Moral Habits

 Posted by on 11 December 2002 at 3:50 pm  Uncategorized
Dec 112002

I am presently working on a paper on Aristotle’s theory of moral habits. As many of you know, I have a longstanding interest in this subject, as evidenced in my WashU honors thesis “Between Instinct and Habit” and my 1999 lecture “Moral Habits” to the TOC Summer Seminar. (My views on the process of habituation have, however, shifted significantly over the years.)

In my view, moral habits are integral to our understanding of moral development and decision-making. They show us how to deeply integrate abstract virtues into the messy particulars daily life. They are the best (and perhaps only) answer to the challenge posed by the Prudent Predator, as well as integral to making sense of Rand’s “no value” argument for virtue. As such, moral habits are an excellent companion to the Objectivist ethics. Although I plan to write up such an argument for submission to JARS or elsewhere, my present paper (for my Aristotle class) will concern only the Aristotelian conception of moral habits.

Unfortunately, Aristotle’s theory of moral habits is easy to misunderstand as either mechanistic or emotionalistic. (I myself have made such errors of interpretation in past writings.) But neither of these interpretations makes sense of Aristotle’s account — sketchy though it may be — of the central role of moral habits in cultivating virtue. Instead, as I am arguing in the paper, we ought to follow Nancy Sherman’s lead in understanding the process of habituation as the development of “increasingly fine powers of discernment” in our “perceptual, affective, and deliberative capacities” (Nancy Sherman, “The Habituation of Moral Character” in Aristotle’s Ethics, 232-3).

I’ll be turning in the paper on Friday, so I hope to get it posted on the web site shortly thereafter. I’ll make an announcement here, of course.

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