Incorporating Fitness in a Theory of Ethics: A Summary

Twenty months ago, and eight months into the KineSophy project, I began my exploration of a general theory of ethics that would encompass both moral (other-directed) virtues and non-moral (self-directed) virtues, such as physical fitness. At one time, ethicists routinely considered these physical qualities to be virtuous. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote of strength, bravery and temperance as virtues in the scope of two paragraphs. [1] But over the course of history, ethicists have increasingly concerned themselves with moral virtues and neglected non-moral virtues. I do not intend to argue for the primacy of non-moral virtues over moral virtues (or vice versa). Instead, the ethical theory I propose in KineSophy is an attempt to reunite all virtues with a particular emphasis on reviving those related to physical fitness.

To begin, I made two claims about ethics: 1) ethics describes a set of behaviors a person should adopt, and 2) being ethical requires action; one cannot be ethical simply by thinking about ethics. Regarding the first claim, most people will agree that, if at all possible, human beings should be kind, courageous, intelligent, strong, etc. In other words, it would be better from an ethical standpoint to possess more of these qualities than fewer. As for the second claim, if being ethical requires action, then it requires physical movement. These considerations invite ethical standards: how strong should a human being be? What are the standards for human movement? In August and September 2013, I divided the demand for movement standards into three composite parts: 1) how much force should a human being be capable of generating?, 2) over what distance should a human generate this force?, and 3) how fast should this force be generated? In response, I posited three ethical precepts of human movement with measurable corollaries:

  1. A human being should be able to lift an object equal in weight to his or her own body off the ground. (Corollary: A human being should be able to deadlift his or her own body weight.)
  2. A human being should be able to enjoy a meal or use the toilet while squatting instead of sitting. (Corollary: A human being should be able to maintain a comfortable resting squat position for at least ten minutes.)
  3. A human being should (in theory) be capable of persistence hunting on foot for over twenty miles at four miles per hour in temperatures around 100° F. A human being should (in actuality) be capable of traveling on foot to the nearest hospital in thirty to forty minutes in optimal weather. (Corollary: A human being should (in theory) be able to complete a marathon in optimal weather in six hours. A human being should (in actuality) be able to travel 5000 meters (3.11 miles) in thirty-six minutes.)

These three precepts apply to healthy adults between the ages of twenty and thirty-five and are scalable for age and physical and mental capacity. In October and November 2013, I offered a framework for scaling the ethical precepts of human movement, which I will not reproduce here in the interest of conserving space. The principle of scalability applies to many other virtues as well. A young child who cannot do algebra, is afraid of the dark, or takes what does not belong to him does not act wrongly; he simply does not know any better. On the other hand, actions like torture, rape and murder do not admit of such scalability. One should not commit these acts no matter one’s physical or mental circumstances, because to so harm another human is to violate some essential part of her being. For this reason, I designated a respect for human inviolability as the primary virtue, in contrast to secondary, scalable virtues.

I hypothesized the following relationships among the virtues: 1) secondary virtues are complementary to one another, in that strengthening one secondary virtue provides the capacity for strengthening others, 2) the secondary virtues as a whole offer a foundation to support the primary virtue, and 3) a consideration of the primary virtue allows for a derivation of secondary virtues. In January 2014, I began the project of linking physical fitness with other secondary virtues. A large body of research indicates physical activity and fitness improves memory and academic performance in students, as well as learning ability, concentration, abstract reasoning, brain function, cognitive performance and memory in seniors. In a converse relationship, a study by the Cleveland Clinic Foundation demonstrated that subjects who focused on specific muscle movement saw increased strength gains, in comparison to subjects who did no mental exercises. In March 2014, I examined a variety of studies which show yoga improves mood and decreases stress, anxiety and depression in prison populations. One study found that 8.5% of prisoners who attended four or more yoga classes per week were re-incarcerated upon their release, compared to 25.2% of prisoners who attended fewer than four classes.

This research provides some evidence for the complementary relationship I proposed for physical fitness and other secondary virtues. However, yoga is a relatively calm physical practice, and it is not immediately apparent that more aggressive physical activities should share the same relationship. In July 2014, I proposed the Bully Argument, which posits that those who dedicate themselves to physical fitness may become more aggressive and violent toward others and may use their exceptional strength, power and other physical capabilities to overwhelm weaker individuals. To counter the Bully Argument, I presented anecdotal evidence that mixed martial arts practice can help some military veterans reduce anger, anxiety, nightmares, post-traumatic stress disorder and violence. In May 2014, I compared CrossFit to yoga, noting how both movement practices emphasize bodyweight movements, balance, coordination and the responsibility of each individual practitioner to improve her own skills and not recklessly exceed her physical capabilities. If these apparently polar opposite approaches to physical fitness share some core philosophy, perhaps that philosophy will further illuminate the relationship between physical fitness and other secondary virtues.

