No matter who you are or what you do or want from life, you should care about physical fitness. Here’s why.
Two Arguments for Fitness
We all get standard health advice from a variety of sources: friends, family, medical practitioners, the media. “You should eat well,” they tell us. “You should exercise. Eat at least five servings of vegetables per day. Perform at least thirty minutes of aerobic exercise twice a week.” These maxims take the same form as moral statements like “You should not kill” and “You should not steal,” but we place far less weight on the former group compared to the latter. It seems health advice matters only for those who care about physical fitness. If your priorities lie elsewhere (career, family, charitable work, etc.), who is anyone to tell you you’re wrong?
In other words, these health maxims function as what the famous Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant termed “hypothetical imperatives,” in that they are conditional statements. If you care about physical fitness, then you should eat well and exercise. In contrast, moral maxims appear to apply to everyone. Even psychopathic murderers should not kill, whether they care about the maxim or not. There is no conditional in these moral statements; they are what Kant called “categorical imperatives.” However, in this article, I am going to make two related arguments against the apparent conditional of health advice. First, I am going to claim that everyone should care about physical fitness, whether they realize it or not. And second, I will argue that health maxims should not be taken as hypothetical imperatives. Rather, given Kant’s arguments, they function as categorical imperatives, just like statements about morality.
Hedonism and Altruism
Generally speaking, there are two types of people who seem not to care about their own physical health. There are those who find a thirty-minute workout or the taste of broccoli so abhorrent that they decide, if that is what it means to be healthy, I’m not interested in health. They are unwilling to do anything that offers momentary displeasure. Taken to the extreme, people with this attitude can be classified as hedonists; they are those who place pleasure above all other values.
On the other side of the spectrum are those who care more about the well-being of others than themselves. They may know the benefits of a healthy diet and exercise but decide they have neither the time nor money to devote such attention to themselves, not when they have to consider the well-being of their own children, the global poor, abused animals, and so forth. The extreme of this view is altruism, the belief that an ethical action is one that benefits someone other than the person performing that action. But in what follows, I will argue that both hedonists and altruists have reason to care about physical fitness.1
Let’s begin with hedonism. For the purposes of this discussion, I am concerned with the kind of hedonists who find physical activity or healthy food so unpleasant that they would prefer to avoid these things altogether. They are motivated purely by sensual pleasures, whether in the form of food, alcohol, sex or drugs. The most thoroughgoing hedonists seek to maximize physical pleasure and avoid all displeasure or pain. Philosopher Jeremy Bentham identified six “dimensions of value in a pleasure or a pain,” most notably intensity and duration.2 Hedonists (and generally, non-hedonists) prefer more intense and longer duration pleasures to less intense and shorter duration pleasures.
Yet we all know that excess enjoyment of food, alcohol and drugs has adverse health effects. Over time, abuse of these pleasures can lead to a host of diseases and premature death. In other words, some sensual pleasures, when enjoyed to an extreme intensity or duration, reduce the cumulative duration of those pleasures as a consequence of reducing the duration of one’s existence. Abuse of sensual pleasures may also result in addiction to those pleasures. In an addicted state, a person’s brain chemistry becomes altered so that it takes increasingly greater amounts of the chosen stimulus in order to achieve the same level of pleasure. Drugs like methamphetamine actually destroy dopamine and serotonin receptors, two neurotransmitters responsible for feelings of reward and well-being. In other words, overexposure to a particular pleasure reduces the intensity of repeated exposure to that pleasure.
Physical exercise can increase both the quantity and quality of sensual pleasures. Every minute of exercise has been shown to lengthen lifespan by seven minutes. And physical activity is at least as effective as drug therapy in reducing death by heart disease and stroke. Exercise has also been shown to help control drug use and reduce drug-related brain damage, including repairing damaged dopamine and serotonin receptors. So exercise can help hedonists live longer and experience a greater duration of pleasure without suffering as much long-term damage. And by mitigating brain injury and restoring damaged dopamine and serotonin receptors, exercise may allow hedonists to achieve a greater intensity of pleasure despite repeated exposure to the same stimulus.
