Habit & Virtue: Aristotle's Good

Unlike most ethical frameworks, Aristotle provides an account of the good that puts emphasis on the virtues of one’s own character. over the moral implications of an individual. This means that what matters when defining the ethical or moral, i.e. the 'good'; is who you are in a given situation, rather than what you do in that same situation. As such, Aristotle claims that one cannot be virtuous without having a virtuous character. By this, Aristotle means that in order to be good, one must develop a good person out of themselves through a process of habituation. Another way of putting this is that becoming a good person is much like learning a musical instrument, and moral virtue is a skill one acquires through practice.

The aim of this post is to summarize what Aristotle means by ‘habituation’, and why he thinks it plays such an important role in ethical development. Moreover, I will consider whether or not this infers a certain 'unreflectiveness' in the moral development of a virtuous person, and whether or not that is problematic. However, it is not only the virtuous person that I have in mind for this paper - but also the person that does good unwillingly, and as such, unreflectively as well. As you will soon see, I will use a fictional story as a thought experiment to explore the implications of habituation in Aristotle's virtue-based moral framework.


To fully grasp what Aristotle has in mind when he speaks of ‘virtues’, we must look at his depiction of the human soul. Aristotle distinguishes between three different parts of the human soul; this characterization is often referred to as the ‘Tripartite Soul’. There is the ‘plant-like’ part of the soul, which is shared with all living creatures and is in charged of our basic functions, such as breathing, eating, digesting, and so on. Generally speaking, this part of the soul is unimportant to Aristotle’s ethical theory. Next, we have the non-rational part of the soul, which shares in reason in so far as it listens to it, but does not necessarily obey it at all times. In De Anima, Aristotle calls this the perceptive part of the soul, because it is distinct by its capacity for sensing and perceiving the world around us. There is also the rational part of the soul, where we find practical and intellectual wisdom. This part of the soul is what distinguishes human from other creatures, as it allows us to engage in higher reasoning.

What makes the rational and the non-rational parts of the soul distinct, even though both share in reason, is that these parts of the soul are constantly at odds with one another. With almost every decision, there is a psychic conflict between the two - and ethical virtue emerges from a balanced interdependence of the rational and perceptive parts of the soul. When faced with a decision that has moral implications, the right action will be the one that holds oneself in a sort of stability between these two parts of the soul. It is in this sense that it is important to understand the ‘Tripartite Soul”, as virtue is, in short, an excellence of the soul to appropriately balance these two conflicting sides. In accordance with this division of the soul (and ignoring the nutritive part), Aristotle states that there are two corresponding sorts of virtue: virtue of thought and virtue of character. The former is exercised in the rational part of the soul, while the latter in the perceptive part. Furthermore, Aristotle posits that “intellectual virtue [i.e. virtue of thought] owes both its birth and its growth to teaching, while moral virtue [i.e. virtue of character] comes about as a result of habit” (Nicomachean Ethics 1103a14-17). However, Aristotle also argues that we cannot have virtue of character without virtue of thought, and vice versa.


The two are as (if not more), interdependent as their corresponding parts of the soul. The idea is that an individual will not be able to ascertain the rational choice if they do not have virtue of thought. That is, the right choice can only become clear to you if you have a faculty for reason. Moreover, an individual will not truly have virtue of thought if they do not have moral virtue, and as such cannot have a virtuous character. This premise is trickier than the previous one, but it can be understood as such: a virtuous person, with virtue of thought and character, would seek out ends that are ultimately good for their own sake, because it is most reasonable and most virtuous, according to Aristotle. To seek out means to another end, however, while it may involve the application of reason - is a meaningless pursuit outside of that end. In this sense, we can see that by having a faculty for reason, without a virtue of character, is not the same as having a virtue of thought. Another way of looking at this is that virtue of character entails an understanding of the good, which is necessary for Aristotle’s conception of virtue of thought.


