Can virtuous habits be cultivated?

August 20th, 2012

Writing for Big Questions Online, Roy Baumeister, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, poses the age-old question: Can virtuous habits be cultivated?

He writes:

Doing what is right requires strenuous effort to resist the alluring temptations of vice. You strive to resist selfish impulses and push yourself to do what moral duty prescribes. Virtue is hard work

Or is it? Could virtue become a habit–that is, a relatively effortless, automatic tendency to do what is morally right, with a minimum of inner struggle?

The answer to this question, crucial for understanding and improving the moral level of humanity, is emerging from scientific research on willpower. A recent study in which two hundred German citizens wore beepers for a week, and at random intervals reported on their desires at that moment, yielded a stunning finding. The researchers had sorted people into those with relatively good and relatively poor self-control based on questionnaires about their lives and habits. One fairly obvious prediction was that people with good self-control would resist desires more frequently than people with poor self-control. After all, that’s what self-control is for, to resist desires, right?

But the results came out strongly in the opposite direction. People with good self-control were less likely than others to resist desires as they went about their daily lives. How could this be? The answer is that people with good self-control avoid temptations and problem situations, rather than battling with them. Other research confirmed that self-control works most effectively by means of controlling habits, rather than by using willpower for direct control of one’s actions in the heat of the moment. […]

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. […] 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.

Writing in his Autobiography (1784), Benjamin Franklin recounts his “bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection,” and how he, too, realized the necessity of  establishing good habits:

It was about this time [circa 1728] that I conceiv’d the bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection. I wish’d to live without committing any Fault at any time; I would conquer all that either Natural Inclination, Custom, or Company might lead me into. As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other. But I soon found I had undertaken a Task of more Difficulty than I had imagined: While my Care was employ’d in guarding against one Fault, I was often surpriz’d by another. Habit took the Advantage of Inattention. Inclination was sometimes too strong for Reason. I concluded at length, that the mere speculative Conviction that it was our Interest to be compleatly virtuous, was not sufficient to prevent our Slipping, and that the contrary Habits must be broken and good Ones acquired and established, before we can have any Dependance on a steady uniform Rectitude of Conduct.

To establish these good habits, Franklin prepared a list of thirteen virtues that he considered either necessary or desirable. To each named virtue he affixed a short precept which, he says, “fully expressed the extent I gave to its meaning.” Eager to attain the habit of each of these virtues, he set up a regimen whereby he would concentrate on one virtue at a time, devoting a week to the practice of each, before going on to the next. There being thirteen virtues, he managed to perform four thirteen-week programs a year, a practice he continued for many years until his busy life rendered it inconvenient. The order of the virtues, dictated in part by the fact that the prior acquisition of some of the virtues would make easier the acquisition of the next, is as follows: 1) temperance, 2) silence, 3) order, 4) resolution, 5) frugality, 6) industry, 7) sincerity, 8 ) justice, 9) moderation, 10) cleanliness, 11) tranquility, 12) chastity, and 13) humility. To aid in his practice, he prepared a little book in which he recorded his daily successes or failures with each of the virtues. He also devised a daily schedule, which helped him give each part of his business its allotted and proper time.

Summing up his progress and success, Franklin reports that he never did arrive at moral perfection, indeed, “fell far short of it.” Nevertheless, he claims that he was a better and happier man than if he had never attempted the project. Moreover, he relates specific benefits that he enjoys as a result, both of some particular virtues and of the entire package: felicity, health, prosperity, knowledge, reputation, the confidence of his country and the offices conferred upon him, and the even temper and cheerful conversation that made everyone seek his company. He here invites his readers to imitate him and to reap the same benefits.

As you read about Franklin’s Project, check out the WSPWH study guide for some suggested questions for discussion. For example, what assumptions about human nature, human (original) sinfulness, and human perfectibility are implied by Franklin’s “bold” project? Do you think you could ever attain a state of moral perfection? Why or why not? Is it still worth seeking, even if you can never grasp it fully? What is the best way to acquire good habits and to develop virtuous character? Should Franklin’s methods be imitated today?

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