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The Habits of Virtue

The Habits of Virtue January 4, 2013

Roy Baumeister:

Virtue ethics are in; research like this shows why. (Go to the link for the full article.)

I contend Jesus was not a virtue ethicist. What say you?

Two decades’ worth of lab research has established that willpower is limited, and exerting self-control to resist impulses or change your actions depletes it. Like all living things, humans naturally seek to conserve their energy, and so exerting self-control to resist temptation or take the path of virtue encounters a natural reluctance (which some moralists would call laziness, or worse). And if the temptation or impulse arises when your willpower has already been depleted by other demands, then your odds of resisting go down, and you do something you’ll regret. That’s why you shouldn’t plan on achieving virtue by relying on willpower to get you through crises, temptations, and other problem situations. Willpower fluctuates, and you can’t count on always having enough.

Instead, if you use willpower to establish virtuous habits, the danger of succumbing to impulse or temptation is reduced. The human psyche is well designed to acquire habits (both good and bad). Doing something new and different takes effort and attention, and sometimes plenty of thought and emotion. In contrast, doing something by habit requires none of those, or at most a very small amount. To conserve the limited mental and physical energy that people have, nature has designed us to convert novel exertions into easy habits. This occurs over time, with repeated practice. Can you remember your initial struggles with a bicycle, a surfboard, a computer keyboard and mouse, a tennis racquet? Yet after enough repetitions, one uses those same items efficiently and effectively, with hardly a thought or error. The human mind’s ability to convert difficult action into easy deft habit is remarkable.

Habits of virtue can be a godsend. Seated at dinner as the waiter begins to serve wine, I have watched and admired how the recovered alcoholic deftly covers his glass with his hand to signal “none for me.” Not so long ago, perhaps, saying no required of him much struggle and anguish. If every offer of wine took as much effort as on his first day of sobriety, it is a fair bet that he would have fallen off the wagon countless times. But it gets easier, thanks to the miracle of habit. Of course, the habit did not appear by magic or wish or resolve. It took willpower to make the refusals habitual.

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