Fat-Shaming and Virtue Ethics

In previous articles, I have argued that physical fitness is a virtue, just like honesty, kindness and intelligence. But focusing too closely on physical virtues can lead to unwarranted assumptions. In this piece, I use the example of fat-shaming to expose some flaws in a virtue ethics approach. In light of these flaws, I argue for making ethical judgments based on actions rather than on character.

The Ethics of Human Movement

At the core of the KineSophy project, I have argued for an ethical theory that encompasses physical fitness:

“Ethics comprises the qualities a human being should or should not possess and the actions she should or should not perform. Thus, in addition to not wrongly depriving her fellow humans of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, a person should be intelligent and fit. By this statement I mean simply that, all things considered, it is better to be more intelligent rather than less intelligent and more physically fit rather than less fit.”

In other words, fitness is a virtue, just like intelligence, honesty and kindness. We can debate which virtues are more important than others, but, all things considered, it is better to be more fit rather than less fit.

But how do we judge a person’s ethical standing? How do we decide if a person is physically fit or unfit? Intelligent or ignorant? Honest or fraudulent? Kind or cruel? Ideally, we do so by observing a person’s actions. A fit person is one who demonstrates strength or endurance. An intelligent person is one who correctly can answer difficult questions and can synthesize information. An honest person is one who regularly tells the truth. And a kind person is one who respects and helps others.

Fat-Shaming and Virtue Ethics

Fat-Shaming and the Problem of Appearances

Yet in ethics—as in many other spheres of life—we often fall into the trap of making assumptions based on appearances. Without observing their actions, the soup kitchen volunteer seems more generous than the corporate CEO—unless you know the CEO donates a significant portion of his salary to worthy charitable causes. The Harvard Ph.D. seems more intelligent than the college dropout—unless the dropout invents a device that changes the world. The former athlete seems physically fitter than the overweight couch potato—unless the latter commits to a new diet and exercise regimen and sticks to it.

The problem of appearances is especially thorny when it comes to physical fitness. There is a strong connection between fitness and physical appearance. A person doesn’t get six-pack abs by gorging on Twinkies and binging Netflix. We also have a tendency to associate physical appearance with non-physical qualities (e.g. obesity with laziness and lack of self-control). Doing so can lead to practices like the social stigma against obesity, or “fat-shaming,” in which obese people are derided and blamed for their weight and for their perceived behaviors that led to their weight gain.

Fat-shaming relies on an apparent ethical link between fitness/unhealthiness and self-motivation/sloth with physical appearance serving as the presumed indicator of all of these qualities. However, this appearance-based assumption ignores other well-established factors for weight gain, such as genetics and socioeconomic status. Moreover, as the examples above indicate, physical appearances can often be deceiving.

Virtue Ethics

According to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, a virtuous person is one who is disposed toward having the right feelings at the right times, about the right things, toward the right people, for the right ends and in the right ways. Contemporary philosophers refer to this approach as virtue ethics because it emphasizes the qualities, or virtues, a good person should possess.

For example, a brave soldier is one who obeys an order to fight despite the dangers presented by battle. But a soldier who attacks a citizen on the street, shows no fear of the dark or charges rashly into a fray for no reason does not display bravery. In these latter examples, the soldier’s actions are not appropriate to his position and his circumstances. He is not brave because he is not in danger or because he throws himself into unnecessary danger for no good reason.

Aristotle adds that developing a virtuous disposition is a result of practicing virtue starting in childhood and developing the wisdom to recognize the virtuous action in any situation through years of experience. In other words, virtue comes from constantly striving to perform the right action in the appropriate situation until recognizing situations and acting accordingly becomes a habit.

The Ethical Scale

Thus, from the outside, a virtuous person is one who regularly performs the right action. We can think of ethical character as a two-sided scale. Every action is like a weight placed on one side of the scale or the other—virtuous actions on one side and vicious actions on the other. People who often lie have more weight on the dishonest/vicious side of the scale. People who exercise frequently have more weight on the fit/virtuous side of the scale. Virtuous people are those who have performed more virtuous actions. And as their scales become more weighted toward virtue, they become increasingly likely to continue to act virtuously.

Fat-Shaming and Virtue Ethics

But looking at a snapshot of the scale at a specific moment in time does not provide the complete picture. Even if we observe the balance of virtue and vice, we don’t know what the person has been doing recently. When it comes to ethics, actions matter, and recent actions often matter more than actions in the distant past. Perhaps the dishonest person has turned a corner and has started to accumulate honest weights. Perhaps the formerly fit athlete has ignored his health once his playing days are over and put on the (perhaps literal) weight of bad fitness habits.

Actions Over Character

The flaw in the ethical scale approach highlights one issue with fat-shaming. Yes, obesity carries significant health risks and is not a desirable long-term condition. But to judge a person based solely on their weight (and to judge their non-physical qualities based on their weight) risks ignoring the merit of all of their actions. While we might aspire to have the qualities of a fit person (strength, endurance, speed, etc.), we cannot immediately access this ethical state. Instead, we must repeatedly perform actions that lead to fitness. We cannot flip a switch to change our ethical characters, but we can control our actions.

For example, someone who is obese but has made significant changes to her diet and started an exercise program is acting virtuously, even if the benefits of those actions are not immediately recognizable in her physical health or appearance. And by the same token, once a person gives up those healthy habits, they are no longer acting virtuously within that ethical sphere (though they may be otherwise intelligent, honest, kind, etc.).

The Flaws of Virtue Ethics

Practically speaking, virtue ethics help provide a model for character development. Building ethical character depends on developing the habit of performing virtuous actions for the right reasons in the appropriate situations. But the point of acting virtuously is not to develop character. Rather, virtuous actions are performed for their direct benefit. The primary point of exercising is not to build the habit of exercise. Instead, we exercise to improve our physical capacities and health. Getting into the habit of exercise certainly helps with these goals, but they are the primary goals. No one strives to be a person who regularly exercises for the sake of exercising.

In short, physical virtues highlight two flaws in a virtue ethics approach. First, physical appearance is not always a reliable indicator of physical virtue. Second, the point of performing virtuous actions is to reap the benefits of those actions, not to build virtuous character. Instead, we should judge our actions and treat each action separately, while also striving to consistently perform virtuous actions. In turn, this approach offers a message of personal ethical empowerment. By focusing on action, we realize we can change our behavior for the better—in all aspects of our lives.