The Ethicist: Moral Superiority at the Gym

One of the most interesting features of philosophy is that it forces practitioners to notice the extraordinary in the ordinary. Part of its charm lies in its power to make what we might be tempted to take for granted look strange and intriguing. For the philosopher, everything and anything is a possible source of philosophical questions and considerations; nothing is too insignificant or too commonplace for philosophical analysis. This month, I want to turn my attention to the philosophically interesting aspects of going to the gym.

I recently joined a gym, concerned about the fact that, as I have entered my fifties, I can feel myself weakening, my body becoming both more fragile and less flexible. The gym is a fascinating place. Sociologically, it is entertaining to classify the types of persons one sees there into distinct groups: the slim young women dressed in tight, designer-labelled, skimpy clothing which displays every curve; the muscle-bound, tattooed men at the “serious” end of the gym; the fit trainers yelling “Just one more! You can do it!” at their flabby clients; and, of course, fat, middle-aged people like me in baggy sweatpants and t-shirts purchased at Giant Tiger and Walmart.

Philosophically, the gym is fascinating for two distinct reasons. First, it is a robustly and inescapably anti-Cartesian space. Faithful readers of this column will recall that I have been exploring Cartesian mind-body dualism and its implications. While I have argued that most of us now have a tendency to view ourselves in Cartesian terms, the gym is a place where the reality of our physical embodiment is inescapable. I know that I am embodied when my legs feel like jelly after I do some squats, or when my arms ache from time on the torturous rowing machine. Moreover, we are all there precisely because we are embodied: the entire purpose of working out is to improve our bodies – or to show them off.

Working out at the Reily Center (Source: By Tulane Public Relations [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Working out at the Reily Center (Photo by Tulane Public Relations, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)


Ethically speaking, however, the gym raises interesting questions about how many of us live now, and how we see others. In terms of how we live now, the fact that people like me (and the large number of other individuals I see trotting on the treadmills, lifting weights and working out on the various machines indicate that I am not alone) must go to the gym to get sufficient exercise demonstrates that many of us living in this time and place have sedentary occupations and that our bodies will suffer the consequences unless we make a special effort. Exercise has become something we have to plan for, something to make time for in our busy but physically undemanding lives.

I cannot imagine members of previous generations needing to go to the gym, nor, perhaps, even grasping the concept of having to make time for exercise, since most people living in the past got adequate exercise through their daily activities. Likewise, I suspect that many of the poorest people in the world today would find the idea of having to go to the gym to get exercise incomprehensible. The gym, then, for people like me, is both a luxury (I have to pay a fee to join and to maintain my membership, and I have to have enough leisure time to work out) and a necessity: if I don’t go, I will simply not get enough exercise through my normal activities.

Further, in terms of how we see ourselves, the gym is a strangely narcissistic place — a space in which moral virtue seems to correlate with physical fitness. While not everyone who works out is obsessed with the state of their body, it is clear that a sizable percentage are: the clothes they wear, the manner in which they ostentatiously draw attention to themselves while exercising, the way in which they examine themselves in the large mirrors that line the walls, all indicate an almost unhealthy focus on how their bodies look. There is clearly a social hierarchy at the gym, one that is primarily connected to looks: the young and slim not only look better than the old and fat, they also display an air of moral superiority, never smiling at, or even making eye contact with, those who are overweight and unfit (although those of us who fall into the latter category wish one another “a good workout”).

Sgt. Christopher Baksay (Photo by Sgt. Michael Selvage -, Public Domain,

Sgt. Christopher Baksay working out. (Photo by Sgt. Michael Selvage, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s certainly true, all things considered, that it is preferable to be in shape than out of shape, but it’s not at all clear that physical appearance and moral worth are necessarily aligned with one another. In this assumption, of course, the gym serves as a kind of microcosm for society more generally: studies have shown that beautiful people, whatever their other attributes and skills, are more successful in the workplace, and many of us are fixated on the lives and utterances of beautiful celebrities. Indeed, it is fair to say, most celebrities are celebrities precisely because they are beautiful. But we should not make the mistake of correlating physical beauty with moral character, because there is no necessary connection between the two at all.

In short, then, the gym is not simply a value-neutral place in which people can work out; it is a space that reflects larger societal assumptions and values. Readers of the Cape Breton Spectator might like to think about other places and spaces in the culture which similarly tell us something about how we see ourselves, and what we value: what does the mall reveal about Canadian society right now, or the movie theater? A small, independently owned coffee shop compared to a franchise like Tim Hortons? And what might we reveal about ourselves, about what we value and think important, through the ways in which we choose to spend our money and our time? These things are both philosophically interesting and ethically important.

Featured photo: Feet on treadmills by U.S. Air Force Photo/Staff Sgt Araceli Alarcon, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons


Rachel Haliburton


Wolfville native Rachel Haliburton teaches philosophy at the University of Sudbury. Her latest book, The Ethical Detective: Moral Philosophy and Detective Fiction, was published in February by Lexington Books.