The Is-Ought Problem in Health and Fitness

I have previously argued in favor of three ethical components of fitness for all humans. However, in doing so, I may have run afoul of an old logical fallacy, the “Is-Ought-Problem.” In this article, I explain the Is-Ought Problem and describe how I managed to sidestep this dilemma.

The Is-Ought Problem: Leaping from "Is" to "Ought"

The Is-Ought Problem

The Is-Ought Problem was first described by the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume. Hume observed that ethical arguments often move from an observation about the way things are to a conclusion about the way they ought to be. But these descriptions (are/is vs. ought) are unrelated. The fact that my pen is blue has no bearing on what color my pen ought to be. Yet we often see ethical arguments attempt to make this move.

Here’s a fairly transparent example of the Is-Ought Problem in an argument:

  1. Animals do not engage in homosexual behavior.
  2. Humans are animals.
  3. Therefore, humans should not engage in homosexual behavior.

In this argument, 3) does not follow from 1) and 2). Instead, 3) should read, “Therefore, humans do not engage in homosexual behavior,” which is obviously false. (Indeed, there is evidence that 1) is also false and non-human animals do engage in homosexual behavior). But the point is that we cannot legitimately move from 1) and 2) to 3). The “ought” of the conclusion does not follow from the “is” of the premises.

The Ethics of Fitness

In a pair of early KineSophy articles and in the KineSophy ebook, I argued for three ethical components of fitness. I based my conclusions on observations about normal human capabilities. Specifically, I argued that because a human is capable of physical actions like lifting her body weight, she should perform such actions when the relevant moral situation arises. In making this argument, it may seem as though I ran into the Is-Ought Problem. Let’s take a closer look.

I based my argument on the work of Aristotle, writing:

“Consider Aristotle’s definition of the function of human beings: ‘activity of the soul in accord with reason or requiring reason.’ A human being exercises reason. He thinks. But reasoned thought alone does not constitute the nature of humanity. The capacity for reason may distinguish humans from animals, but humans also have bodies. A human who merely thinks of the right things to do is not good; she must also act so as to carry out those reasoned intentions. Hence, human beings are creatures capable of acting in accordance with reason.”

To Aristotle (and me), a good human is one who acts in accordance with reason. This statement is similar to saying that a good hammer is one that successfully drives nails. In other words, when I say a hammer ought to drive nails, I mean that a hammer, if it is to be a hammer, should have the capability of a good hammer, namely driving nails. And when I say a human ought to be able to lift her own body weight, I mean that a human, if she is to be a human, should have the capabilities of a good human, namely moving according to certain standards. I move from a definition of what it is to be a good human, to a particular capability good humans possess, to an action humans should strive to perform.

A Contemporary Argument

The late philosopher Philippa Foot made a similar argument in addressing the Is-Ought Problem. In a letter to Philosophy Now editor Rick Lewis, she wrote:

“There are such facts [about what it is to be good or bad] only about living things, but not only about humans. For we can say of species of plants that they need say roots of a certain kind, etc., etc., and that an individual is not as it should be unless it has certain characteristics and does certain things. (Things that have a function in the lives of things of this species.) It is the same with animals. An owl is not as it should be if it cannot see in the dark. And a lioness does not do something that she ought to do, if failing to teach her cubs to hunt.”

We can summarize one of Foot’s examples as follows:

  1. An owl is a bird that can see in the dark.
  2. A good owl is an owl that can see well in the dark.
  3. Therefore, an owl should be capable of seeing well in the dark. (An owl is not as it should be if it cannot see in the dark.)
Aristotle and Philippa Foot
Aristotle and Philippa Foot

Avoiding the Problem

Comparing this example to the previous one about homosexual behavior demonstrates the need for an additional premise to sidestep the Is-Ought Problem. Before moving from “is” to “ought,” one must first define the function or distinguishing characteristic of the thing in question. For Aristotle, that means defining a human being as someone who exercises reason. For Foot, it means defining an owl as a bird that can see in the dark. To be good as a human or owl is to fulfill the defining characteristics. A human, in order to be fully human, should exercise reason. An owl, in order to be a true owl, should see in the dark.

I have made a similar move in defining the ethical components of fitness, that is, the ways a human being should be capable of moving. By defining a human being as a creature “capable of acting in accordance with reason,” I was able to derive standards for how humans should move. Aristotle does the same in deriving how humans should think, Foot in explaining how owls should see.

So it is possible to argue from an is to an ought—if the argument starts from a supported ought-type premise. On KineSophy, I argued that a good human is one who acts in accordance with reason. This is the type of person a human should strive to be. From this premise, I went on to observe that because humans can exert a certain amount of force, move through a certain range and cover a certain distance, they should do so when the situation calls for such action. A good human can lift, squat and run or walk. Able-bodied adults are capable of performing these actions to certain standards, and they should do so when necessary.