Why Be Fit? – Hedonism

Exercise can intensify and prolong many physical pleasures. Thus, even people who subscribe to a philosophy of hedonism (the pursuit of pleasure) have reason to value physical fitness.

Ethics and Fitness

At the end of last year, I explained my plan to 1) demonstrate the interrelationship between physical fitness and the other secondary virtues, 2) give evidence of how the secondary virtues, and physical fitness in particular, work to support the primary ethical precept of human inviolability and 3) derive some secondary virtues, especially those relating to fitness, from the primary ethical precept. In a previous KineSophy article, I have demonstrated a complementary relationship between physical fitness and intelligence. For one, increased physical activity and fitness improve cognitive performance in schoolchildren and elderly adults. In addition, subjects who concentrate on specific muscle movement show improved strength gains. I have also cited evidence of how yoga, mixed martial arts and other physical activities can strengthen other non-physical virtues. To complete part 1 of my plan, I now need to show how non-physical and non-intellectual virtues can reinforce physical virtues.

Hedonism and Altruism

As I argued in June, virtuous action requires a sense of self, a notion of control over a situation and a set of values. In particular, virtuous agents must have reasons to treat other humans well or to treat themselves well. Such reasons are based on the belief that human life has some value. This value may be assigned directly, as when an agent refrains from harming another out of respect for the other’s intrinsic value, or indirectly, as in refraining from doing harm merely to avoid punishment.

Furthermore, different ethical theories assign the primacy of intrinsic value to different agents. Altruism holds that value of other beings should be considered simultaneously (if not before) the value of oneself. Egoism holds that the one’s own value has primacy over the value of others. Within egoism, objectivism places emphasis on so-called higher values such as production, achievement and love, while hedonism identifies pleasure as the only value. [1]

In order for an individual’s moral virtues to strengthen her physical virtues, she must believe her ethical precepts give her reason to improve her physical virtues. Of the three ethical theories mentioned above, the objectivist will find this connection most apparent. An agent who values production and accomplishment will likely recognize the importance of physical fitness in achieving these aims. The relationship between non-physical and physical virtues is far less apparent to adherents of altruism and hedonism. If I can give reasons why altruists and hedonists should aspire to physical virtues, similar arguments should apply to most other ethical theories as well. In this piece, I consider hedonism; next month, I will address altruism.

Ethical Hedonism

Ethical hedonism is “the claim that all and only pleasure has positive importance and all and only pain or displeasure has negative importance.” [2] The philosopher John Stuart Mill distinguished between higher and lower pleasures and claimed that the value of a pleasure depends on both its quality and its quantity. Of these two sorts of pleasures, the pleasure that a majority of those who have experienced both prefer is the more desirable of the two pleasures. [3] Presumably, higher pleasures would include intellectual stimulation, productivity, love and physical achievement, while lower pleasures would appeal to the basic senses and include food, drink, sex and natural and pharmacological highs. To make my argument for the physical virtues as strong as possible, I need to show that the hedonist who embraces solely the lower pleasures must still desire some level of physical fitness.

Why Bet Fit? - Hedonism

It is commonly accepted that many of the lower pleasures are self-destructive when enjoyed in excess. Drug use and overconsumption of food and alcohol present obvious health concerns. Extreme sexual promiscuity raises the possibility of potentially life-threatening diseases. The main question I wish to address is whether or not an intensely pleasurable, self-destructive life is preferable to a longer life of moderate pleasures. If pleasure depends on quality and quantity as Mill describes, it is theoretically possible to assign a numerical value and expected frequency and duration to each pleasure in order to calculate total pleasure. Of course, there are no clear guidelines for how to assign such values. At minimum, I want to show that a hedonist has reason to consider some measure of physical fitness as necessary to maximizing total pleasure.

Pleasure Versus Fitness

According to World Life Expectancy, the average drug addict has a life expectancy of 15 to 20 years following the start of addiction. [4] Conversely, numerous studies show exercise can limit drug use and reduce drug-related brain damage. [5] While pharmacological substances may offer pleasurable highs, abuse of those substances leads to unpleasant cravings, withdrawal, addiction and possibly death. And while a hedonist may find exercise unpleasant, its benefits can mitigate the addiction-related side effects of drug use.

In an oversimplified model, let us call the pleasure derived from a drug d, the unpleasant side effects of drug use s, the unpleasantness of exercise e, and the duration of a hedonist’s life t. Then for any non-exercising drug-hedonist (NEDH), pleasure is defined as (d-s1)t1. An exercising drug-hedonist’s (EDH’s) pleasure is defined as (d-s2-e)t2, where s2 < s1 and t2 > t1. Let us expand the two expressions as follows:

Why Be Fit? - Hedonism

The first term in each expression, dtx, favors EDH since she will experience a greater quantity of d. The second term, -s1t1for NEDH and -(s2+e)t2for EDH, favors NEDH. NEDH will experience a lesser quantity of unpleasant drug side effects by dying before EDH. But if d is the greatest source of pleasure and greatest motivator for a drug-hedonist, it seems EDH’s total pleasure will be greater than NEDH’s. NEDH will have to show exercise is extremely unpleasant, especially since s for NEDH will be worse than for EDH. Exercise will have to be so unpleasant that it outweighs a longer lifetime of pleasurable drug highs with less unpleasant side effects. It is probably too much to expect such rational decision-making from a borderline addict, but it seems hard for the hedonist to make this argument.