Now that we have generally described the large category of virtues one ought to seek out to become a good person, let us move on to how we can attain them. According to Aristotle, virtue cannot simply be attained through the study of ethics. That is not to say that having an understanding of the good is not necessary for being a virtuous person - this would contradict his position on the relationship between virtue of thought and virtue of character. Rather, Aristotle is rejecting the idea that one can become a good person by refraining from interacting with the world, to instead read books on ethics and the virtues.

Moreover, virtue cannot come to an individual naturally, either. By this, I mean that if one is born with a knowledge of the good, and makes no effort to do good, but their existing results in supposedly good things - then they are not really virtuous in Aristotle’s framework. This seems intuitive, as being born into goodness would defeat the purpose of one’s own actions. If you already have a virtuous character, there would be no reason to go on to do virtuous things. Yet, if we do not act virtuously, what ground do we have to claim ourselves virtuous? Aristotle puts it this way “For if something is by nature in one condition, habituation cannot bring it into another”, the condition being that of virtue in this case (NE 1103a19-25). Which finally brings us to the topic of habituation.


Instead of becoming virtuous by nature or knowledge alone, Aristotle posits that one attains a virtuous character by way of forming habits through a process of repeated activity, i.e. habituation. It is in this sense that “virtues we acquire, just as we acquire crafts. . .”, wherein we learn crafts by producing the same product until we learn it (NE 1103a33). By this, Aristotle means that - similarly to the way we become builders by building, and we become musicians by practicing an instrument - we become virtuous people by doing virtuous actions. Think of it this way: every time you act generously, you develop yourself towards being a more generous person; every time you act bravely, you become a more brave person; every time you act justly, you become a more just person. This is how Aristotle views the process of acquiring virtues, and as such also the process of character development.

However, there seems to be an issue present in this detailing of how humans become ‘good’. Habituation, it sounds like, is simply a process of repetitive behavior. If that is the case, it may be reasonable to say that Aristotle thinks the good life is one of mindless routine; wherein we become virtuous by doing until we no longer need to reflect on our actions. The virtuous human, then, is one that need not think at all, but rather react to the stimuli of the world - so long as they react in accordance with virtue.

This cannot be the case if Aristotle wishes to keep rationality as the epitome of human function, as he seems to want to claim. To train oneself toward good to the point where the good action comes unreflectively and without thought is not the same as engaging in rational consideration before each action. However, Aristotle clearly defines the right choice by rational thought; and yet, his description of how we attain virtues infers the slow abandonment of our faculties of reason in exchange of behavioral patterns. At least as this description goes, these premises are clearly at odds with one another.


At this point, I believe I have provided a brief, but hopefully sufficient, description of Aristotle’s view of the soul, virtues, and how we attain them. I have also introduced a potential issue in his description, as the conflict between habituation and the application of rational thought in our process of character development. To further consider the implications of this philosophical conundrum, please indulge your faithful philosophy student for a moment, as I would now like to consider the philosophical inquiry presented in one of my favorite science fiction movies: A Clockwork Orange. In case you have not yet had the opportunity to read the novel or watch the film - I will provide a brief description of its plot as it pertains to Aristotle’s considerations of habit and virtue.

In a dystopian England of the future, a young man named Alex spends his nights getting high on violence-inducing drugs and committing brutal crimes. Once caught, Alex is sent to jail for the brutal murder of a defenseless woman. To gain his freedom, Alex must choose to undergo a brand new behavioral modification treatment known as The Ludovico Technique - which causes Alex to experience severe distress whenever he considers committing a violent act. Released back into the world, Alex is forced to make the ‘right’ choice, or at least not the ‘wrong’ choice, to avoid experiencing physical pain.

