The Moral Value of Physical Virtues

Title "The Moral Value of Physical Virtues" with fit woman pointing upward

Possessing physical virtues doesn’t automatically make you more ethical. While these qualities are important, they are not more important than other virtues. Plus, we can’t use physical virtues to make deeper assessments about a person’s character.

The Limits of Physical Virtues

In previous KineSophy articles, I have argued for the existence of physical virtues like strength, mobility and speed. I also defined minimum standards for achieving each of these qualities. In claiming a certain quality is a virtue, I simply mean that, all things considered, it is better for a person to possess that quality than to not possess it. I also argued that physical virtues are linked to other virtues like cognitive performance and moral virtues. Developing one virtue can contribute to the development of other, seemingly unrelated, virtues.

Yet as philosopher Damon Young pointed out in our interview last month, “Fit people aren’t automatically more ethical. This ought to be obvious, but there is an aura of superiority around the muscular and agile; an atmosphere of glossy righteousness.” In other words, there is a tendency to see fit, exercising people as possessing additional virtues and to see overweight, sedentary people as possessing various vices.

This fallacy is something I’ve been conscious of throughout my writing on KineSophy. But it never hurts to have a reminder. The need to be aware of this tendency is especially relevant when we are surrounded by examples of unwarranted linkages between fitness and virtue versus unfitness and vice (e.g. fat-shaming).

All Things Considered

Let’s return to my earlier description of ethics and virtues: “All things considered, it is better for a person to possess a virtue that to not possess it.” So it is better to be strong than to be weak, it is better to be intelligent than ignorant, and it is better to be honest than dishonest. To put it another way, all things considered, a person should strive to be strong, intelligent and honest.

Supervillain Lex Luthor
Supervillain Lex Luthor

Usually, each statement about a different virtue will require a distinct argument. For example, a person should be strong so that she can help another person in a situation where strength is the only limiting factor, such as moving that person out of a burning building. And a person should be honest so that others always know he means what he says and he never has to worry about telling additional lies to save face. So virtues are distinct, but when we look at ethics as a whole, we begin to see some connections.

“All things considered” is an important clause in that regard. It means we must consider all aspects of a person’s character. It is better to be strong, but a bully who uses his strength to torment others is not ethical. Neither is a supervillain who uses her intelligence to dream up nefarious plans, nor a person who makes a cruel habit of going out of her way to honestly comment on the shortcomings of others. We need to consider all virtues and vices together when assessing ethical character.

A single virtue, such as fitness, is just one piece of a person’s character. And we cannot judge character on the merits of one single virtue or vice. Strong people can be ignorant and dishonest. Smart people can be weak and dishonest. Honest people can be weak and ignorant. And they can all be unjust, cowardly and cruel. Furthermore, as the well-worn maxim reminds us, “Nobody’s perfect.” We judge people based on the totality of virtues and vices and acknowledge that even the most virtuous person has a few faults.

Superficial Judgments

Judging virtues isn’t easy. In most cases, we need to see people act over long periods of time to accurately assess their characters. Fitness is a different matter. We can make gross assessments based on physical appearances: thin, muscular, overweight, frail. And because we know the work that goes into crafting those appearances, we often slide into additional judgments of character: hard-working, self-motivated, weak-willed, lazy. I sometimes catch myself making these judgments—about the overweight man taking up two seats on the bus, or the woman barely cycling on the elliptical while she stares at a television show on her iPad.

Of course, these superficial assessments always fail to capture the whole picture. We don’t know if an overweight person has improved his diet and exercise routine and has already lost several pounds. We don’t know if the person loafing in the gym ran a marathon the day before and is just trying to get in some easy movement. And a person’s physical fitness (or lack thereof) never reveals if she is brilliant, honest, fair and generous, just as the model on the cover of a fitness magazine may be stupid, petty and cruel.

A Balance of Virtues

The point of KineSophy is that physical virtues are virtues just as much as intelligence, honesty and the like. We should develop physical virtues, not just for the sake of being healthy, but because they make us better people. And, as I have previously argued, physical virtues contribute to the development of non-physical virtues. Damon Young echoes this point in explaining how a martial arts practice helps one develop courage. However, I am not arguing that physical virtues should be developed to the detriment of all other virtues. Physical virtues are certainly not preeminent virtues nor the mark of other virtues. They are just more easily observable the other character traits.

Exercise and physical fitness have benefits that go beyond physical health. They contribute to a variety of virtues, both physical and non-physical. But taken alone, exercise and fitness are not markers of other virtues and vices. We should strive for strength, mobility, speed and other physical virtues in the way we strive for intelligence, honesty and fairness. Yet we should not judge others on our perceptions of how they measure up to physical standards without assessing their characters in total.