Creatures of Habit

Photo by Sarah Tarno.
Photo by Sarah Tarno.

Recently it has been suggested that the concept of virtue can be understood as something like a skill. Like a skill, virtue is a disposition that requires habituation, where such habituation, however, cannot be reduced to mere routine. It has been central to this view that these two modes of practical knowledge, skill and virtue, are clearly distinguishable from mere habits.


According to this picture, skill and virtue are particular species of the more general categories of “acquired capacities” and “acquired tendencies.” Both rational and sub-rational animals are meant to have acquired capacities and acquired tendencies. A trained dog is said to have the capacity to control its sphincters, and if it is well behaved, it tends to exercise this capacity. An adult person has the capacity to fulfill her promises, and if she is virtuous, she will tend to fulfill them. According to this picture, only the capacities and tendencies of human beings are rational. The capacities of sub-rational creatures are mere habits. Thus skill and virtue are conceived as the rational species of two more general categories, acquired capacity and acquired tendency. They are meant to be more general because they also apply to sub-rational animals. I call this the Modern Approach to habit. It rests on the assumption that the contrast between acquired and not acquired capacities and tendencies, i.e. between habituated and non-habituated capacities and tendencies, is intelligible independently of the rational sub-categories.


I criticize this view and oppose to it what I call the Orthodox Doctrine of habit endorsed by Aristotle, Aquinas and Hegel. On this view, the relation between capacity and tendency on the one hand, and habit on the other hand, is not the relation between a genus and a species. Rather, habit is a formal feature that properly belongs to the idea of a rational power. According to this doctrine, sub-rational animals cannot, properly speaking, have habits; only rational animals are creatures of habit. While mere animals possess their capacities “immediately” or “by nature”, humans equip themselves with a “second nature” through repeated actions. A human is the creation of her own activity.


The opposition between the Neo-Aristotelian and the orthodox doctrines of habit thus comes to this: on the Neo-Aristotelian conception of the distinctions within the general category of capacity, the opposition rational/sub-rational is applicable to the concept of habit. There are rational as well as sub-rational habits. According to the orthodox doctrine, the rational/sub-rational opposition is not applicable to habit, since the latter constitutes a structural moment of rational capacities. There are no sub-rational habits. There are only good and bad habits: i.e. the two ways in which a rational capacity can be actualized. The wisdom of this orthodox doctrine is evident from the difficulties afflicting the Neo-Aristotelian account. So let us consider habit in its three principal dimensions: acquisition, act, and subject.


In the categorical framework of Neo-Aristotelianism, the conceptual capacities distinctive of humankind form a sub-category of acquired dispositions. Let’s assume for the moment that this is correct. What are we to say of those exemplars of our species who have yet to acquire any second nature? What are we to say of our first nature? John McDowell gives the following response: “Human infants are mere animals, distinctive only in their potential.” McDowell does not maintain that newborns belong to the class of beasts and brutes; he rather advances the thesis that the distinction between us and animals obtains at the level of first nature. An infant differs from mere animals not through its activities but through its as-yet unactualized capacities, its predispositions. Thus, when, in the course of their development, children acquire conceptual abilities and tendencies, they are actualizing a capacity that they were born with. In other words, human infants differ from mere animals by virtue of a second-order capacity, a capacity to acquire abilities. A rational second nature is thus the actualization of a second-order capacity that is in-born, and hence a first nature.


But if this capacity distinguishes us in virtue of our first nature, then the question arises as to whether the capacity to acquire rational capacities is itself a rational capacity. For mere animals can have a second nature as well, and therefore have the ability to acquire abilities. The capacities that they acquire, however, are—unlike ours—not rational. The question is what this means for the corresponding second-order capacities. What sort of distinction is there between their second-order capacities and ours? Are ours rational?


