Fitness, Ethics, and Humanism

It’s been a while since I’ve done any significant ethical navel-gazing here, so the time seems ripe.

Actually, it’s not too navel-gaze-y.

Over at Kyriolexy, there’s a post about a supposed moral requirement that individuals be physically fit. The author points out that, broadly, society uses the sometimes-compatible languages of virtue and pathology to talk about physical fitness, and criticizes the combined use of that language because of how it intersects with how we also talk about (especially) perceived mental disability.

As the parent of an autistic child, I’m sympathetic with the author’s account. At age 9, we really don’t know where our son will end up, how, and even what his capabilities are now because of his limited speech and self-expression compared to his neurotypical peers. And so, we’re reluctant to put demands upon him when we don’t know what he is capable of.

I do differ from the Kyriolexy post as it relates to the virtue–talking in philosophical ethics mode, that is–of physical fitness. And I think that difference comes because I am the father of an autistic child. But I think my objection to the Kyriolexy post would exist even merely as a parent. But that difference led me to think about what it is, exactly, motivates ethics in humanism. I have long thought that the more Platonic views of ethics (e.g., Kant, or others who posit absolute universal duties, with or without certain requirements for intent along with the action) are troublesome because they posit universality–of both place and time–of things that are essentially contingent, that is, conduct in dependent upon places and times.

This is a roundabout way of saying that I think, from a humanist perspective, some combination of utilitarianism and virtue ethics is probably appropriate. And I would point to the physical fitness question as an example of this.

Do I think all persons at all times and in all circumstances must necessarily be (or endeavor to be as though it’s required of them) physically fit? No. I don’t even think that all persons who are physically capable of doing so must necessarily be or endeavor to be physically fit. That is, I don’t think there is an ethical duty to do this.

But I do think that doing so, if you can, is virtuous and maximizes utility. Virtuous because it has the capacity to make the person happier (in the philosophical ethics version of happiness). Maximizes utility because the costs of being unfit reduce one’s own happiness and also impose upon other persons more broadly the costs of being unfit.

We know, for example, that obesity is associated with widespread inflammatory processes, which appear at least to correlate with increased morbidity and mortality from medical conditions associated with inflammatory processes: heart disease, hypertension, some forms of cancer, diabetes, etc. In epidemic levels, obesity that results in increased morbidity and mortality from inflammatory process-related diseases imposes significant social costs. For those who can be physically fit, doing so reduces the imposition of the associated costs–in very incremental fashion–upon others. It also reduces the imposition of the associated harms upon oneself.

When one is a parent, the costs of unhealthiness are also imposed upon children who have no capacity to address the problem themselves. So, if a parent is capable of reducing her or his own level of unhealthiness and increasing her or his own level of fitness, doing so maximizes utility not only for society broadly in reduced cost, but children in terms of parents who are able to be around, on the whole, longer, provide better care, and provide examples of the sort that will encourage health among their children. That, in turn, can compound the benefits.

Do I think that there are valid ethical claims upon me, as someone who is capable of being more fit, more healthy, and therefore less costly both to society and my son, to become healthy and/or fit? Yes, both from a utilitarian perspective and from a virtuous perspective. But I don’t accept that there is some universal maxim that imposes that upon me; I should do these things, but I need not.

Nevertheless, and pace Kyriolexy, I think there are some normative claims that can fairly be put upon some individuals to be more fit.

Discourse about that is another matter. I think the problem Kyriolexy addresses arises, in part, when we speak in unqualified fashion about things like not having an excuse for being unfit. It’s about broad social messaging; we speak in deontological terms, particularly in mass media but also in more individual-level discourse, and assume others to be similarly situated. I think, from the perspective of Kyriolexy’s hypotheticals, broad discourse fails to properly take into account exceptions and the very real limitations of each situation.

I’m not sure what the solution to that would be for the broader forms of discourse that trouble Kyriolexy. Clearly broad forms of discourse need to take into account the need not to shame, and they need also to be careful about what they convey about ability. Ideally, this would affect how individuals speak, too.

I’m not optimistic about the latter part. Because unless one very carefully and intentionally crafts their discourse, it will almost always be overbroad and transgressive. Most people–including Maria Kang, I suspect–don’t craft their discourse to exclude from its normative scope those individuals who, if pressed, the speaker would not have intended to include within the statement.

How do we fix that? I would turn to Greg Epstein’s book, Good without God, as a guide. Epstein’s view of ethics starts with the proposition that we should act from love–love for our fellow persons, in whatever their state. And I think that absolute moral propositions in the Platonic/deontological mode–which make sense when we talk about law–don’t proceed from love, but from judgment. And they largely fail to be persuasive as a result.