Saturday, November 7, 2009

Is Virtue a Habit?

According to Aristotle, virtue is a habit:

“Ethics is not merely a theoretical study for Aristotle. Unlike any intellectual capacity, virtues of character are dispositions to act in certain ways in response to similar situations, the habits of behaving in a certain way. Thus, good conduct arises from habits that in turn can only be acquired by repeated action and correction, making ethics an intensely practical discipline.” [Aristotle’s principal work on ethics is called the Nicomachean Ethics].

Aristotle believed that virtue as a habit requires an intentional choice when you begin. The habit of virtue is not yet developed, but over time one becomes used to behaving virtuously and after a while one acts virtuously without needing to use volition. You have become virtuous—it’s now part of you and how you act.

Aristotle’s theory leaves a lot of questions unanswered (some of those questions he addresses in other places). It doesn’t tell you which acts are virtuous or why, for example. As a guide to practical action, however, conceiving of virtue as a habit is useful.

Life can be complicated, and the more parts of it that you handle without needing to think about them, then the easier it gets. Much of my life is governed by habits, and that’s often the part of life that works the best. I get up when the alarm rings; brush my teeth; turn on the coffee; bring in the paper; and let the dog out.

I’m not sure that any of the acts really qualify as virtuous, but they all need to be done and the fact that I do them automatically makes life go easier.

I have often wondered whether the reason that complete sobriety works best for those with an addiction is simply that not drinking (or not whatever) becomes a habit. Perhaps a habit is a useful anecdote to a compulsion to wrongdoing.

Watch someone do something that they have done for years and do well, and chances are that they do it exactly the same way every time. Maybe they bounce the tennis ball twice before serving or put the ingredients in the bowl in the same order to make a cake, but success often becomes the result of habit. I think that’s one of the advantages we older, more experienced workers have over energetic youth. We’ve made habits out of much of the work that needs to be done.

When I worked at a large law firm, and pressures to bill sufficient hours were intense, I coped by never leaving the office until I had billed eight hours on that day. Some days, when I had a lot of unbillable hours, that meant long days, but the result was that I always made my quota of billable hours.

Now my work is different, but I’m still sustained by habits. On Fridays, I don’t leave the office until three blogs (for Saturday, Sunday and Monday) are ready for posting.

Since this essay completes my required number of blogs, good night and have a great weekend!

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