Other Benefits of Fitness

Similar arguments apply to other hedonistic pleasures. Strengthening physical virtues increases the quantity of pleasures (by increasing life expectancy) and improves the quality of pleasures, either by decreasing the unpleasantness of side effects or improving the experience of the pleasure itself.

From a quantity standpoint, each minute of exercise increases a person’s life expectancy by an additional seven minutes, according to Dr. I-Min Lee of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and one of the authors of “Leisure Time Physical Activity of Moderate to Vigorous Intensity And Mortality: A Large Pooled Cohort Analysis.” [6] And a recent study by researchers from the London School of Economics and Political Science, Harvard Medical School and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute and the Stanford University School of Medicine showed that physical activity can be as effective as drug therapy in reducing heart-related deaths, and more effective than drugs in reducing death by stroke. [7] So physical fitness can both reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease (which may be exacerbated by poor diet and overconsumption of alcohol [8]), and extend a person’s life once she is afflicted by heart-related illness.

In terms of quality of pleasure, exercise has been shown to increase the affinity for sucrose [9], a boon to any hedonist driven by a sweet tooth. In general, there appears to be a loose connection between increased physical activity and increased appetite, although assessing this relationship often proves difficult since people who exercise to lose weight often choose to curb their caloric intake for the same reason. [10] For hedonists who view sex as the ultimate pleasure, a variety of studies show that physical activity increases sexual desirability and may improve sex drive, sexual activity, and sexual satisfaction in both males and females. [11]

Quantity and Quality

Given the capacity of exercise to increase a hedonist’s lifespan (and thus the quantity of his pleasures) and to improve the quality of the so-called lower pleasures, the hedonist appears hard-pressed to justify an avoidance of physical virtues. He must either find exercise so unpleasant as to risk a diminishment in the quantity and quality of his other pleasures, or he must adopt an excessively narrow definition of pleasurable life in order to justify an utter lack of physical fitness. It is possible to imagine a person who finds no happiness in sensory pleasures and views lounging in bed all day as the height of enjoyment, but most real-world hedonists do not seem to fit this description. Even a hedonist who embraces lower pleasures alone has very good reasons to desire some level of physical fitness. Thus, the standards of ethical hedonism complement the virtues of fitness.



  1. There is also the possibility of non-egotistic hedonism, in which the ethical action is the one that results in the greatest net gain of pleasure for all beings. This variant of hedonism is closer to altruism and is not directly discussed in this article. If I can show that both egotistic hedonism and altruism support physical virtues, I believe these arguments will account for non-egotistic hedonism as well.
  2. Moore, Andrew. “Hedonism.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2013. Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Online. 14 Aug. 2014. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hedonism.
  3. Ibid.
  4. LeDuc, Tom. “Addiction and Your Brain.” World Life Expectancy. Online. 15 Aug. 2014. http://www.worldlifeexpectancy.com/addiction-and-your-brain.
  5. Fell, James. “Exercise: Alternative reward for those battling addiction.” Chicago Tribune. 12 Jun. 2013. Online. 27 Aug. 2014. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2013-06-12/health/sc-health-0612-fitness-fight-addiction-with-exerci-20130612_1_todd-crandell-drug-addiction-reward.
  6. Goldberg, Carey. “Every Minute Of Exercise Could Lengthen Your Life Seven Minutes.” WBUR’s Common Health. 15 Mar. 2013. Online. 15 Aug. 2014. http://commonhealth.wbur.org/2013/03/minutes-exercise-longer-life.
  7. “Could exercise be as effective as medication?” NHS Choices. 2 Oct. 2013. Online. 15 Aug. 2014. http://www.nhs.uk/news/2013/10October/Pages/Could-exercise-be-as-effective-as-medication.aspx.
  8. Pearson, Thomas A. “Alcohol and Heart Disease.” American Heart Association. 1996. Online. 30 Aug. 2014. http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/94/11/3023.full.
  9. Horio, Tsuyoshi and Kawamura, Yojiro. “Influence of Physical Exercise on Human Preferences for Various Taste Solutions.” Chem. Senses 23: 417-421, 1998. Online. 29 Aug. 2014. http://chemse.oxfordjournals.org/content/23/4/417.full.pdf.
  10. King, Neil A. “What processes are involved in the appetite response to moderate increases in exercise-induced energy expenditure?” Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 58(01): 107-113, 1999. Online. 30 Aug. 2014. http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=2843456&fileId=S0029665199000178.
  11. Penhollow, Tina M. and Young, Michael. “Sexual Desirability and Sexual Performance: Does Exercise and Fitness Really Matter?” Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, 7: 2004. Online. 30 Aug. 2014. http://www.ejhs.org/volume7/fitness.html.

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