With 2013 and the first year of my KineSophy project drawing to a close, I decided to use this month’s essay to summarize the ground I’ve covered in the past eleven months, in the hopes of giving these pieces some appearance of cohesion. Working under the general mission statement of connecting topics in health and fitness with aspects of philosophy and ethics, I initially sought to investigate the ways in which physical fitness plays some role in a philosophical description of a good life. The year began with exploration and study and concluded with a somewhat more concrete plan for the framework of an ethical theory. I made occasional sidetracks and digressions along the way as I discovered issues related to my overall topic which I felt deserved consideration. The result was eleven months of once loosely connected strands which I have attempted to weave into some recognizable pattern.
I began the year with two articles designed to lay the groundwork for bridging the gap between fitness and philosophy. In January, I discussed Albert Camus’ well-known essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” in which Camus turns Sisyphus’ eternal punishment into an allegory for a meaningful and fulfilled life. For Sisyphus, each new start driving the rock up the mountain is an opportunity; every successful summit is a victory. I argued that the power of the myth lies in the fact that Sisyphus’ torment is physical, and suggested that his repeated physical accomplishments give him the tenacity to face any obstacle. The courage, perseverance and even joy Sisyphus demonstrates in his task are virtues to which we all should aspire. I addressed a similar theme in February’s article, in which I suggested every human should take advantage of learning to deadlift, both for the benefits of functional strength and to tap into the body’s neuroendocrine response, a vital component of building strength, improving intelligence and enjoying sex. In this way, we can view the deadlift as a microcosm of the carpe diem attitude that makes life worth living. This article also served as a stepping stone for my precepts of human movement later in the year.
Having read so many fascinating articles about how governments and society deal with obesity, I opted to tackle these issues in my March essay. I examined the policies of airlines with regards to obese passengers, the ethics of performing an excessively painful lethal injection on an obese convict and the role of government in fighting this health epidemic. In the end, I threw the onus back on the individual. Every person is dealt a different hand, but we all have a responsibility to ourselves to make the most of our circumstances. While this conclusion applies directly to the questions posed by the issues in this essay, it also points to a notion of responsibility that lies at the heart of all ethical obligation.
April began my formal foray into ethical theory, with three months of essays summarizing the three main mindsets for approaching ethics. In each case, I tried to apply the theories of philosophical giants to questions of health and fitness. Aristotle’s virtue-centric doctrine of the mean suggests fitness requires a balance between the poles of sloth and self-deprivation. Kant’s action-based deontology forbids self-harm from gluttony and laziness and requires the individual to develop all his talents, including the physical ones. The outcome-focused consequentialism of Mill and Singer echoes this call for self-improvement, albeit less forcefully than Kant. Most importantly, all three strains of ethical theory give us fodder for later discussions on the ethics of human movement.
After a brief digression in July dedicated to the annual inductions of the Baseball Hall of Fame, which coincided this year with the demise of the United States Defense of Marriage Act and led to a discussion of the rights of private and public institutions, essays in August through November began the heart of the KineSophy project. In a pair of two-part pieces, I argued first for the existence of three precepts of human movement, then attempted to scale these precepts according to the age of the individual. Human movement falls in the realm of ethics, conceived as what an individual should do, since nearly all ethical activity requires physical action. The three precepts of human movement answer the three primary questions defining any movement, namely 1) how much force must the agent apply?, 2) over what distance must the agent apply that force? and 3) how quickly must the agent apply the force or cover the distance? In answer to these questions, I proposed the following three ethical precepts for human movement:
- A human being should be able to lift an object equal in weight to his or her own body off the ground. (A human being should be able to deadlift his or her own body weight.)
- A human being should be able to enjoy a meal or use the toilet while squatting instead of sitting. (A human being should be able to maintain a comfortable resting squat position for at least ten minutes.)
- A human being should (in theory) be capable of persistence hunting on foot for over twenty miles at four miles per hour in temperatures around 100° F. A human being should (in actuality) be capable of traveling on foot to the nearest hospital in thirty to forty minutes in optimal weather. (A human being should (in theory) be able to complete a marathon in optimal weather in six hours. A human being should (in actuality) be able to travel 5000 meters (3.11 miles) in thirty-six minutes.
I also used the notion of scalability to draw a distinction between those ethical precepts which admit of scalability and those that do not. The former, including precepts regarding human movement, intelligence, and social virtues such as kindness and honesty appear subordinate to the latter, which I described as respect for the inviolability of human life. This distinction serves as a starting point for further development in 2014.
In particular, I envision a sort of pyramid of ethical precepts, in which the scalable secondary virtues complement one another and combine to support the primary virtue. At the same time, one can use the primary precept of human inviolability to derive the secondary virtues. In the coming year, I will begin the project of fleshing out this hierarchy in greater detail. I plan to examine the relationship between physical fitness and the other secondary virtues, noting how the ties between the virtues are strengthened, how they are broken and the reasons for these breaks. I then hope to give evidence of how the secondary virtues, and physical fitness in particular, work to support the primary virtue. If all goes well, I will attempt to work from the top down to derive some secondary virtues, especially those relating to fitness, from the primary ethical precept of human inviolability. And as was the case in 2013, I plan to intersperse this discussion with essays and comments on other relevant topics which demonstrate the interconnectedness of fitness and ethics.