Thursday, July 16, 2009

a very brief and quick meditation on Aristotle concerning character

Aristotle was particularly concerned about the virtues of ethical character. It was obvious to him that habituation based on repeated exposure to particular kinds of experiences influenced an ethical agent along two entangled matrices: (a) what one professes to believe about particular ethical propositions such as “Courage is a virtue” and (b) how one actually conducts oneself ethically in the messy details of everyday life. Aristotle lays some groundwork early in his ethical treatise:

Hence it is also clear that none of the virtues of character arise in us naturally. For if something is by nature in one condition, habituation cannot bring it into another condition. A stone, for instance, by nature moves downwards, and habituation could not make it move upwards, not even if you threw it up ten thousand times to habituate it; nor could habituation make fire move downwards, or bring anything that is by nature in one condition into another condition. And so the virtues arise in us neither by nature nor against nature. Rather, we are by nature able to acquire them, and we are completed through habit. (Nicomachean Ethics Book II, chapter 1, §2)

To sum up in a single account: a state [of character] results from [the repetition of] similar activities. That is why we must perform the right activities, since differences in these imply corresponding differences in the states. (Book II, chapter 1, §7-§8)

First, then, we should observe that these sorts of states naturally tend to be ruined by excess and deficiency. We see this happen with strength and health — for we must use evident cases [such as these] as witnesses to things that are not evident. For both excessive and deficient exercise ruin bodily strength, and, similarly, too much or too little eating or dinking ruins health, whereas the proportionate amount produces, increases, and preserves it. (Book II, chapter 2, §6)

The same is true, then, of temperance, bravery, and the other virtues. For if, for instance, someone avoids and is afraid of everything, standing firm against nothing, he becomes cowardly; if he is afraid of nothing at all and goes to face everything, he becomes rash. (Book II, chapter 2, §7)

For example, one may claim to believe that courage is a virtue, but the only way in which both to profess this authentically and to have this belief function as part of one’s character is to experience scenarios in which one is challenged to behave courageously. Furthermore, one must successfully practice courageous actions in the face of those challenges. Once such successes become more the rule than not, one may say that one has acquired the virtue of courage that is expressed in an integrated manner by both verbal profession and habitual action. For Aristotle, there is no other way to acquire both the belief and the character trait.

Moral agents, including readers of this blog, possess a range of possible moral and immoral actions that they could right now, in the moment, perform and fail to perform. Even stronger, moral agents have a range of moral and immoral actions springing from habit that they could not fail to perform or could not help but performing. This is why, for example, the phenomenon of addiction is so powerful and frustrating. Addiction circumvents one’s best intentions and the most noble of one’s tragically powerless volitions to the contrary. These actions that moral agents may hate nevertheless spring forth largely as a result of a complex structure of dispositions, habits, and automatic responses that are embedded within their moral characters. These moral characters represent the social and moral identities of these agents and the complex substance of their life histories.

Aristotle was well aware of this moral psychology, and he deployed his insights to great effect in his Nicomachean Ethics, his masterpiece of ethical meditation on how one becomes virtuous. If one lacks the virtue of courage, then one must undergo a formation regimen, not unlike the athlete who trains her body and mind through specific and regular exercise programs in order to stress them into the sort of athletic compliance that one might call one’s “second nature.” The well trained athlete in the heat of the moment simply performs, as if by instinctual second nature. What is invisible to the casual observer is the lengthy, disciplined training regimen that makes possible the effortless-seeming athletic virtuosity. Sports commentators even have a phrase for this majestic phenomenon: being “in the zone.” In a similar vein, the one who has invested spiritual energy to become courageous has done so through a largely invisible life history in which the agent has been courted towards either courage or cowardice. To the degree that such pressure scenarios have resulted in volitions towards courage, the habit of courage is founded, nurtured, and solidified. Other candidate virtues can be similarly analyzed, such as generosity and patience. An exactly similar analysis can be given to the acquisition of vices, such as gluttony and miserliness. The key idea for Aristotle in all such analyses is habit. The cliché that “practice makes perfect,” though indeed a cliché, expresses a powerful truth about the human condition, whether the practice is towards virtue or vice. Consistent, intentional practice yields a habit, and moral character is largely a collection of one’s habits. It is not an accident that the notion of virtue is connected with the notion of a habitual disposition or power, and these notions are a powerful tool for understanding how it is that persons become just or wicked.

Consider what one is actually saying when one says of another, “He has become powerless to do otherwise.” One is inchoately implicating a life history of experiences and choices that have engraved determinative gutters within the agent in question, where his actions have become the runoff of his character.