Archive for the ‘habit’ Tag
If you are a regular follower of this blog, you have probably noted that the last few months have not been particularly fruitful. Defending a dissertation and traveling around the country for job interviews make blogging difficult. However, I hope to return to the blogosphere in a few days, but until then, here are some recent articles I have read that you may find of interest:
1. Can’t Kick Bad Habits? Blame the Brain. This is a short and easy to read piece exploring the neural underpinnings of habit formation, which all virtue ethicists should be attentive to. In brief, dopamine is the neurotransmitter which seems to play the biggest role in habit formation by conditioning the brain to seek out certain pleasurable activities again and again (like a glass of wine after work). Breaking a bad habit seems to be less about imposing rational control over one’s emotional reaction to a source of pleasure and more about putting oneself in the right situation where the cause of the bad habit is not readily available: “What you want to be thinking about is, ‘What is it in my environment that is triggering this behavior?’” says Nordgren. “You have to guard yourself against it.” Here’s a great quote from the article:
“People have this self-control hubris, this belief they can handle more than they can,” says Nordgren, who studies the tug-of-war between willpower and temptation. In one experiment, he measured whether heavy smokers could watch a film that romanticizes the habit — called “Coffee and Cigarettes” — without taking a puff. Upping the ante, they’d be paid according to their level of temptation: Could they hold an unlit cigarette while watching? Keep the pack on the table? Or did they need to leave the pack in another room?
Smokers who’d predicted they could resist a lot of temptation tended to hold the unlit cigarette — and were more likely to light up than those who knew better than to hang onto the pack, says Nordgren. He now is beginning to study how recovering drug addicts deal with real-world temptations.
2. Searching for the Source of Our Fountains of Courage. This New York Times article outlines research which will also be important for ethicists. One of the most interesting parts of the article describes a woman with a rare congenital syndrome leaving her completely fearless, “raising the question of whether it’s better to conquer one’s fears, or to never feel them in the first place.”
As Justin Feinstein, a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Iowa, and his colleagues describe in Current Biology, the otherwise normal SM is incapable of being spooked.
She claimed to fear snakes and spiders, and maybe she did in her pre-disease childhood, but when the researchers took her to an exotic pet store, they were astonished to see that not only did she not avoid the snakes and spiders, she was desperate to hold them close.
The researchers took SM to a haunted house, and she laughed at the scary parts and blithely made the monster-suited employees jump. She was shown clips from famous horror films like “The Silence of Lambs” and “Halloween,” and she showed no flickers of fright.
This fearlessness may be fine in the safety of one’s living room, but it turns out that SM makes her own horror films in real life. She walks through bad neighborhoods alone at night, approaches shady strangers without guile, and has been repeatedly threatened with death.
“We have an individual who’s constantly putting herself into harm’s way,” said Mr. Feinstein. “If we had a million SMs walking around, the world would be a total mess.”
Yet more scientific evidence for the importance of Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean.
3. The Unborn Paradox: “No life is so desperately sought after, so hungrily desired, so carefully nurtured. And yet no life is so legally unprotected, and so frequently destroyed.” 20% of pregnancies end in abortion. Yet millions of women will spend tens of thousands of dollars on reproductive therapies this year. In the meantime, only 1% of pregnancies will end in adoption. A great basis for making an ethical argument on the adoption imperative.
4. Philosophy Lives: Who hasn’t seen the following quote from esteemed physicist Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow (on yet another important topic I failed to blog about in the last few months) from their new book The Grand Design:
“[Just] as Darwin and Wallace explained how the apparently miraculous design of living forms could appear without intervention by a supreme being, the multiverse concept can explain the fine tuning of physical law without the need for a benevolent creator who made the Universe for our benefit. Because there is a law of gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist.”
While Hawking and Mlodinow argue that these newest developments in physics signal the final death knell for philosophy and natural theology, John Haldane argues that “at its most abstract, theoretical physics leaves ordinary empirical science behind and enters the sphere of philosophy, where it becomes vulnerable to refutation by reason.”
