pain, death, and destruction. When we purchase a puppy from a breeder or pet shop, there’s a dog in a shelter who didn’t get a home and may soon be killed for lack of space.
The Treatment only appears far-fetched because the man is told that someone in his extended family will die so that he can have a full head of hair, but the reality is that many someones in our global family—human and nonhuman—die all the time because of our indulgences.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. We can resist. We can ask ourselves whether the life of a person who will die from climate change-caused floods or droughts—while we may choose a far-flung vacation—is less valuable than the life of our cousin, whom we would not allow to be harmed for our desires.
We can consider whether a pig, cow, chicken, or turkey—who will endure unrelenting torture before winding up as our meal—is intrinsically less valuable than our dog. And then we can ask if the life of a homeless dog in an animal shelter is less valuable than the purebred puppy we desire.
There’s a principle behind this kind of inquiry and self-reflection that I call MOGO, short for “MOst GOod.” The MOGO principle invites us to make choices that do the most good and the least harm, not just for ourselves but also for other people, animals, and the ecosystems that sustain life. It’s a principle that takes the Golden Rule—to do unto others as we would have them do unto us—and puts it into practice in a globalized world where our everyday choices have far-reaching impacts.
The next time we seek to fulfill a desire, we might take a moment to ask ourselves who will be harmed by doing so and then consider whether we really want to cause that harm. In asking this question, we may find that living in alignment with our values becomes an even more compelling desire that brings greater integrity and compassion and leads to fewer regrets.
Our next realization may be that we find more fulfillment and happiness than any food, material object, vacation, or full head of hair could ever offer us. Indeed, we might discover that one of the easiest ways to find happiness in life is not to allow our desires to eclipse our values.
On Oct. 3, after this blog was originally published at Psychology Today., The Treatment won the gold medal in the Manhattan Short Film Festival.