Aristotle, Aquinas, and Hegel deny that humans think from birth. A human infant differs from a mere animal in virtue of its predispositions, not in virtue of the (supposed) fact that it thinks. Infants first acquire concepts, which are applied in judgments, through practice. So why doesn’t the problem that these predispositions must themselves be rational capacities arise here? This problem only crops up if one assumes that the rational/sub-rational contrast applies to the concept of second nature. That is what leads to the question whether the relevant second-order capacity is itself rational or sub-rational. In the context of the orthodox doctrine of habit, this question makes no sense. Wherever first and second nature – ability and power – come apart, it is already settled whether the capacity in question is rational. It is the hallmark of rational lifeforms that their essential capacities are operative in individual exemplars only as mere predispositions. The spirited actuality of the human infant – and thus its mere being as “natural spirit” – consists precisely in the inactivity, the uncultivated indeterminacy of its essential vital capacities. It is precisely this unfinished quality of the individual, this dependency that is the material perspective, whose formal complement is the original sociality of humankind.

Matthias Haase is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago (beginning Fall 2016), and scholar with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Virtue Talk Podcast: Michael Gorman on Listening to Others and Finding Meaning

virtuetalklogorsClick the link below to hear our scholar and philosopher Michael Gorman discuss his research in human fulfillment, and how his thinking about scholarship and research has been impacted in surprising ways by our collaborative project.

Michael Gorman | Virtue Talk

Micahel Gorman is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America. Read more about him and other other scholars here.

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Michael Gorman discussing meaning as PI Jennifer A. Frey listens, at our June 2016 working group meeting.



Preview on iTunes

Read about our podcast “Virtue Talk”

Robert C. Roberts to Join Virtue Scholars

robertcrobertsPhilosopher Robert C. Roberts will join the group of scholars affiliated with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life (VHML). Roberts’ research focuses on ethics (especially virtue ethics), Kierkegaard, emotion theory, moral psychology, and epistemology.


Kristján Kristjánsson, fellow VHML Scholar and colleague at the Jubilee Centre for Character Education and Virtue Ethics, praises Roberts, saying “He is a leading light in research into how emotional traits can be understood as virtuous, either in the Aristotelian or Christian traditions, and how feeling the right things towards the right people at the right times is an indispensable part of the well-rounded, meaningful life. He has published two (out of three pre-planned) major works with CUP on the emotions and the good life, and is in the process of completing the trilogy. He has also written extensively about virtue epistemology and the intellectual virtues.


Roberts is Professor of Ethics and Emotion Theory at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, and has a joint Chair with the Royal Institute of Philosophy. He is currently a recipient, with Michael Spezio, of a grant from the Self, Motivation, and Virtue Project at the Institute for the Study of Human Flourishing at the University of Oklahoma, for a study of Humility in Loving Encounter. Read more about Roberts here.


Says Roberts, “I have broad interests in the nature of human virtue and flourishing, especially in the ways that Christian faith and the affective life bear on them. My current work is in the ethics and psychology of humility. This group of scholars promises a great deal of stimulation in these matters because of its combining of psychology, philosophical ethics, and theology.


Roberts will join the rest of the scholars at the June 2017 working group meetings.

Acknowledging Others

Crown Fountain in Red - photo by Chris Smith
Crown Fountain in Red – photo by Chris Smith

I take it as a starting point that human beings are valuable in a very distinctive way. The loss of a human life is not compensable by the creation or preservation of another human life. What rules out such compensation is that each human being has irreplaceable value. If one grants this starting point, it follows that any account of the value of human beings must make sense of their irreplaceability. Indeed, human beings stand in relation to one another as beings who can properly claim certain forms of regard and treatment as their due. Therefore it is not just that human beings ought to be treated as bearers of irreplaceable value, but because human beings are due such treatment, if we do not treat them as bearers of irreplaceable value, we would not only be doing the wrong thing ethically, we would actually wrong each of them individually.


It is often alleged that Aristotelianism cannot make good sense of this notion of the value of human beings. Aristotelianism has special difficulty acknowledging the value of non-virtuous agents, and some feel that the eudaimonistic structure of Aristotelianism itself bars the way to acknowledgment of others as self-standing sources of reasons. Indeed, Aristotelians tend to measure the damage of murder, rape, etc. more in terms of the kinds of setbacks these cause to the moral well-being of the perpetrator, than as things that harm or affront their victims.