Now to the moral question of this case study: can we honestly claim that the ‘Ludovico Technique’ has installed goodness in Alex? To a certain extent, we must admit that the treatment has removed Alex’s habits of violence, as we do not see Alex engage in violence, or evil of any sort, afterward. Yet, I have this intuition (that I hope you share), that there must be some distinction between what Alex is doing and what Aristotle’s conception of virtuous person does. My first instinct is to claim that the Ludovico Technique not a process of habituation as Aristotle defines it, but supporting this claim is no easy task.

The behavioral modification treatment in this film is characterized by an association of bad with pain, and good with pleasure. With his eyes forced open, Alex is shown images of violence and is given medicine that creates distress. This may sound inhuman at the face of it, but in a number of ways it is not that different from how humans usually understand the process of improvement. If a child does something bad, we often believe it is the responsibility of a parent to punish them to stop them from doing it again. If a student fails to meet their academic responsibility, they are given a bad grade (regardless of the amount of distress this might create) to incentivize academic improvement. If an adult commits a crime, the judicial system punishes them accordingly. In a way, this is effectively how humans define justice.

Yet, this does nothing to change my intuition that Alex is not representative of Aristotle's virtuous person. We could go on to claim that it is because there is a certain level of severity in Alex’s case that Aristotle would consider to be excessive. However, I have found no such parameters of habituation that would indicate that the Ludovico Technique is excessive beyond meriting our consideration. That is not to say that Aristotle would endorse the Ludovico Technique. Rather, what I mean to say here, is that there must be a component missing in Alex’s transformation that Aristotle views as being essential to virtue; I will argue that it is the active use of reason in personal development, which brings us back to our concern for reflectiveness in the process of habituation.

Clearly, after undergoing the treatment, Alex no longer has control over his decisions. Through psychological association, Alex is robbed of his moral choice between good or bad, bent always towards choosing good. However, simply doing an action unreflectively is not the same as doing something deliberately. In Alex’s case, there is a sense in which he is almost not doing anything at all, but rather ‘reacting’ to the stimuli of the world and his own body. This is because virtue of thought never factors into Alex’s habitual training. Sure, he has associated the bad with the bad and good with the good, but not by reason. In other words, Alex cannot understand why acts of violence are wrong beyond their implications to his own well being.


Some might object to this position, claiming that there is no clear indication that Alex’s rational faculties are compromised. In fact, it could entirely be the case that Alex is reasoning very carefully. Alex might be reasoning perfectly fine about math or logic, and just has different ideas (or, perhaps no idea) about what's good and bad beyond their implications to his feeling of distress. In response to this objection, I would like to offer Aristotle's take on the difference between rational thought for the sake of the good and rational thought for some other end. This came up briefly earlier when discussing the relationship between virtue of character and virtue of thought. When one has both virtues of character and of thought, and applies them to their thinking of the world - they are deliberating, according to Aristotle. In contrast, when one uses their faculties of reason without either of these virtues - they are being clever, but are not deliberating. 

Aristotle sees a significant distinction between deliberation and cleverness, namely the understanding of the ‘good’. Aristotle describes the virtuous person as someone who is good at deliberation, and he describes deliberation as a process of rational inquiry. In Alex’s case, it is clear that there is no rational inquiry as Aristotle defines it, because there is no understanding of the good. The Ludovico Technique skips this essential part of habituating oneself to be virtuous. If Alex is reasoning and, he is doing so out of cleverness to avoid his own distress, and not as a deliberation for good.


In essence, this is the same problem we see when we consider the tension between habituation and reflectiveness. Ultimately, it depends on how we choose to define habituation. However, it is clear that Aristotle would not endorse a view of habituation that does not engage in deliberation - that is invoke rational inquiry. Without such inquiry, there is no understanding of the good, and consequently, there are no virtues. As such, we should not define habituation as a muscle memory developing process, aiming towards a mindless routine of supposedly good actions. In a way, this is not that different from the idea of natural virtue, that Aristotle already rejected. Instead, we should endorse a view of habituation as the practice of our rational faculties towards doing good; a potentially endless pursuit of self-improvement.


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