Photo by Bev Childress
Photo by Bev Childress
Modern Western culture has witnessed the slow erosion of many values it once held dear. Driven by endless opportunity for mindless consumption, most have stopped contemplating how to best live their lives and find purpose. Narcissism, consumerism, and moral relativism have combined to create a convenience-oriented culture that is typically far more concerned about rights (what I get) than responsibilities (what I do).
The human inclination to justify our own actions has magnified to epic heights only to leave our people alienated and emotionally fractured. The result is a growing mental health crisis. While I’ve often advocated an earnest quest for truth and intentional values as the path to fulfillment, I’ve recently been surprised to read more and more classical texts that profess the value of “physical morality.” Sure, we’ve known that respect for our human biological needs to move and exercise improves both health and happiness. Yet, I’d never made the jump from human need to ethical requirement. Could it really be a moral obligation to respect and train our physical bodies?
A superficial scan of the environment might seem to contradict any concept of physical morality? For many, religion is the primary source of what is right and wrong. The most popular religion of the West is Christianity, where my experience shows very little example of physical duty. Priests and pastors seem to look and eat like the average American. I’ve never heard of a sermon promoting physical morality and I’m fairly certain that most services end with the consumption of donuts, cookies, and sugar-infused drinks.
For the more intellectually inclined, their individual moral concepts might be created with the direction of philosophy, ethics, sociology, and psychology courses. Yet, again, my considerable time sitting in these classes and reading these texts never prompted contemplation about physical morality. Still, others are only socialized through public schools that continue to de-emphasize health and physical education while promoting a daily bouquet of sweets and sitting. One is left to conclude that clearly fitness and ethical responsibility have little to do with each other.
Yet, I believe these are all just symptoms of our time—an era that is more concerned about feelings and safe dogmas than nuanced truth and dialogue. We have forgotten the truth of physical morality and find ourselves in a human spiritual crisis, at least somewhat caused by our neglect of this notion. A scan of most religious and cultural traditions indicates a long history of respect for the principles of physical morality. In all five of the world’s dominant religions—Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—there is an extensive history of fasting. The mastery of consumption has always been a prerequisite to human spirituality.
Christianity features verses prompting adherents to “Honor God with your bodies” because they are “temples of the holy spirit.” Sloth and gluttony, 2 out of 7 deadly sins, refer to neglecting responsibilities for physical morality. Likewise, ethical philosophies, like Stoicism, have always promoted periods of voluntary discomfort and physical refinement as necessities to personal growth and actionable moral constitution. And most great cultures, from the Athenians to the 19th century Germans to the early 20th century United States, believed physical fitness and health should be a full third of the educational formula.
Still, the best argument I know of for physical morality comes from British Philosopher Herbert Spencer who wrote:
“We do not yet realize the truth that as…the physical underlies the mental, the mental must not be developed at the expense of the physical…. Perhaps nothing will so much hasten the time when body and mind will both be adequately cared for, as a diffusion of the belief that the preservation of health is a duty. Few seem conscious that there is such a thing as physical morality. Men’s habitual words and acts imply the idea that they are at liberty to treat their bodies as they please. Disorders entailed by disobedience to Nature’s dictates, they regard simply as grievances: not as the effects of a conduct more or less flagitious. Though the evil consequences inflicted on their dependents, and on future generations, are often as great as those caused by crime; yet they do not think themselves in any degree criminal.”
What is morality if not adherence to Nature’s dictates? How is it okay to consistently abuse and neglect the vessel from which we experience and operate in the world? Physical morality is a justifiable element of every ethical code because the maintenance of physical health and vigor amplifies the individual’s ability to behave morally and contribute positively in every other realm. Physical morality does not argue that we must attain a certain level of physical ability. It is not an excuse for the strong to humiliate the weak, but rather for all to bond over mutual self-development—that we should respect our individual physical bodies and seek a balanced approach to its nourishment and vitality.
The best defense for physical morality is modern life. The absence of models or socially prioritized development promoting healthy living indoctrinates generations with habits that ensure the pains and limitations of malaise. Society’s lack of intentionality is exploited masterfully by saboteurs of health happy to sell addiction.
When looking at the state of physical and emotional health and the tremendous financial and experiential tolls our future generations face as a consequence of our physical decay, it is hard to argue that the way we are raising kids is unacceptable. A Harvard study on child obesity indicates that of today’s youth, over 57% will be obese by the time they are 35. Actions mean more than words, particularly in the realm of physical morality. Our example shapes the next generation more than any other factor, and right now that is the problem.
As I’ve explained in my article on how to define and act on your values, values are concepts of truth we aspire towards and constantly grow towards understanding better. While we may never have a perfect understanding of these targets, by aiming at them we are far better off than just pretending there is no right or wrong.
If anything has hurt humanity on a collective and individual level it is the belief that morals are all relative and it’s just as well to live in an impulsive pursuit of hedonistic pleasure. Hello, depression. Whether intentional or not, we all adopt values and their proximity to truth along with how we live up to them is the best determinant of our fulfillment. For most a set of values has been adopted that is creating the expectations, attitudes, and likelihood of mindless manipulation that are starving the human spirit.
Concepts of morality are not important so that people can feel morally superior, they are essential because they promote the common good. The point of my argument is not for fitness enthusiasts to pat themselves on the back while condemning those less active. The purpose is to acknowledge that our society conditions sedentary, junk food infused lifestyles and that we have a duty to address this.
By fighting to recapture an ethos of physical morality, we can create more successful, fulfilled generations. A society that does not share central values will grow increasingly alienated and hostile. We must share more than space and legal codes. We must define the pursued truths that bind us and collectively work to instill these in future generations. As it stands now, the only major influencers fighting to create values in society are the marketing gurus of our Saboteurs of Health in America. Schools must begin to combat them.
