An Action Theory of Moral Virtue and Physical Fitness

Let’s begin by looking back at the topics covered in the past few months. In March, I discussed how yoga has been shown to help improve mood, reduce stress and decrease recidivism in prison inmates. In April, I detailed some recent instances where pick-up basketball games have become associated with acts of violence. And last month, I discussed a few similarities between yoga and Crossfit (and by extension, other personal fitness ideologies) as compared to basketball and other competitive sports. In general, I want to establish a foundation for my previous suggestion of a complementary relationship between moral virtues and non-moral virtues such as physical fitness. The benefits of yoga for prisoners provide concrete evidence for this connection. In this piece, I will explore which aspects of yoga and personal fitness support the development of moral virtues, and why competitive sports are less likely to nurture that development.

When an agent acts intentionally, she believes that there is something she is doing and that it is the thing she aims to do. In writing a note on a stack of paper, I intend to write the note, but I may not intend to make impressed copies on the papers below it, even though I do make these copies. I aim to write only the one note, and that act marks the limit of my intentional action. Any additional copies are made unintentionally. [1] Virtuous actions are a subset of intentional actions. They also require a belief that one is performing a particular action and an aim to perform that action, an action which happens to be virtuous.

To highlight this claim, imagine that I raise my arm unintentionally, on a whim, and a taxi driver searching for his next fare instead of looking at the little old lady crossing the street sees me and stops, thereby sparing the old lady. Even though it resulted in a favorable consequence, my action does not seem virtuous or commendable. In a second example, I may raise my arm intentionally in order to hail the taxi, without noticing the little old lady. Still, I deserve no praise for my action despite the happy consequence, since saving the woman’s life was merely a fortuitous side effect of my intention to get a ride. In order to act virtuously in this situation, I need to raise my arm with the intention of stopping the taxi and saving the lady, or I need to run out into the street and pull her out of the way. Simply put, I need to intend to act in a manner that is virtuous or in order to produce favorable consequences.

Moreover, in order to perform an intentional virtuous action, an agent must first have a notion of self. He must believe that he is acting in a virtuous way. It makes little sense to say that, in doing x intentionally, John believed that Steve was doing x. John must believe that he, John, is the agent performing the action in question. Second, the agent must have some notion of control over a situation. Not only must he believe he is acting, he must have an aim for his action, some change he is intentionally trying to effect. Finally, the agent must have some notion of value. When I act intentionally and virtuously to save the old lady, I do so because I recognize her life has some value. Even if I decide to save her mainly to feel good about myself, or to demonstrate the power I have over her fate, her life still holds some meaning to me. I would not feel the same ego boost by similarly rescuing an ant.

An Action Theory of Moral Virtue and Physical FitnessThe same criteria apply to personal health and fitness. When an individual attempts her first handstand or goes for a personal best in a race or a maximum effort deadlift, she has a notion of self, a notion of control over the situation and a notion of value. She understands that she is the being that makes the effort, that her physical capabilities and strength of will determine the success or failure of that effort, and that her effort is worthwhile, in that it will make her more coordinated, faster, stronger and healthier. She assumes responsibility for her chosen task and executes it because it offers her some value. I want to suggest that personal fitness helps develop these three notions of self, control and value which it shares with intentional virtuous action, allowing a similar thought process to be employed in situations that call for moral virtues. Similarly, developing this mindset in moral situations makes it available to strengthen non-moral virtues, including physical fitness.

Basketball and other competitive sports prove more complicated. An individual player may recognize a notion of self and a notion of control, but these conceptions are necessarily frustrated to some degree in competitive team sports. Each player performs his role in the game, but his actions are closely linked to those of his teammates and opponents. An individual player attempts a shot or makes a steal, but it is wrong to say he alone wins or loses the game. His control over the outcome is greatly reduced. Furthermore, because winning is the primary value of competition, achieving one’s own aim requires the destruction of another’s. As a result, values in competitive sports become complicated and often run against those espoused by the moral virtues. As I stated in last month’s article, I suspect moral virtues may become subordinate to the end of winning in the heat of competition.

I do not intend to suggest that competitive sports on their own necessarily cause violence or are in any way detrimental to moral virtues. But the connection between non-moral and moral virtues is far stronger with individual fitness. Intentional action in fitness mirrors virtuous action in that both share the same standards for action. And it is these basic standards that I believe form the foundation for the complementary relationship between fitness and the other virtues.


1. I borrow the basic terms of this concept and example of intentional action from Setiya, Kieran. Reasons Without Rationalism. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2007.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici, 19 Dec. 2012.