The Ethics of Human Movement (Part 1)

“There is no reality except in action.” – Jean-Paul Sartre1

Loosely defined, ethics consists of the set of precepts governing what an individual person should do.2 People typically conceive of ethics as externally directed; for example, how an individual should treat others (equally, justly, compassionately, etc.), or how an individual should act in certain circumstances (courageously, temperately, chastely, etc.). But this view tends to ignore individual capacities such as physical and intellectual abilities. Because humans in a society are chiefly concerned with organizing individual interests and adjudicating competing claims, this other-directed understanding makes sense from a social-political standpoint. Yet from a purely philosophical position, this view remains unfounded. Under the basic definition, ethics comprises the qualities a human being should or should not possess and the actions she should or should not perform. Thus, in addition to not wrongly depriving her fellow humans of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, a person should be intelligent and fit. By this statement I mean simply that, all things considered, it is better to be more intelligent rather than less intelligent and more physically fit rather than less fit.

Consider Aristotle’s definition of the function of human beings: “activity of the soul in accord with reason or requiring reason.”3 A human being exercises reason. He thinks. But reasoned thought alone does not constitute the nature of humanity. The capacity for reason may distinguish humans from animals, but humans also have bodies. A human who merely thinks of the right things to do is not good; she must also act so as to carry out those reasoned intentions. Human beings are creatures capable of acting in accordance with reason.

In order to be ethical, humans must act, and action requires movement of one’s body. For any movement, three primary questions arise: 1) how much force must the agent apply?, 2) over what distance must the agent apply that force? and 3) how fast must the agent apply that force? Similarly, in order to judge the ethical status of an individual’s courage, we might ask 1) how much courage is required?, 2) for how long must that courage be displayed? and 3) how readily must the agent undertake the courageous action? Just as the answers to the latter three questions define ethical standards for the character traits and actions necessary to be courageous, the answers to the former three questions define ethical precepts for human movement. They provide the minimum standards for how a human being should be capable of moving.
1. How much force must an agent apply?
In a previous article, I stated my belief that a functional human being should be able to lift a relatively heavy object off the ground. The benefits of this action to the agent himself include improved core and trunk stability and improved posterior hip and leg strength, all of which are essential for a healthy spine and optimal physical performance.

Now imagine you find yourself in a burning building. Another person lies unconscious on the ground in front of you. Obviously, you should help this person to safety if it is within your power to do so without greatly endangering your own well-being. The question becomes whether or not you are strong enough to lift and move this lifeless body.

To plead weakness out of ignorance, that you never developed the requisite strength because you never expected to find yourself in such a situation seems at first an acceptable, if unfortunate, response. Yet an adult’s claim that he never expected to be in a dangerous situation seems little excuse for his cowardice, just as a capable adult claiming she never expected to be without a calculator seems little excuse for her not knowing multiplication tables. While uncontrollable circumstances like age or physical or mental disability might serve as acceptable excuses, ignorance does not.

That said, it seems unreasonable to presume that a trim 120-pound woman should lift a 400-pound sumo wrestler. Likewise, one should not expect an octogenarian or a pre-adolescent child to complete this task. But a healthy adult between the ages of 20 and 35 is certainly capable of lifting his or her own body weight. These considerations lead us to the following ethical precept for human movement:
Precept 1: A human being should be able to lift an object equal in weight to his or her own body off the ground.
Corollary: A human being should be able to deadlift his or her own body weight.

The Ethics of Human Movement continues in Part 2.

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1. Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Existentialism.” Basic Writings of Existentialism, Ed.Gordon Marino, New York: Modern Library, 2004, p. 355.
2.  Shafer-Landau, RussEthical Thoery. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007, p. xi.
3. Aristotle. “The Nature of Virtue.” Ethical Thoery, Ed. Russ Shafer-Landau, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007, p. 671.

3 thoughts on “The Ethics of Human Movement (Part 1)

  1. But there are different types of fitness…would you fault a marathon runner for being able to run very quickly over a long distance, but being unable to lift someone out of a burning building? Perhaps a bodybuilder could lift a sumo wrestler from a burning building, but he could not run for help as effectively as a marathoner. Do humans have an obligation to aim for a middle ground or is simply achieving any type of physical excellence sufficient in your view?

  2. First, please remember that this piece is only part one of a two-part article. Next month's piece will address standards of range of motion and speed. That said, specialists like marathoners and bodybuilders exist in any realm of human capabilities. I wouldn't consider Rain Man intellectually gifted despite his card-counting ability, nor the bravest man good if he was also cruel. In this piece and the next, I lay out what I consider to be the minimum standards for human movement. So yes, I believe all healthy humans in early-middle adulthood, including elite marathoners, should be capable of lifting their own body weight off the ground. I believe they should also be capable of covering a certain distance at a minimum speed (more on that next month). In answer to your last question, I think the advice of college admissions counselors encouraging prospective students to be either well-rounded or well-obliqued serves as a useful analogy. Colleges value students who do well in several different fields and students who devote significant time and effort to excel in just a few pursuits. Yet even the best athletes must earn a minimum score on standardized tests, and a gifted mathematician deficient in all other pursuits is often encouraged to take on another interest to enhance her application.

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