liv: cast iron sign showing etiolated couple drinking tea together (argument)
[personal profile] liv
My post bouncing off the Alderman article has generated various bits of interesting discussion. The thread I want to follow further at this point is about the bold claim of the article title that There's no morality in exercise. [personal profile] electricant challenged that claim in a really thoughtful and interesting way:
No one is morally better than anyone else because of the amount of exercise they do. However, I, personally, am a better person for working out. I'm not better than anyone else, but I'm better as me-working-out than I am as me-not-working out. And that better does include a moral dimension [...] I feel like working out is a habit that allows me to develop many positive traits in myself - some physical, some intellectual, and some moral [...] it is a moral imperative for me personally, according to my own value system
I've been turning ideas round in my mind for a while about the idea of "being healthy", and how exercise fits as part of that. I think the core of it is that being healthy is often used to refer not to a state of being, but rather to (believed to be) correct actions which people may or may not perform.

Like, a young man who has no chronic conditions is probably quite healthy, in the sense that he doesn't experience any significant illness, pain or dysfunction. But if he smokes, spends most of his time playing video games, lives on a diet of nothing but fast food and takeaways, has no close relationships and is reticent to express emotions, etc, people would tend to describe him as unhealthy. And in some ways that's a shorthand for the fact that he has a high statistical risk of becoming unhealthy later in life, but that's only a probability. He's not performing what society generally holds to be the right actions in terms of diet, drug use, exercise, lifestyle and so on.

One of my posts I'm most proud of is this one on health and individual choice. It's rather telling that the post got a great reception here, but when somebody linked to it from Facebook there were lots of people in the comments who were very angry because they thought my principles would give people a justification to be lazy and unhealthy. I mean, in many ways that was exactly the point, I do think people are justified in being lazy and unhealthy. Or at least, they're justified in prioritizing their time and effort differently from the consensus of what's healthy. But the debate was another instance of the meme where there's assumed to be an obviously right, virtuous way to act and that's "healthy", and the only possible reason why someone would do anything else is because they're a bad person.

It's fairly clearly an overstatement of the case to say there's no morality in exercise. I'm not sure I believe there's any such thing as an activity which is completely morally neutral! But certainly, I do agree with [personal profile] electricant that if exercise makes you feel better and makes you better able to act rightly in the world than not exercising, then yes, it is morally better for you to exercise than not. I do hold that people have moral obligations towards themselves, and it's highly likely that exercise will in fact have long term health benefits for most people. But note that I started with a conditional: if exercise makes you happier and more virtuous, then it's morally right. I just don't believe this is universally true of exercise for everybody.

And I'm suspicious of the idea that exercise is moral because it's unpleasant. I mean, there's a false dichotomy between "doing regular exercise" and "sitting on the couch stuffing yourself with junk food and consuming mindless entertainment". Lots of people are not doing exercise because they're doing something else that either gives them more pleasure, or does more direct good in the world than working out. In those cases, excerise is not the moral choice. There absolutely are moral, including personal, benefits, in discipline. Setting up a habit of doing something regularly, even if it's less immediately appealing than something that does you less long-term good. But there are other ways to be disciplined other than doing exercise, and if exercise isn't in fact doing you long-term good, then why not get the benefits of being a disciplined, conscientious sort of person in some way that is directly beneficial as well? There's the question of opportunity costs which often gets left out of this sort of moral calculus as with economic planning: maybe in the abstract exercise is morally better than not, but it's not a choice between exercise and nothing, it's a choice between exercise and everything else you might be doing with that time, energy and money.

When I was discussing the Alderman post with [personal profile] jack, he came up with the excellent point that it's not so much that there's no morality in exercise, as that exercise is over-moralized in our current society. So in pushing back against that, people, including me quoting Alderman, can go to far in denying the moral component. Even if you accept that behaviours conducive to long-term health are always "right" behaviours, and that must be a priority in decision-making, well, lots of things contribute to health-related risk factors which are lot less moralized about than exercise (and not smoking and eating well). There are significant measurable health benefits to some form of regular meditative practice, whether that's overtly spiritual or not. But you don't get a lot of people on the internet pontificating about those terrible lazy people who don't pray or medidate regularly enough. One of the biggest factors in long-term health is having a strong intimate network, but making friends and building loving relationships can't be reduced to a simple formula like "spend 30 minutes five times a week doing aerobic exercise".

I expect someone like [personal profile] oursin would be able to explain this better than me (or find flaws in my analogy), but I am reminded of the fixation on hygiene in the nineteenth century. Yes, it's "better", both morally and practically, to be clean than not clean, personally and in terms of your habitation and environment. But there was an awful lot of handwringing going on a couple of generations back about how "The Poor" were dirty and unhygienic, and sometimes this was used to set up philanthropic programmes to help them be cleaner, but it was very much about how decent (ie middle-class) people are morally superior because of their better standards of cleanness. Without taking into account that it's a lot easier to be clean if you can afford to pay people to do the menial labour that cleaning takes and / or you have leisure time for focusing on fighting entropy, not to mention that if the only place you can afford to live is somewhere affected by industrial pollution, then of course you're going to be dirtier than someone who can afford to live in a more desirable place. It feels like there's a similar thing going on, those awful people over there are lazy because they don't "find time" to do regular exercise, and therefore their bad health is the fault of their bad habits. And not paying attention to the fact that if you're poor or disabled or have other systematic things going on, you have a lot less time and money available for said good habits.

So yes, I think in some ways exercise, and health-promoting behaviours in general, are moral. But it's not an absolute imperative to be healthy at the expense of absolutely everything else that moral people might care about. And actions that are statistically healthy might not be individually healthy anyway, and people might perform lots of healthy actions and still have bad health for reasons outside their control, but that's a different thing. I think it's very easy to fall into a Just World fallacy if you treat healthy behaviour as moral behaviour, though.
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Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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