On Primary and Secondary Virtues

Having previously demonstrated the complementary relationship between both moral and non-moral scalable/secondary virtues, I now want to discuss the connection between the secondary virtues and the non-scalable/primary virtue. In particular:

  1. How do secondary virtues, especially physical fitness, work to support the primary virtue?
  2. Is it possible to derive secondary virtues, especially those relating to fitness, from the primary virtue?

In this article, I begin with the second question and attempt to show how the secondary virtues arise from a consideration of the primary virtue of a respect for human inviolability.

The well-known philosopher René Descartes, in an attempt to discover the foundational truths of absolute knowledge, surmised that even if everything he believed to be true did not exist, this thing called “I” which thinks, doubts, perceives and believes must necessarily exist. [1] In order to study ethical theory, I must further assume that I am able to act as well as think. There would be no point to ethics if the derived ethical truths could not actually be practiced in a physical world external to my mind. In the case of moral (other-directed) virtues, I must also assume the existence of beings external to myself who are the targets of my moral actions. Thus, I identify myself as a human being, by which I mean a thing that thinks and acts. Based on my perception of myself and the perception of others around me, I assume the existence of other human beings who are more or less like myself.

On Primary and Secondary VirtuesAs a human being who thinks and acts with some end in sight. I do not want my desires frustrated or my personhood harmed. In other words, I consider myself a human being whose humanity is inviolable. When I recognize the existence of other human beings like me, I recognize that they are also capable of thought and action. Though differences in these capabilities may exist between different humans, these are differences in degree and not differences in kind. For example, a paraplegic may be unable to perform as many actions as a person without spinal damage, but both are capable of some physical action. So if other humans are equally capable of thought and action, I can surmise they also do not want their desires frustrated or personhood harmed, i.e. they also consider their humanity inviolable. Therefore, I can never have a reason to violate the humanity of another [2], since if I have a reason to commit such a violation, the same reason must surely exist for another. If I had reason to violate another, I would also have a reason for another to violate me, which is contrary to my nature as a human being.

Note that this conclusion is consistent with all major ethical theories. Immanuel Kant, a deontologist, asserted that all humans are ends in themselves and cannot be treated as mere means. Human beings cannot be used for some other end because they are inviolable. Consequentialism asserts that we should give equal weight to the positive and negative consequences of an action on all humans affected by that action. My perception of other human beings as individuals similarly capable of thought and action explains this notion of equality. Human lives are weighted equally, and consequentialism only allows violation of another’s humanity if such an action somehow prevents a greater violation or a violation against multiple individuals. And Aristotle, a virtue ethicist, claimed the function of a human is the “activity of the soul in accord with reason or requiring reason.” [3] So to deny this function in another human gives license to others to do the same, thus negating the very nature of humanity.

Secondary virtues are distinguished from primary virtues by the principle of scalability. Just as a child is not held to the same physical and intellectual standards as a healthy adult, we do not consider young children wrong if they are afraid of the dark or take something that does not belong to them. We say that they do not know any better. But a child who tortures or kills another acts wrongly. These actions are so offensive that they are wrong regardless of age or physical or mental disability. They are not scalable because they attack the inviolability of individual human beings. A respect for human inviolability is the primary virtue; whereas all other virtues are scalable, secondary virtues.

The arguments which apply to the primary virtue also extend to the secondary virtues. In defining a human being as a thing that thinks and acts, we must also specify the standards for human thought and action. Intellectual standards are not the subject of KineSophy, but I have previously argued for three standards for human movement. Moreover, this definition of a human being gives rise to other virtues. A human being must be temperate, brave and honorable enough to think and act according to ethical standards. So the functional definition of human beings rise leads to the non-moral, self-directed virtues.

Furthermore, my previous argument shows that no human has right to frustrate another’s desires or harm her personhood, a consideration which leads to the moral, other-directed virtues. For example, theft frustrates the desires of another, whereas generosity furthers those desires. So we consider theft a moral vice and generosity a moral virtue based on the derivation of the primary virtue. And since non-moral and moral virtues cover the entirety of all virtues, we can successfully derive all secondary virtues, including physical ones, from a consideration of the primary virtue of respect for human inviolability.


  1. Descartes, René. “Meditations on First Philosophy.” Descartes: Selected Philosophical Writings. Trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff and Dugald Murdoch. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1998, p. 50.
  2. More accurately, I can never have reason to violate the humanity of another without significant threat to my own humanity. In the case where another person acts against my humanity, self-defense is a legitimate response. A person who thinks he can attack another human being legitimizes attacks against himself by the same logic explained in the main text.
  3. Aristotle. “The Nature of Virtue.” Ethical Theory, Ed. Russ Shafer-Landau, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007, p. 671.