Exercising Your Moral Muscles

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In a previous article (see Confessions of a Carnivore) I wrote about my personal experimentation with vegetarianism.  Every year for one month, I abstain from eating meat of any kind (yes, that includes fish.) As I mentioned in the prior article, I do this because I think it is beneficial for my health, beneficial for the planet, and it helps me to test and strengthen my willpower or “self-regulation.” 

Research (See Roy Baumeister’s work here, here, and here) shows that self-regulation acts as a muscle, and it can be strengthened.  Exercising your will in one area, can bring you more discipline in other areas of your life.  Denying yourself something (anything that you feel attached to) can serve to strengthen and hone your will, and improving your sense of discipline can have powerful positive consequences on just about everything you do.

In some religious practices, this form of asceticism or “self-denial” is thought to be spiritually purifying.  Christians practice “lent” where they give something up for forty days (representative of the 40 days in the Bible that Jesus spent enduring the temptations of Satan.) Some historians report that lent historically meant giving up all animal products in one’s diet. 

Today, many religious practices are more relaxed, allowing people to select one favorite food or activity that they would like to abstain from. Over the years I have experimented with not only giving up meat, but also trying a month without chocolate or a month without alcohol.  These kinds of trials are not only physically healthy, but I believe they develop psychological skills that serve me well in my life. 

Although I am not religious, the spiritual impact of these practices is not lost on me, since some scientists argue that developing self-regulation is the key to developing a strong sense of morality.  (Baumeister suggests that not only is self regulation “like a muscle” in that it can be fatigued and strengthened, but it is also thought of as “the moral muscle” because it is the skill that allows us to deny our own self-interests to serve the greater good.) 

We often think of willpower as the ability to delay gratification, or as psychologist Walter Mischel, puts it to “postpone immediate gratification and persist in goal-directed behavior for the sake of later outcomes.”  In other words, to deny ourselves what we want now, for a preferable long term goal in the future. 

But to be a good member of society, willpower is also required to deny our individual desires for the benefit of the planet or the community.   Baumeister also refers to self-control as the “master virtue” because of its role in “overcoming selfish or antisocial impulses for the sake of what is best for the group.”  Doing the right thing often requires willpower, so exercising your strength of will is indeed a soul-cleansing experience.

As you think about your New Year’s resolutions, you are probably considering some fitness goals, and hoping to exercise your muscles in new ways in the months ahead.  Don’t forget your moral muscles . . . they could use the exercise too.

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8 Responses to Exercising Your Moral Muscles

  1. Stacy (@TheZenGirl) January 26, 2011 at 8:19 pm #

    Self-discipline is so important. As a small business owner, it can be difficult at times to stay motivated and do what’s best or the most productive in the moment. But, sticking with it and doing what is needed in line with the long-term goal is crucial to success. Thanks for the reminder that self-discipline, although does not offer instant gratification, counts in the long run!

  2. Marie-Josee Shaar January 27, 2011 at 10:17 am #

    Another great post, J!

    I remember hearing Baumeister say that self-regulation is the basis for civility. Without it he says, we’d try to eat our neighbor’s dinner at a restaurant when we are hungry and the dish looks nice, would instantly fight anyone we are angry with, would be unashamed to pass others in line and would never file our taxes when no return is due.

    So I applaud your suggestion. How about no TV for a month, anyone?


  3. Jeremy McCarthy January 27, 2011 at 11:25 pm #

    Thanks Marie-Josee! I took a year off of TV once. You wouldn’t believe how much I accomplished in that year!

  4. colorado fitness centers March 5, 2011 at 11:20 am #

    Good article but I am curious, what is your source of protein? For a bodybuilder I wouldnt recommend this article to a bodybuilder but will recommend to someone who it just trying to stay healthy without performing strenuous exercise.

  5. Jeremy McCarthy March 5, 2011 at 8:40 pm #

    Hi Colorado,

    Most bodybuilders are always going to follow some kind of specialized diet to be sure they get enough protein. However, there are vegetarian and even vegan bodybuilders. It is possible to get plenty of protein on a vegetarian diet from dairy, grains, legumes, soy, etc. In my “Confessions of a Carnivore” I wrote about how my inspiration came from a friend of mine who played tennis for several hours a day on a vegetarian. It is not hard to practice strenuous exercise on a vegetarian diet, although that is sometimes hard for us carnivores to believe. Thanks for reading!

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