5. Changing Our Minds: An overview of the implications of digital technology for an ethic of virtue. Heavy attention is given to the vice of curiosity, which Paul Griffiths has brought back in vogue recently, but also an interesting treatment of the virtue of recollection. I love the conclusion:
The findings of science as to the effect of Internet use on the human brain should impel us to dust off some of these neglected ideas and see what they have to say about the problem, and maybe come up with some new ideas of our own in the process. As Lisa Fullam noted in these pages (“Thou Shalt,” April 24, 2009), long years of treating morality as a laundry list of mostly sexual shalt-nots has crippled authentic moral thinking, and moral thinking is exactly what is needed to navigate the dramatic transformations of the digital revolution without damaging our very selfhood. We need to identify and describe not only the shalt-nots of the age, but also the shalts: recollection, mindfulness, interiority, awareness. Whatever you prefer to call it, it’s what’s needed to keep Google from making us stupid. Not brain surgery, but virtue.
I hope to do a real blog soon but in the meantime, what articles have you been reading that everydaythomist should be attentive to?
This article by Michael Chabon in the most recent edition of the New York Review of Books somewhat nostalgically muses on the adventures of childhood and whether the widespread desire to protect our children from the dangerous vicissitudes of modern life is making childhood a relic of a former world:
The thing that strikes me now when I think about the Wilderness of Childhood is the incredible degree of freedom my parents gave me to adventure there. A very grave, very significant shift in our idea of childhood has occurred since then. The Wilderness of Childhood is gone; the days of adventure are past. The land ruled by children, to which a kid might exile himself for at least some portion of every day from the neighboring kingdom of adulthood, has in large part been taken over, co-opted, colonized, and finally absorbed by the neighbors. . . .
This is the kind of door-to-door, all-encompassing escort service that we adults have contrived to provide for our children. We schedule their encounters for them, driving them to and from one another’s houses so they never get a chance to discover the unexplored lands between. If they are lucky, we send them out to play in the backyard, where they can be safely fenced in and even, in extreme cases, monitored with security cameras. . . .
Chabon wonders about the impact of overprotecting our children from the world’s ills is having on the imagination of our children, but I have a different concern. Chabon’s article got me thinking about how the overprotection, over-scheduling, and rigorous micromanaging of our children’s lives might be impacting their moral development.
For Aquinas, morality is primarily about the development of virtue. Virtues are simply good habits that incline a person to action, and specifically good actions. The English word for habit is misleading because it connotes something automatic, unconscious, and almost Pavlovian. We might say, “I have a bad habit of biting my fingernails when I am nervous.” The implication is, when I experience stimulus X (i.e. nervousness), I automatically respond with reaction Z (i.e. biting fingernails). This meaning of “habit” has a very different meaning than the sense in which Aquinas uses it. For Aquinas, the word habit is a metaphysical category that indicates a durable part of a person’s character, inclining the person to certain kinds of actions and feelings.
For his definition of habits, Aquinas draws heavily on Aristotle, designating habits as qualities with are (1) durable (meaning they don’t change easily), and (2) incline a person toward either good or evil. The moral virtues like justice, temperance, and fortitude are simply good habits.
So how do we get these habits? We develop virtue, says Aquinas, primarily through acting. We become just by doing just things like keeping our promises, returning things we borrowed, and giving our superiors the respect they deserve. We become temperate by not eating too much, not getting drunk, and enjoying sex with the right person at the right time. We become courageous by facing our fears.
But habits, and also virtues, are not just about right actions. When Aquinas refers to habits, he is not primarily referring to acts (like respecting our superiors), but rather the inclination to act in a certain way. That is, the habit of justice inclines a person to give respect to superiors when the situation demands it, or to return a borrowed item when the situation demands it. We develop the habit by acting a certain way, but the habit itself is not an act, but rather an inclination.
A virtue is not only a habit inclining a person to act in a certain way, but a habit inclining them to act in a certain way for the right reason. It is not virtuous for a person to respect their superiors because they feel obligated to or because they are feeling forced to, but rather because they want to. The virtuous person wants to do the right thing.
To understand this, imagine you are sick at home and bored out of your mind and your friend comes to visit. You, delighted to have company, praise your friend for his kind act. Your friend, however, dismisses your praise saying that he came only because he felt obligated. “I didn’t want to, but it was my duty,” he says. Would you think your friend virtuous? Probably not.
We initially learn how to do the acts that are conducive to virtuous living by following rules, by being taught by our elders (and especially our parents), but really structuring our lives. To some extent, kids need this. But the interesting thing about moral virtue, at least the way Aquinas conceives it, is that it ultimately has to be learned for oneself. We don’t develop virtuous habits by simply doing what we are told, by following the examples others, or by obeying rules.