For culinary-minded hedonists, exercise can boost the quality of gastronomic pleasures by raising the affinity for sucrose and increasing appetite. And several studies have demonstrated that physical activity increases sex drive, sexual activity, and sexual satisfaction in males and females. In short, physical activity and physical fitness lead to a greater duration of many pleasures, both through an increased lifespan and a longer duration of the same pleasure and to a greater intensity of many sensual pleasures.
Self-Care Is Other-Care
Turning to altruism, this approach to ethics advocates putting others’ interests ahead of one’s own selfish desires. The most committed altruist will offer those in need every cent of his money and every moment of his time until continuing to do so would put him in a worse position than those he endeavors to help. This view is the one espoused by the well-known contemporary philosopher Peter Singer. In fact, a truly serious altruist would even select a career that allowed him to maximize his earning potential in order to have more money to contribute to worthy causes. As Singer put it 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.”
Earning to Give
As for what “that kind of career” might be, Singer references the website 80,000 Hours, which lists jobs like founding an effective non-profit, tech entrepreneurship, trading in quantitative hedge funds, and a Ph.D. in Economics as examples of the best opportunities for making the greatest altruistic impact. Obviously, any of these careers requires a substantial amount of intelligence and work ethic.
Fortunately, there are well-documented links between physical activity and cognitive performance. Young adults with higher cardiovascular fitness have a higher IQ and are more likely to attend a university, and consistent aerobic exercise has been shown to increase the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain deals with learning and memory. Physical activity has also been linked to increased executive control (the ability to perform goal-directed behavior using complex cognitive processes) in both children and adults. And exercise can help physically prepare those in demanding jobs for their long hours and hectic schedules.
Furthermore, a 2014 study found people who exercised for three-plus hours per week earned 9% more than less frequent exercisers. That means a hypothetical altruist could increase his earnings from $100,000 to $109,000. According to The Against Malaria Foundation, that $9,000 could purchase 4,500 mosquito nets and protect 9,000 people from malaria. And as noted earlier, exercise has also been shown to increase lifespan. So people who exercise not only earn more money per year, they also earn for more years than non-exercisers. For thoroughgoing altruists, all this extra earning power amounts to a substantially greater opportunity to help those in need.
Hedonism, Altruism and Fitness
Thus, hedonists should care about physical fitness because it can increase the intensity and duration of the pleasures they value. Altruists have reason to care about fitness because it helps them achieve the careers that can help them do the most good, earn more money (which they can then give to worthy causes), and live longer (allowing them to continue to earn and give more).
Now most people are not complete hedonists or complete altruists. However, they do share traits with one or both of these categories. They look at a conditional statement like “If you want to be healthy, you should exercise,” and decide they do not want to be healthy if doing so requires exercise. Yet as I have shown above, the vast majority of people, even those who are thoroughly committed to pursuing only sensual pleasure or only the well-being of others, have reason to care about physical fitness. Fitness allows people to better pursue the values that matter to them.
Hypothetical and Categorical Imperatives
I now want to examine whether statements about health should be taken as hypothetical imperatives in the first place. According to Kant, hypothetical imperatives “represent the practical necessity of a possible action as means to something else that is willed.”3 They follow the general formula “If you want x, you should do y.” For example, if you want to pass your final exam, you should study. Obviously, removing the desire for x removes the desire to do y. My high school did not require spring semester final exams for seniors because the outgoing seniors had already matriculated at colleges or secured jobs. Seniors no longer cared about their final exam grades, so they had no reason to study.
In contrast, categorical imperatives “[represent] an action as necessary of itself without reference to another end.”4 They follow the general formula “Do y, regardless of all other considerations.” “Thou shalt not kill” is an example of a categorical imperative, whereas “If you don’t want to go to jail, don’t commit murder” is a corresponding hypothetical imperative. It was clear to Kant (and is, I think, to most decent, rational people) that one should not kill others for reasons that go beyond the fear of punishment. Murder is just wrong, outside of any worry about potential consequences.
