How Would Kant Approach Fitness?

German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was a pretty clever old dude who gets an unfair amount of flack by many modern thinkers - and attitudes in general - today. Whilst some other guys thought that morality was relative, and could be constructed out of societal or circumstantial factors (looking' at you, John Stuart Mill) Kant wasn't about that life at all. He was known to be pretty strict when it came to judging right from wrong - so strict, in fact, that he attempted to ground moral questions in objectivity - in other words, Kant reckoned that there were certain moral absolutes in how humans lead their lives. 

This supreme notion of morality is known as his famous The Categorical Imperative, and from that stems his duty-based system of judging right from wrong - known as deontology. According to this theory, the rightness or wrongness of actions does not depend on their consequences but on whether they fulfill our duty.

FYI, it was Plato.

FYI, it was Plato.

So, if you are a follower of Kantian morality, you may ask yourself the following before acting upon something:

(i) Can I rationally will that everyone act as I propose to act? (In other words, would you like others to follow your proposed moral framework?)  If the answer is no, then we must not perform the action.  

(ii)  Does my action respect the goals of human beings rather than merely using them for my own purposes?  Again, if the answer is no, then we must not perform the action.  (Kant believed that these questions were equivalent).

Now, I bet you're wondering why in the hell I'm telling you about some guy who thought that lying in any circumstances was wrong. (Yeah, it's a pretty lame argument - imagine pouring your heart out about your existential crisis to the cafe barista because lying about being 'fine' is morally incorrect to you. Super lame. And awkward. Personal experience talking.) The point of moral philosophy - even though it kind of freaking sucks and is super boring and doesn't make sense half of the time - is to try guide us mere mortals in the labyrinth of chaos that is life and hopefully make us better people.

Kantian ethics may be dull, but they make a good point in how to conduct ourselves to make the most out of life. When it comes to overall health and physical fitness, the maxims Kant proposes mesh well with the overall idea of self-development.

Is there any moral obligation to improve oneself, to foster and develop various capacities in oneself? From a broadly Kantian point of view, self-improvement defends the view that there is such an obligation and that it is an obligation that each person owes to him or herself.

This also ties in with ii, from above. When we are able to maximise our own wellbeing and health, we can become better friends, sisters, brothers, sons or daughters. We are able to fulfil our potential as contributing, kind members of society, and add meaning not only to our own lives, but to others' experiences as well.

When we have this greater motivation of moral duty in how we act and conduct ourselves, we find an internal drive to accomplish our goals - rather than external-based ones.

External motivation can for some result in being the biggest downfall for people trying to get fitter and healthier. Whether that be seeking out the elusive bikini body, or even aim towards a performance-based goal, our goals are grounded on the external and material - things that are tangible and visual, in other words. Whilst in the short term having a visual goal can certainly get the engine off the ground, it can also potentially result in anxiety or stress-based behaviours if goals are not achieved, resulting in binge eating, skipping training, or a just general attitude of 'fuck it' nihilism. (Not fun!)

However, would it be perhaps a better approach to have non-physical stimuli grounding us in the direction to self-improvement and a fitter, happier version of ourselves?

As Plato mentions:

I went [to each man privately] to do him, as I say, the greatest of benefits [i.e. by showing him that he does not know what he thought he knew (about moral virtue, or, ethical excellence), and therefore that he should seek knowledge of it], and tried to persuade him not to think of his affairs [i.e. care of his body] until he had thought of himself [i.e. of his soul, or, the ethical aspect of himself] and tried to make himself as good and wise as possible, nor to think of the affairs [i.e. material well-being] of Athens until he had thought of Athens herself [i.e. of the ethical well-being and improvement of its citizens (cf. Gorgias 517b)]; and to care for other things in the same manner. (Plato, Apology 36c, tr. Church, rev. Cumming)

And, as argued by Kant, if there were no duties to oneself, then "there would be no duties whatsoever". In other words, if we cannot apply the level of self-care and respect to ourselves, then it could prove difficult to assign it across the board to loved ones, or even wider society.

Therefore, if we define health and fitness as a form of self-care (which it certainly is), and a form of self-development and self-improvement (again, total yes here) then we can identify it as a necessary duty to fulfil in order to fulfil ii.

Because it abides by our sense of duty, it extends to improving others' lives, and therefore benefiting society on a whole rather than just our individual selves.

By seeing fitness as something less intrinsically selfish, and something that can actually create a 'domino effect' of positive change across the board, then we are more than likely of maximising our adherence to a healthy routine and reaching our fitness goals. As the motivation is intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, we tend to see the process of improving our fitness as something more enriching and not just a superficial pursuit. It is when we see our health as a service to others in the long run that we fully value its importance in our lives.