In June 2014, I proposed a theory of action to explain the connection between secondary virtues. Virtuous actions are intentional, in that an agent must aim to perform a particular action, and do so because of the positive ethical value of that action. In order to perform a virtuous action, an agent must have a notion of self, a notion of control over the situation and a notion of value. This action theory describes the aims of physical fitness and other virtues and connects fitness with these other secondary virtues.

Incorporating Fitness in a Theory of Ethics: A Summary

In September and October 2014, I proposed a spectrum of theories with altruism at one end and egoism at the other. In the simplest sense, altruism holds that the value of other beings should be considered simultaneously (if not before) the value of oneself, while egoism holds that the one’s own value has primacy over the value of others. If I was able to show adherents to the theories at both extremes have reason to value physical fitness, I expected the same to apply to theories in the middle of the spectrum. Perhaps the most self-centered form of egoism is ethical hedonism, which claims that only pleasure has positive importance and only displeasure has negative importance. Since many physical pleasures such as food, drink and drugs are deleterious to health when consumed in excess, while exercise can improve health and life expectancy, a hedonist must weigh both when calculating the total pleasure he can accumulate over a lifetime. In order to sever any connection between physical fitness and hedonism, the hedonist must show that exercise is so unpleasant as to outweigh the pleasures accumulated over a longer lifespan with fewer unpleasant side effects. Given the burden of this proof, I believe hedonists have reason to value physical fitness in some measure.

I continued this thread of argument in October by addressing altruism. Utilitarian altruist Peter Singer argues that a committed altruist must believe that humans are morally required to prevent bad things from happening unless they must sacrifice something of equal value to do so. Under this view, an altruist should donate her wealth to those less fortunate until continued donations would make her worse off than the recipients of her charity. However, if the altruist increased her earning potential, she would have more money to donate to charitable causes. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Labor Research showed that people who exercise for at least three hours a week earn 9% more than those who don’t. Given this evidence, as well as further research linking fitness to cognitive ability and career performance, altruists have reason to value physical fitness as a means to more effective altruism. So physical fitness can help strengthen moral virtues, and moral adherents have reason to be physically fit.

This year, I turned my attention to the primary virtue. I began in January by asserting that I am a human being who thinks and acts. I also recognize other beings who seem to think and act as I do. I know that I do not want my desires frustrated or personhood harmed, so I must also believe that these other similar beings do not want their desires frustrated or personhoods harmed. In other words, this brief argument leads to a description of the primary virtue of human inviolability. Understood in these terms, we can use the definition of a human being as a thing that thinks and acts to ask for standards for such thought and action, standards provided by non-moral secondary virtues. And the injunction to refrain from frustrating another’s desires or harming her personhood includes the moral secondary virtues as well as the primary virtue. Thus, we can derive secondary virtues, including those related to action, or physical fitness, from an understanding of the primary virtue.

Last month, I argued that since the action theory applies to all secondary virtues, an agent who practices secondary virtues necessarily realizes the value of at least one person’s existence. The agent acts either to benefit himself or to benefit another, and the target of this action has value to the agent. The practice of secondary virtues also requires desire. Since virtuous actions require an agent to recognize some value, the agent has a desire to see that value realized through her action. Naturally, given the value of that desire, the agent does not want to see her desire frustrated, nor have her personhood harmed in a way that would prevent her action. And this wish leads directly to the primary virtue of human inviolability by the arguments in the previous paragraph. The practice of secondary virtues supports the primary virtue.

The previous arguments comprise the main thrust of the KineSophy project. Physical fitness is a virtue, as ancient ethicists believed, and I hope to have provided a framework for incorporating this virtue into a unified ethical theory. I expect to return to some of these topics in future months and to expand on the ideas contained herein. But for the time being, I feel comfortable in setting them aside to begin new explorations in the philosophy of human movement. [2]


  1. Aristotle. “The Nature of Virtue.” Ethical Theory, Ed. Russ Shafer-Landau, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007, p. 676.
  2. Citations for all previously referenced sources appear in my original articles.