Why Be Fit? – Altruism

Last month, I began the project of demonstrating how moral virtues can help strengthen physical virtues. In particular, I want to show that any agent who acts according to some ethical standard of moral virtue has reason to consider physical virtues. Thinking of the entirety of ethical theories as a spectrum, I proposed to address the two polar opposite theories: egoistic hedonism, which claims an agent should act so as to maximize her own pleasure, and altruism, which claims an agent should act so as to benefit others. If I can show adherents of these two theories have reason to consider physical virtues, I expect similar arguments will apply to theories in the middle of the spectrum. In last month’s article, I argued that the egoistic hedonist has reason to exercise (i.e. improve his physical abilities) in order to maximize his total pleasure over time. Now I turn to the opposite end of the ethical spectrum and address altruism.

By altruism, I mean the belief that an action is ethical if it benefits someone other than the agent. In last year’s article on consequentialism, I presented Peter Singer’s argument for altruism, which is worth repeating here. Imagine you pass a baby lying face down in a shallow pool of water. You could easily rescue the baby without putting yourself in danger, perhaps—at worst—ruining your shoes in the process. In this situation, it seems hard to argue that choosing not to save the baby counts as an ethical decision. Yet at this very moment, there are many, many children dying somewhere in the world, and you could save one or more of them without much greater expense than the cost of a new pair of shoes. If you accept that you should save the drowning baby, it seems you should also accept that you should save a faceless innocent child at some minimal cost.

Singer summarizes his consequentialist/altruist argument with the claim that “if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.” [1] This statement leads to the conclusion that we are morally required “to prevent bad things from happening unless in doing so we would be sacrificing something of comparable moral significance.” [2] This latter assertion represents a particularly stringent interpretation of altruism, but one which I believe is accurate. If you believe ethical actions are those that benefit others, your position loses credibility if you are willing to refrain from such actions in order to satisfy your own desires. The true altruist sacrifices her own wants for the benefit of others until she would be worse off than them if she continued to do so.

So if you accept the full altruistic claim, you might decide to give some large percentage of your income to one or more deserving charities. Or, if you are not too far along in your current career, you might decide to attend medical school and work with an organization like Doctors Without Borders to fight preventable diseases in third world countries. And while these are altruistic pursuits, consider that the most effective altruist is the one who provides the most good for others. With that thought in mind, imagine an altruist who makes $50,000 annually and donates $25,000 to charity, knowing he can live a relatively comfortable life on $25,000 per year. What if this altruist earned twice as much money? He could then triple his charitable donations to $75,000 annually and still have $25,000 for his own living expenses. He could also use that $75,000 to pay the salaries of three doctors in Doctors Without Borders (at a starting salary of $1,731 per month, or $20,772 per year [3]).

Unless our altruist possesses some vastly superior ability (e.g. he is able to do the work of several doctors), he can benefit more people by earning more money. Peter Singer highlights this connection in a 2013 TED Talk:

“If you earn a lot of money, you can give away a lot of money, and if you’re successful in that career, you could give enough to an aid organization so that it could employ, let’s say, five aid workers in developing countries, and each one of them would probably do about as much good as you would have done. So you can quintuple the impact by leading that kind of career.” [4]

The website referenced in the lecture, 80,000 Hours, researches a variety of careers and lists the following as those that offer the most opportunities to a make a difference for others: founding an effective non-profit, politics, tech entrepreneurship, trading in quantitative hedge funds, consulting, PhD in Economics, software engineering, and valuable academic research. [5] In other words, joining Doctors Without Borders or Greenpeace are not the best career paths for an effective altruist. Instead, the altruist should choose a career that affords him the power to directly influence other people to help those in need or one that allows him to make substantial sums of money which he can then donate to viable charitable organizations.

I have already written about the link between increased physical activity and improved cognitive ability. A recent Forbes article highlights the exercise habits of successful leaders, with writer Carmine Gallo noting “nearly [every leader] I interviewed made physical fitness a top priority,” and “successful leaders carve out time for daily exercise because they have no choice. They have to prepare their bodies to handle the increasing demands of long hours and heavy travel schedules.” [6] So physical activity can help individuals perform better at careers like those selected by 80,000 Hours, all of which require above-average intellect and/or strong leadership.

Furthermore, a recent study published in the Journal of Labor Research indicates people who exercise for at least three hours a week earn 9% more than those who don’t. [7],[8] Let us return to our imaginary altruist who chooses a career that earns him $100,000 annually. Based on the Journal of Labor Research’s findings, he could theoretically increase his earnings by $9,000 by exercising for three hours each week. Since he already sets aside $25,000 to support himself, that extra $9,000 is additional money that could be donated to charity. The Against Malaria Foundation, which provides bed nets to protect people from mosquitoes carrying malaria, claims one mosquito net costs $3 and every 50-250 nets saves one life. [9] Our hypothetical altruist could theoretically purchase an extra 3,000 nets and save 12-60 lives each year if he chose to exercise more frequently.

In summary, a thoroughgoing altruist is committed to doing the most good for others until continuing to do so would be detrimental to her well-being. Such a person has reason to pursue a career that maximizes her social or political influence or allows her to earn vast sums of money to donate to select causes. Given the positive effects of physical activity in furthering the abilities and earning potential for people in such career fields, the altruist has reason to pursue physical virtues in order to attain her ultimate end of helping as many people as possible.


  1. Singer, Peter. “Famine, Affluence and Morality.” Ethical Theory, Ed. Russ Shafer-Landau, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007, p. 506.
  2. Ibid.
  3. “Benefits & Opportunities.” Doctors Without Borders. Online. 14 Sep. 2014. http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/work-us/work-field/benefits-opportunities.
  4. Singer, Peter. “The why and how of effective altruism.” TED Talks. Feb. 2013. Online. https://www.ted.com/talks/peter_singer_the_why_and_how_of_effective_altruism?language=en.
  5. “Top Careers.” 80,000 Hours. 27 Aug. 2014. Online. 16 Sep. 2014. https://80000hours.org/research/top-careers.
  6. Gallo, Carmine. “How Successful Leaders Attain Superhuman Energy Before Most People Wake Up.” Forbes. 13 Nov. 2013. Online. 16 Sep. 2014. http://www.forbes.com/sites/carminegallo/2013/11/13/how-successful-leaders-attain-superhuman-energy-before-most-people-wake-up.
  7. Kosteas, Vasilios D. “The Effect of Exercise on Earnings: Evidence from the NLSY.” Journal of Labor Research, Volume 33, Issue 2, p. 225-250. Online. 14 Sep. 2014. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs12122-011-9129-2.
  8. Sanburn, Josh. “One More Reason to Hit the Gym: You’ll Make More Money at Work.” TIME. 8 June 2012. Online. 16 Sep. 2014. http://business.time.com/2012/06/08/one-more-reason-to-hit-the-gym-youll-make-more-money.
  9. “Why nets?” Against Malaria Foundation. Online. 14 Aug. 2014. http://www.againstmalaria.com/WhyNets.aspx.