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Is Exercise a Moral Imperative? November 27, 2010

Posted by Metabiological in Ethics.
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Let’s get one thing out of the way right off the bat, I’m a negative utilitarian.  For those who don’t know what that is here’s the short version: that which decreases suffering in the world is good, that which increases it is bad.  NU is an offshoot of the broader utilitarian tradition that began with Bentham (or Epicurus if you want to have that debate.)  It’s an ethical system that I came to a number of years ago and have followed quite strictly.  The reason I’m telling you this is because in following it has led me to some rather strange places.

If you have so much as a passing fancy in the philopsophy of ethics than you know that one of the most infuriating things about it for the lay person is the seemingly crazy positions a well followed through logical agrument can take you too.  Arguably the most famous for NU is the well worn criticism that the quickest way to eliminate suffering would be to wipe out the human race.  No people, no suffering.  This seemingly crazy position is the direct outcome of NU thought and has been used as a reductio ad absurdum by more than one critic (I personally believe there’s a way around it but that’s a discussion for another time.)  There are however more shall we say “everyday crazy” positions that adherence to an ethical code can lead us to.  One of them for me has been veganism.  Another came to me just the other day.

First the set up.  Health care costs are rising throughout the developed world due.  One of the primary reasons is the costs associated with treating the primary killers in the developed world.  These primary killers, such as heart disease and diabetes, can be largely prevented through proper lifestyle choices.  Increased health care costs place a great burden on society as whole and the poor in particular leading to an increase in suffering.   Starting from these assumptions we would seem, from an NU perspective, to have a moral obligation to keep ourselves in shape.

I’m under no illusions that this will not strike most people as insane.  Hell I thought it was loony when it first came to me and as I’ve already stated I’m a staunch utilitarian.  Unfortunately the more I think about it the more the logic seems sound.  If we value the elimination of suffering we seem to be bound to this course.

Now undoubtably there are many objections that could be raised to this.  One obvious one is that time spent exercising could be spent performing other activities.  If those other activities would reduce suffering more than exercise we would be bound to perform them instead.  Another may be that our individual actions will have no effect on the larger problem (a charge often leveled at veganism and the question of animal suffering.)   These are certainly valid criticisms but none of them strike me as fatal blows.

It goes without saying that most people, whether they accept the logic or not, will never view exercise as moral.  We as a species are quite good at not doing things we don’t want to even if we believe them to be right.  One need only compare the values expressed by the world’s various religions with the way worshipers actually live their lives (not to overly pick on religion as I am quite guilty of this myself.)  I am not attempting some underhanded way to motivate people to exercise.  My reason for writing this is much simpler.

One of the joys I find with following an ethical system is the continuing process of determining how one should live.  Too often we drift through life never considering the morality of the actions we perform.   Ask most people why they do the things they do and you’ll likely get nothing but blank stares.  To know the foundation on which your beliefs are based, even if those beliefs seem odd at first glance, is a wonderful feeling.  Or to put it another way:

“The unexamined life is not worth living”   – Socrates –

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