Last week, I referred to Aristotle’s definition of virtue. In his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle says,
Virtue then is a habit…the characteristic of which lies in moderation…[I]t comes in the middle or mean between two vices, one on the side of excess, the other on the side of defect.
Elevator speech version: Virtue is the habit of correctly choosing the midway point between inappropriate extremes.
My husband the lawyer took exception to this definition because the word habit troubled him. In a legal context, habit refers to something done so regularly that it can admitted into evidence to prove a person acted in a specific way. For example, say you go to the gym at the same time every single day. It could be argued that you couldn’t have been at another location at that time because you would have been at the gym, as you are every day.
If something is a habit, argued my husband, it’s thoughtless and automated. He contended that there is true virtue only in acting after conscious deliberation.
So who’s right? The philosopher who says virtue is manifest in habitual actions? Or the lawyer who says virtue is manifest in individual choices?
They both are.
If I answer a question honestly, I act virtuously in this case. But if I generally do not tell the truth, I don’t possess the virtue of honesty. To be in possession of a given virtue means to habitually act in accordance with it.
What about my husband’s contention that habit implies automation? In some respects, he’s right. When something becomes a habit- which takes a lot longer than 21 days, by the way- it’s easier for us because we develop automaticity. But does the fact that something is relatively easy for us make it no longer virtuous? We tend to believe that a given act is more virtuous if we have to struggle against our natural inclinations in completing it.
In this view, the mother who responds patiently to her child’s 5 millionth request for a snack, even though she wants to scream, is more virtuous than the mother who responds patiently because she isn’t bothered by the nonstop requests.
This is rooted in an anthropology that views human nature as fundamentally broken. Therefore, virtue is found in overcoming our natural inclinations. Except….this is wrong. Human nature is fallen and flawed, but still fundamentally good. This relates to the three parts of character- knowing right from wrong, doing the right thing, and affective inclination to do the right thing.
Though it’s contradictory, we simultaneously tend to view our feelings and what is done spontaneously as being most authentic and true. According to that view, it’s fake and insincere when we’re kind to someone we don’t like or when we follow through on a commitment even after the blush has worn off and it’s not making us “happy” anymore. “She’s only doing that out of obligation,” is intended to be derogatory.
If we take the time to think about it, this isn’t a reasonable position. Our feelings change constantly and on a whim. It’s most authentic and true when we act rightly, regardless of whether this is what we feel like doing. The ideal is that our feelings match our behavior.
Virtue finds its highest expression when our affective inclination matches the right action.
Last night, my husband came home from work early so I could get my haircut. After my hair appointment, I planned to meet some other women for wine and to discuss All The Light We Cannot See (which, side note, you should read immediately. I’m a total book snob and typically shun anything hot and trendy, but this one lives up to the hype.).
After I paid for my hair and was getting in the elevator to go down to the street, I checked my phone. Will had thrown up. I asked my husband if I should come home- praying he would say no. He assured me he had it under control, and that Will seemed fine. He was laying in our bed happily watching the iPad. A few minutes later, as I drove to the wine and book chat which I’d been looking forward to all week, my phone dinged. Will was again throwing up and was now crying.
My first reaction was frustration and irritation. Can I leave the house to go out for three hours without it turning into a hot mess requiring my immediate return? I texted the husband that I was on my way home. I was not feeling it- I was just trying not to be selfish.
When I arrived, Will was sitting in the tub, hunched over and looking pitiful. Immediately, I felt relieved that I had come home to be with my sick little boy. After the bath, he snuggled up into my lap and put his head on my shoulder like a baby. In that moment, there was the grace of feeling joy in doing the right thing. I was so glad I had Will in my arms where I could comfort him and make sure he was okay.
It’s not more virtuous to come home to attend to your responsibilities when you don’t feel like. It’s still virtuous, but it’s superior when your heart is in tune your actions. I made a conscious choice to come home. That particular decision might be an instance of selflessness, but I can’t say I possess the virtue of selflessness because my decision making is still pretty habitually selfish. If I were in the habit of selfless generosity, the decision to come home would have been easier and automatic. The ease doesn’t speak to a lack of virtue- it speaks to more virtue. The selfless person is able to give without every teeny tiny sacrifice seeming like a battle of heroic proportion. For the same reason, an Olympic marathoner can run a 5 minute mile without trying very hard, while I have never broken the 6 minute barrier, even when I was at my fittest and trying my hardest. I’m not better because I have to try harder; the Olympian does it effortlessly because she is the superior runner.
Will is perfectly fine, by the way. He is back in wild hyena mode today, without missing a beat. Because obviously one only gets sick when one’s mother leaves the house. Obviously.