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sister act ii: back in the habit

If there’s one thing I got out of studying philosophy, it’s an appreciation for the obvious. A tremendous amount of contemporary philosophy is focused on the margins, the controversies, the errors and triumphs. You get crowds of people jostling and shoving around the same few trees, ignoring the wood at large. So it is with my favourite ethicist, Aristotle. A great deal of the contemporary discourse around virtue ethics has been about its metaethical grounding, its capacity to do work beyond codifying normativity, all the usual axe-grinding of moral theory. What I think goes a little underappreciated is just how right Aristotle was about human behavioural development, over 2,300 years ago.

Aristotle believed that virtue was cultivated through habituation: good character, by whatever standard, is a product of one’s actions and behaviour over time. Bad habits can be broken, but only through deliberate practice, usually over the course of months or years. He even held (in what would be regarded today as a very bullet-bitey stance) that some habituation was irreversible: he did not think so-called ‘barbarians’ could ever become virtuous citizens in the Greek sense.

Of course, this is where you start getting caught up in the debate and controversy – Aristotle’s views on slavery and women have not exactly aged well. But what has stood the test of time is that humans really are creatures of habit. Breaking old patterns of behaviour and instilling new ones is, for most people, a matter of considerable effort. The bad habits we pick up over our lifetimes can be maddeningly difficult to shirk, and almost everyone has had their best intentions about a new year’s resolution wither in the face of the first loss of enthusiasm. A habit, in contrast, is something you do on good days and bad days, for better or worse. And a lot of the behaviours we consider good or virtuous, are indeed grounded in habit. Exercise? Manners? Punctuality? Kindness? Conscientiousness? You can’t flick those on and off at will – they have to be built up over time. That’s not to say that habits are automatic or mindless. Most good habits need to be maintained with some degree of effort, and it is easy to fall out of good habits we enjoy and into bad ones. We can even be conscious that we are suffering because of bad habits, and yet be unable to overcome them. It’s the difference between swimming with the tide and against it: you always have to paddle, but the current underneath you has a dramatic influence.

If this seems obvious, it hasn’t always been. The deontological and consequentialist schools of ethics, via Bentham and Kant, come at morality with a much greater emphasis on conscious decision-making. Yet a lot of contemporary behavioural science seems to bear out Aristotle’s emphasis on habituation: our actions are far more a product of where we’ve come from than where we are at any given moment. We don’t decide to be generous or selfish on an act-by-act or rule-oriented basis – it’s a predisposition long in the making, under the surface, waiting to be engaged by circumstance.

Where am I going with all this? “Well Marge, self-improvement has always been a passion of mine”. So I’m going to try and leverage the accountability of this site in the service of developing better habits. I’ve had several in mind for a few months now, and success has been, shall we say, intermittent. So I’m committing to a kind of meta-habit: assessing how well I’ve held to my habit goals on a weekly basis, with a post about it every Sunday. My current habit goals are:

– read a book for 30m+ every day
– 30m+ of exercise 4+ days a week
– sensory excercises for 20m a day while walking
– concentration meditation for 10m+ a day
– play guitar/sing for an hour 4+ days a week
– play harmonica for 30m 4+ days a week

If I did every one of these things every single day, it would still only be 3 hours a day, which in my current circumstances should be trivial. The obstacle is inertia and persistence, not time. So from this coming Sunday I’ll be celebrating my successes and owning up to my failings on a weekly basis, which I suppose is a worthwhile habit in and of itself. See you on Sunday??? :[]

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