Alasdair MacIntyre has a good way of describing this process in his monumental work After Virtue. He describes a child that is just learning how to play chess. His mentor gives the child a reward for obeying the rules and successfully playing the game. At first, the child plays for the reward, the little piece of candy that comes from doing what he is told. But as he progresses, he starts to play the game according to the rules simply because he likes to play. Virtue is a lot like this. We start off doing what we are told; we should end doing what we want.
So what does this have to do with Chabon’s article? The wilderness of childhood, at least as I see it, is meant to be a training ground for virtue. Children need the freedom to act on their desires, right or wrong, to develop the virtues necessary for moral living. They must be given the freedom, for example, to find what it is that they are afraid of so that they can face that fear, again and again and again, and maybe, if all goes right, become courageous in the process. They must have the opportunity to go to excess in food or drink or love so that they also have the opportunity to willingly and voluntarily moderate their desires for such pleasures. They must have the opportunity to be unjust—to cheat, lie, or steal—if they are ever going to learn to be just.
Every child is different. Every child has different fears, different temptations, different strengths and weaknesses. Children need an opportunity not only to explore the imaginative terrain of childhood, but also the moral terrain. Just like they need a chance to fall off their bike, they need a chance to stumble across a temptation, and resist it. They need to be teased by other children, so that they can learn on their own how wrong teasing can be. They need to be confronted with seemingly insurmountable challenges and face such challenges on their own.
And they need to do these things without their parents breathing down their neck, without their parents scheduling every last moment of the day so there is no time for the kid to get into trouble, and without the parents constantly delineating rules to follow in any given situation. Childhood is a moral wilderness, and kids need to be free to explore if they are ever going to develop virtue.
Happy New Year. Chances are, you have made some New Year’s Resolutions, probably from among these most popular picks. You either resolved to lose weight or manage your money better or quit smoking or you chose some other noble intention for 2009. Chances are, your noble intentions will come to naught. This article claims only 10% of people will be successful. With odds like that, you have to ask yourself why you bother to make a resolution in the first place.
What my Thomist eyes see when I survey the popular choices for New Year’s resolutions is that people don’t really resolve to do something specific. They aren’t resolving not get drunk at the New Year’s party, or to send thank you cards for all the wedding gifts they received a year ago, or to send in their taxes on time. They are resolving to make lifestyle changes. They want to be healthier, or at least thinner. They want to be more organized, especially with money. They want to stop smoking or to drink less.
Lifestyle changes are all about changing our habits. Aquinas adopts the Aristotelian insight that a habit (habitus) is “a disposition whereby that which is disposed is disposed well or ill, and this, either in regard to itself or in regard to another” (I-II, Q. 49, art. 1) Habits are not in the body, but rather in the soul which moves the body to do certain things. If you are prone to overeating, for example, it is not your tummy which has the bad habit, but rather your “soul” which causes you to reach for a cookie when you are hungry rather than a carrot stick or causes you to down an entire pizza when you are stressed. Thomas says that habits must be in the soul because the soul, unlike the body, is not biologically conditioned to any one activity. It has a number of different actions to choose from, and so it needs a habit which forms it to choose well.
Habits are caused by actions, and specifically by “like acts [by which] like habits are formed” (I-II, Q. 50, art. 1). But one act is not enough. “The Philosopher says: “As neither does one swallow nor one day make spring: so neither does one day nor a short time make a man blessed and happy.” This is one of my favorite passages to quote. What it means is that we need to act over and over and over again in a way consistent with the way we always want to act. If we want to lose weight, we need to reach for the carrot over the cookie again and again. If we occasionally reach for the cookie, we need not despair. One cookie does not sabotage our effort to make a lifestyle change. The more we act in a way consistent with the way we want to act, however, the less likely one deviation is to ruin us.
The reason New Year’s resolutions fail is that people resolve to stick to a certain diet or go to the gym a certain number of times a week or stop smoking entirely, and when they slip up, they despair and stop trying. The reason they fail is that they think that bad habits can be broken easily. They can’t. It takes more than good intentions and it takes more than the occasional good act. New Year’s resolutions are going to take the entire year, and chances are, the next years as well to achieve.
The good news is that good habits are hard to break too. The more you force yourself to eat a low-calorie snack rather than junk food, the easier it will become. The more you force yourself to go to the gym, the less forcing you’ll have to do. And the less you keep yourself from taking a smoke break (even when you occasionally slip up) the less tempting that smoke break will be.
So make your New Year’s resolutions, whatever they may be. But don’t count yourself a failure if on January 2nd, you finish off the leftover Christmas cookies. You are going for a change in habit, and no habit was ever changed by one bad–or one good–act.