Those who raise concerns about these Aristotelian tendencies often suggest that a broadly Kantian approach to ethics can offer a more illuminating account of the irreplaceability of each moral agent and of the standing of any such agent to claim certain kinds of treatment as their due. I suggest that these charges should be reversed. It is the Kantian, not the Aristotelian, who faces special and perhaps insuperable difficulties on this front. My argument draws upon a Thomistic conception of the place that love plays in the perfection of the full array of ethical virtues.


Kantianism gains a great deal of its plausibility from its insistence on treating other humans as irreplaceably valuable. Yet it cannot provide a self-standing rational grounding for this aspect of the value of human beings, because for the Kantian, all practical reasons must spring, ultimately, from the structure of the will itself. Kantianism refuses to recognize the possibility of receiving and being guided by what exceeds us; the core Kantian idea is that in fact we really cannot do this, because we are free.


What is missing from Kantianism is the assignment to all human beings of a kind of value whose apprehension is internal to love. Thomas Aquinas proves especially useful here because his work provides this value by incorporating it into an otherwise largely Aristotelian picture of virtuous character. In this respect, love plays the role in Aquinas that practical wisdom plays in Aristotle. The virtue of love is the key to Aquinas’s doctrine of the unity of the virtues: without it, no virtue can be perfect, and it implies the perfection of all other virtues. Love “quickens” and refines the other virtues by informing them with vivid awareness of the end that gives them their point.


Thus the value of persons that gives rise to moral obligations can be brought to light by fully explicating the value of many of our most important interactions with other people, ranging from our intimate loves and friendships and the shared activities they make possible, to our appreciation of the literature and music of others, to our loving engagement in the deepest and most valuable conversations with them. All of these valuable activities require that we trust the words, significant actions, gestures, vocal play and facial expressions of others as manifestations of an experience of the world that runs deep. Appreciation of this depth is intimately tied to the appreciation and acknowledgment of the irreplaceable value of these others.

Talbot Brewer is Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Philosophy Department at the University of Virginia, and scholar with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Video: Being Wise & Being Good: A Conversation with Howard Nusbuam and Candace Vogler

On June 6, 2016, Psychologist Howard Nusbaum and Philosopher Candace Vogler participated in a public conversation, held at the University of Chicago’s Swift Hall.

Nusbaum and Vogler discussed various forms of self-transcendence that provide contexts in which the exercise of virtue in daily life can operate as a source of a sense of purpose or meaning and a source of happiness. They also looked at the wisdom that belongs to ordinary human flourishing and requires a deep sense of both humility and social connection.

Their conversation was followed by a discussion with the audience about being wise and being good.

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Howard C. Nusbaum is a professor at the University of Chicago in the Department of Psychology and its College, and a steering committee member of the Neuroscience Institute. Nusbaum is an internationally recognized expert in cognitive psychology, speech science, and in cognitive neuroscience. He investigates the cognitive and neural mechanisms that mediate spoken language use, as well as language learning and the role of attention in speech perception. In addition, he investigates how we understand the meaning of music, and how cognitive and social-emotional processes interact in decision-making and wisdom research. He is currently Division Director for the Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences Division in the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences (SBE) Directorate for the National Science Foundation.

Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago. She has authored two books, John Stuart Mill’s Deliberative Landscape: An essay in moral psychology (Routledge, 2001) and Reasonably Vicious (Harvard University Press, 2002), and essays in ethics, social and political philosophy, philosophy and literature, cinema, psychoanalysis, gender studies, sexuality studies, and other areas. Her research interests are in practical philosophy (particularly the strand of work in moral philosophy indebted to Elizabeth Anscombe), practical reason, Kant’s ethics, Marx, and neo-Aristotelian naturalism. Candace Vogler is the Director and co-Principal Investigator for the project “Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.”