Define Physical Morality
Of all moral concepts, perhaps none is more overlooked and more essential than physical morality. Certainly, all values should be balanced to create a nuanced view of morality that avoids extremes. Physical Morality is only one element of ethical development and I am certainly not claiming to have authority in the realm of ethics.
There are certainly far more moral people than I, many of which don’t necessarily prioritize their health. Furthermore, a capable body cultivated without other ethical domains is susceptible to fascism, religious fundamentalism, or any other tyrannical ethic. What’s more, any virtue in the extreme can be a vice. My argument is not that people are immoral if they don’t value health, but simply that physical morality belongs in the pantheon of moral qualities and it is a vital part of the discussion, that most have forgotten.
At the root of human existence is the physical body from which we interpret the world. Just as baby’s minds are developed through physical experience and based upon the physical vehicle, so do the ethics of a strong society. How can we create the highest contribution to those around us, if we do not respect our physical bodies and their needs? At the very least, we have a lower ethical ceiling when we don’t honor physical morality.
Traditional concepts of physical morality are probably not what you’d imagine. Physical morality is not characterized by the locked up meathead who can’t reach back to pull off his shirt, or the narcissistic toned gal snapping gym selfies in her bra each day.
While the 1980’s brought us the bizarre conception of “manliness” as steroid infused hyper-masculinity, physical morality has traditionally abhorred the idea of any fitness extreme. It has always been a balanced image of healthy physical vigor—far more Audi Murphy and John F. Kennedy (two actual American Heroes) than John Cena or Schwarzenegger’s Commando.
In the 1980’s Clint Eastwood and the Marlboro man, with their quiet confidence, were replaced by less adaptable extreme images of what a man should look like. But what about ladies? If classical concepts of physical morality focused on men, perhaps that is where we can take the old and improve.
The pre 5th century BCE Athenian moral code “sought organic harmony and stressed an elementary curriculum in which grace and poise were not subordinate to stamina and physical endurance”. Similarly, notions such as Georges Hebert’s Natural Method had a very strong vision of physical morality’s goals being to “make strong beings, not specialists…, but beings developed physically in a complete and useful manner.”
Physical morality has always harmonized both feminine and masculine qualities. This paradox marks the nuanced balance where truth typically lies. Best expressed in the Daoist Yin-Yang, Eastern philosophies have long understood the harmony of feminine and masculine. We are individuals, and while women may gravitate towards feminine expression more than men, both must honor their authentic selves with complete, complex development.
“Womanhood” and “manliness” both require strong physical vitality and the authentic expression of the individual’s true masculine and feminine nature. Raw power and intensity are useless and damaging without balance, mobility, and restraint, just as patience and compassion without discipline or firm boundaries lead to docile victimhood. Woman and man, alike, thrive when respecting a sense of physical morality.
Spirit and Energy
Physical morality is not only physical training and ability but an ethos that directs this path towards useful inclinations. Hebert’s Natural Method was responding to the decreased physical wellbeing and capability that followed industrialization. He believed, “only the strong will become useful in the difficult circumstances of life…”. Strength, as Hebert uses it, is better conceived as fitness.
We must be fit to be useful—a notion that holds just as much significance today, despite our increased mechanization. In fact, this essential element of human thriving must become even more of a point of emphasis as our world demands less moving. Without it, we are simply less capable, and less human.
Training the body teaches what Hebert would call “moral energy.” Theodore Roosevelt considered a “strenuous life” the only path to moral living. In their minds, physical laziness begets mental laziness. Physical training requires one to explore their own limitations, strategize, adapt, and overcome adversity. It requires one to master their impulses to become the guide of their own lives.
The practice of exercise over time is the discipline of willingly entering discomfort in the short term for a long-term good. Physical morality respects the body and promotes energy over malaise through consistent practice. Coaches have long preached to teams about “heart,” which seems to be best encapsulated by teammates grinding through physical adversity to find inner strength. While moral strength is possible without physical training, I doubt it is as common in a physically deprived society.
“A soft, easy life is not worth living if it impairs the fiber of brain and heart and muscle. We must dare to be great, and we must realize that greatness is the fruit of toil and sacrifice and high courage… For us is the life of action, of strenuous performance of duty; let us live in the harness, striving mightily; let us rather run the risk of wearing out than rusting out.”
– Theodore Roosevelt
A shared value system must be instilled that clarifies heroism and pushes us towards our heroic capabilities. What is the hero? She is physically capable, mentally resilient, morally inclined, and purposefully brave. Is citizenship at all a goal for our children? How can we preach rights without responsibilities?
Bravery, selflessness, and integrity are virtues predicated on activities and experiences. Like cognitive and physical skills, these virtues must be refined through practice and the best practice is rooted in shared physical development—in physical rites of passage. The fragility of young-adults’ characteristic of growing up in a world devoid of honesty, constructive criticism, expectations, and consequences do not serve them, long-term.
As Ben Sasse asserts in his book, The Vanishing American Adult, “We should be figuring out how to help build them a menu of really hard tasks to tackle.”
Physical rites of passage are the most powerful way to develop self-actualized, united people with shared values. To teach morality without ever physically demonstrating virtues is like learning to cook from reading a book while never touching food. The idea of a rite of passage itself is rooted in a physical experience that creates understanding.
We live in the physical world and are most inspired by the physical act—the epic heroic story. Nothing unites us like the physical challenge- the proximity and raw vulnerability of shared physical challenge. Picture the team cheering on a teammate as she embarks on arduous training or the chills you feel while watching movie scenes displaying physical heroism.
Let’s shift the conversation from what we want, to what we want to be capable of. What do we want to become? Healthy dialogue is the backbone of strong communities and there has been too little promoting the duties and values that develop great people.