Two Versions of the Categorical Imperative
Like the prohibition against murder, Kant believed that moral laws must be categorical imperatives in order to carry any weight. If moral laws were hypothetical, they would be subject to individuals’ personal desires and momentary needs. It would be impossible to prescribe ethical action. Kant offered two formulations of moral law that delineate it from hypothetical imperatives:
1. “Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst will that it should become a universal law.”5
2. “Act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as means only.”6
Let’s look at an example that illustrates the first formulation. Imagine Nazi stormtroopers are pounding your front door, asking about the whereabouts of the Jewish family hiding in your attic. At first glance, this seems like an obvious situation where it might be acceptable, even encouraged, to lie. Yet Kant would disagree. If everyone lied to the Nazis in this situation, then the Nazis would soon learn to distrust everyone. So it is impossible to will that telling a lie, even to protect innocent people, should become universal law.
In his book Lying, Sam Harris suggests a truthful answer in a similar situation could be “I wouldn’t tell you even if I knew. And if you take another step, I’ll put a bullet in your head.”7 Now that’s an action that could become universal. If everyone in Europe stood up to the Nazis in this way, the destruction of World War II and the Holocaust might have been drastically reduced.
Being an End in Yourself
The second formulation of Kant’s moral law arises from the observation that humans are rational beings. And as rational beings, we are capable of distinguishing between causes and effects and means and ends. As part of this capability, a rational being recognizes itself as an end and not a means to another end. In other words, I do not think of myself as a tool for others to further their own gains. So when I encounter other rational beings and recognize their rational nature, I must recognize that they are like me. They also consider themselves as ends and not means to my ends or the ends of other people.
Kant’s second formulation of the moral law prohibits obvious infractions like slavery. But it also demands that individuals develop their talents as far as possible:
“It is not enough that the action does not violate humanity in our own person as an end in itself, it must also harmonize with it. Now there are in humanity capacities of greater perfection, which belong to the end that nature has in view in regard to humanity in ourselves as the subject: to neglect these might perhaps be consistent with the maintenance of humanity as an end in itself, but not with the advancement of this end.”8
So humans must treat themselves, not just others, as ends in themselves. And it is not enough to merely maintain this end-in-itself of one’s own humanity; one must advance it by developing one’s capacities to greater levels of perfection. In other words, to not strive to improve on your natural abilities is to not recognize yourself as an end and to violate the second formulation of Kant’s moral law.
Fitness as a Universal Law
I now want to address the question of whether health maxims function as hypothetical or categorical imperatives. Let’s start with the first formulation of Kant’s moral law and ask whether or not a person could wish that her poor health choices become universal law. The hypothetical imperative “If you care about physical fitness, you should eat well and exercise” grants that a good diet and exercise lead to good health. So by wishing that everyone abstain from a healthy diet and exercise unless they desire those practices, one is wishing ill health on one’s friends and family. But that wish seems inconsistent with what we want for our friends and family in real life.
Even those who are far from paragons of fitness worry about the health of their loved ones. How many adult children chastise their aging parents for sitting too much or indulging in too many sweets and not enough vegetables despite their own struggles to hit the gym and avoid the drive-thru? How many parents eschew junk food and limit screen time for their young children yet spend their evenings snacking and binging Netflix? In actuality, even people who abstain from fitness themselves do not wish that their behavior become universal law.
The pursuit of physical health and wellness is a categorical, not a hypothetical, imperative.
Fitness as an End
As for the second formulation, when we make poor health choices, we treat ourselves as mere means rather than ends. For one, we neglect to develop our physical capacities to greater levels of perfection. Furthermore, when we choose a donut for breakfast instead of scrambled eggs and fruit, we prioritize the momentary pleasure of a delectable sweet over the end of our personal well-being. When we choose to stay on the couch instead of hitting the gym or going for a run, we opt for fleeting comfort over the end of long-term health. In both cases, we use our bodies as a means for some other end instead of recognizing that our existence is an end in itself.
Thus, under both formulations of Kant’s moral law, the pursuit of physical health and wellness seems to be a categorical, not a hypothetical, imperative. We should care about physical fitness regardless of whatever else we want. But must we agree with this extension of Kant’s views? If we must always act as if our behavior would become universal law, if we must always treat ourselves and others as ends and never as mere means, we are left with a pretty spartan existence. Under these conditions, it looks like we should never treat ourselves to dessert or skip a workout. While such strict prohibitions make sense in maxims against rape or murder, it’s hard to reconcile the claim that a life in which 99% of the agent’s choices promote her own physical wellness is somehow lacking.
