I wrote my doctoral thesis on Aristotle’s ethics, specifically on the moral obligations he believes that we owe others. Aristotle’s writings are so dense and powerful that simple sentences often yield profound insights about human life. Such is the case with his remark that excellence (or virtue) is not an act, but a habit. This concept has great potential to improve both our characters and parenting.
We all want to consider ourselves moral, upstanding people, but what does that mean? Have you ever clearly defined it for yourself? There have been two common answers offered by western philosophy.
(1) Follow the rules. Be it of your religion or other moral code, the idea is that following the rules is what makes us good. We might love or hate it, but what matters is that we do it.
(2) Track the consequences. Each action has a unique context and outcome; being a good person means you always act so as to bring about what you judge to be the best consequence, again regardless of how it makes you feel.
Aristotle doesn’t knock rules or concern for outcomes, but he rightly argues that you can follow the rules to a tee and that you can worry about outcomes all day long, and still not be a person of fine character. This involves practicing the virtues (honesty, courage, temperance, generosity, etc.) in such a way that they become habitual, and since, as he observes, that which is habitual is pleasant, the moral person will find the practice of virtue enjoyable. Habits, by the way, are not passive reactions. For Aristotle, they are active and engaged states of being.
What a marvelous thought. The best people are those who not only do the right things and make the best choices, but who do so almost spontaneously and with great enjoyment. This is a great vision for raising children: give them repeated opportunities to do the right things with positive reinforcement afterwards, and habit will virtually do the rest. For example: give your kids ample chance to handle their fears with courage, to share and show kindness to their peers, to practice honesty, and so on. Opportunities arise constantly, and if we can direct our kids to right approach to handling life’s challenges, and praise them when they do a good job of it, it will become easier and easier for them to feel and behave, as Aristotle puts it, “at the right time, on the right occasion, toward the right people, for the right purpose and in the right manner”—the hallmark of moral excellence.
There is so much to more to know about Aristotle’s moral wisdom, and I will be writing future posts on it. For now, see his Nicomachean Ethics. For some introductory discussion, check out: Jonathan Barnes, Aristotle: A Very Short Introduction; Mortimer Adler, Aristotle for Everybody; and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP).