Is it Immoral to Be Out of Shape?
After listening to my podcast on strength standards and spirituality, someone wrote in to ask: “Do people have a moral obligation to maintain a basic level of fitness?”
This is a challenging question, and not one that can be answered quickly. It’s challenging because it invites a lot of lower questions that need to be answered before the top can be taken care of.
Questions such as, what is morality? And, where does morality come from? These are philosophical questions that have been contested for ages. So, we’ll see what I can do.
Fitness According to Aristotle
Aristotle said all the things of life have four causes: A formal cause (what a thing is), a material cause (what a thing is made of), an efficient cause (who/what made the thing), and a final cause (what the thing is FOR).
The argument Aristotle makes is that if you can understand the four causes of a thing, you can “know” what that thing is. (This is also the basis for his view on morality.)
For example, he said that humans are “rational animals.” Rationality is our formal cause–that’s what makes us humans and not dogs or pieces of asparagus: we can reason. Pieces of asparagus can’t. So our final cause is to use our rationality.
But for what?
Well, according to Aristotle, the goal for any human is to live a good life, and that we use our rationality to get us there. This, of course, makes us wonder, what is a “good life”? And while we don’t need to get into all the details of that to answer our question, one part of a good life, says Aristotle, is willing the good of the other. Some of us might call that acting out of love.
But Aristotle would also say you need to will the good of yourself, insofar as doing so allows you to live a good life. That doesn’t mean being greedy. But it does mean treating yourself with love. You can’t take care of others, unless you take care of yourself, an adage I’m sure many of us are familiar with. But what Aristotle provides is a reasonable justification for that behavior, based on “final causality.”
Truth is, most of us know that we should do good for other people, even if most of us don’t know why we should do good for other people, even, and especially, when doing good for other people is inconvenient or dangerous to us. Well, Aristotle tells us: Because that’s what living a good life is about. It’s what we were made to do.
Moving into fitness, how could we argue that staying in shape is a moral act? Well, it is quite simple, actually. Since, according to Aristotle, anything that frustrates the final cause of humans seeking “the good” is to be considered “immoral.”
For example, if somebody enslaved you, that’s immoral, because they’re impeding your ability to rational determine the outcome of your life; you are, in other words, being prevented from seeking the good. Same if somebody were to kill you. Your “final cause” would have been maximally frustrated. That’s why killing is wrong, at least according to Aristotle.
Again, we all know these things are bad intuitively–at least, I all hope we do. But Aristotle is giving us reasonable, philosophical reasons for WHY they are bad.
So now that we have the extreme examples–slavery, murder, etc–and since we can see why these things are bad in light of Aristotle’s reasoning, we can begin to make our argument for fitness.
Simply I would take this from the opposite view and say that if at any point your “unfitness” is frustrating your end of leading a good life, then it is an immoral act. Even if it is less of an immoral act, and even if it immoral only by omission, anything that frustrates the ends of “seeking the good” is to be considered as such. Certainly to let yourself slip so far out of shape is no treatment of love–can we all agree on that?
But does being out of shape then, make you an immoral person? Not necessarily. There’s often a difference between an immoral act and immoral person. Moral people commit immoral acts all the time. So we should never make the mistake of assuming that because someone does not take fitness seriously, they are a “bad” person. They might be a lazy person, or a busy person in other ways, or an ignorant person. But all of those things would not make them an immoral person, per se.
Because immoral acts do not always make for an immoral person–there’s more to it than that. But as for the question today, I think we’ve answered it. There are other philosophical views of morality, but this is the one I use, because this is the one that makes sense and is practical. So at least by Aristotelian reasoning we can say there is (at least some) morality linked to the idea of taking fitness seriously–that fitness is GOOD, and/or that being unfit is BAD.
But one more note, before we wrap this up, just to nuance our discussion. Because I’m sure we could think of some instances where fitness might not be good. For example, imagine somebody who obsesses over fitness, and takes fitness to the extreme. This obsession blocks their ability to love others and love themselves. In fact, their obsession causes them injury, physically and socially and spiritually. It frustrates their final cause.
So as much as this person says they are just “taking care of themselves”–well, are they? This is why it’s important to have philosophical underpinning, so you can evaluate things on a case by case basis. It would be imprudent to say all measures of fitness are “good”, because that is clearly not the case.
Thanks Aristotle. You’re much appreciated.
Strong ON! [Daily Generalist Programming]