In her essay “Moral Saints,” philosopher Susan Wolf defines a “moral saint” as “a person whose every action is as morally good as possible,” and claims “I believe that moral perfection, in the sense of moral saintliness, does not constitute a model of personal well-being toward which it would be particularly rational or good or desirable for a human being to strive.”9 She argues that when a moral saint “[gives] up his fishing trip or his stereo or his hot fudge sundae at the drop of the moral hat, one is apt to wonder not at how much he loves morality, but at how little he loves these other things.”10
She continues that we might also suspect a moral saint of having “a pathological fear of damnation, perhaps, or an extreme form of self-hatred that interferes with his ability to enjoy the enjoyable in life.”11 Instead, Wolf interprets Kant as saying that “one is as morally good as one can be so long as one devotes some limited portion of one’s energies toward altruism and the maintenance of one’s physical and spiritual health, and otherwise pursues one’s independently motivated interests and values in such a way as to avoid overstepping certain bounds.”12
Following Wolf, we can imagine “physical saints” whose every action seeks to maximize physical wellness. And while such sainthood seems the goal of the categorical imperatives of health and fitness, it faces the same issues as moral sainthood. When someone repeatedly gives up a hot fudge sundae or time with his family for an apple or hours in the gym, we begin to wonder a) whether he really loves his family and b) whether he has “an extreme form of self-hatred that interferes with his ability to enjoy the enjoyable in life.”
Clearly, we all must balance personal health, career, family, friends, charitable work and many other values that require a time commitment. When someone’s priorities shift toward one of those values in an extreme manner, we begin to question that person’s priorities. And at some point, a dogged pursuit of health becomes pathological, similar to an anorexic shifting from a healthy practice like caloric restriction to a distorted body image and dangerous undernourishment.
As a further example, Tom Brady’s life might look great from the outside. Many of us would love to be a seven-time Super Bowl Champion, three-time NFL MVP, married to a supermodel and stupendously wealthy. But when we consider the physical dedication Brady must undertake to play the most difficult position at the pinnacle of America’s most popular sport, the hours spent in gyms, on 6,400 square yards of lined grass, in film rooms, eating nothing but the foods he considers most beneficial to his physical performance, obsessing over sleep, hydration and recovery—all to help him play a game in which 300-pound athletic freaks try to dismember him—we might reconsider the desirability of his livelihood. We might reasonably settle for a long, successful, fulfilling life that requires a fraction of his maniacal physical dedication.
Why Everyone Should Care About Physical Fitness
At this point, it may look like we have more questions than answers. Perhaps the maxims of fitness are not so wishy-washy as they first seem. Perhaps we have reason to eat well, exercise and generally care about physical fitness, no matter what else we want. Or perhaps we do have an obligation to ourselves to maximize our physical potential as far as we can. But as we look farther down that path, we see it leading to physical asceticism.
Unfortunately, most people in America (and the world) are nowhere near that distant end of physical sainthood. With obesity and metabolic disorders increasing, the average person is moving closer to the opposite end of the spectrum. So yes, it’s time to realize that we all have a reason to take care of our health. It’s something we all should do, no matter what else we want. And at some point, we may have to balance physical wellness with the other priorities in our lives. But there are always conflicts in ethics where different values overlap and interfere. The ethics of physical wellness are no exception. When we hear the “should” of physical fitness, we should heed that call, and then sort out conflicts and moderate our approach when appropriate.
- For more on hedonism, altruism and fitness, see Why Be Fit? – Hedonism and Why Be Fit? – Altruism.
- Bentham, J. (1789), An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, London: T. Payne and Son. in http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hedonism.
- Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Trans. Thomas Kingsmill Abbott. Readaclassic.com, 2009, p. 32.
- Ibid, p. 38.
- Ibid, p. 45.
- Harris, Sam. Lying. Four Elephants Press, 2013, p. 30.
- Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Trans. Thomas Kingsmill Abbott. Readaclassic.com, 2009, p. 47.
- Wolf, Susan. “Moral Saints.” The Journal of Philosophy, 79(8), 1982. Reprinted in Ethical Theory, Ed. Russ Shafer-Landau, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007, p. 221.
- Ibid, p. 224.
- Ibid, p. 228.