Habits

Aristotle defined moral action as a kind of habit, and his definition will be obscure unless we understand the way in which almost all human actions and operations are habitual. When the average person grabs a fork, for example, they grab it in such a way that they can scoop up food with it and get it into their mouths. That’s a learned habit. Two-year-olds don’t grab forks that way- they can’t even grab food in any sort of ordered way. They don’t even recognize that they need to go to the bathroom, or avoid running into the street, or blow their nose. Habitual human activity is involved in any activity that rises above rolling on the floor and screaming whenever you are hungry. Habit can be involved more and less in the process- it seems less involved in crawling and more in walking- but the role of habit is indispensable.

Habit is a channel and focus for a natural power which is required for a person to act well. Habits perfect powers, and in so doing perfect action and the one who acts. We have such an utter dependence on our habits that it is hard to overestimate their importance- habits are so much a part of our action that we tend to forget their even there.

There is a tendency to over-compartmentalize moral actions into a special moral sphere, and we might be tempted to say that the sort of “oughts” that are involved in the way one ought to use a fork are not moral oughts. This does not seem right. A person who chose to eat or act like a two-year-old would be doing something morally wrong. He would be rude, selfish, and self absorbed. There is a strong likeness between being a child and being a vicious man. Neither one has good habits- the child in an excusable and inevitable way, the vicious man not.

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