May 19, 2012

Yves Simon on Moral Virtue (part 2 of 2)

Last month, I wrote a rather longish entry (at least for this blog) setting out a few themes from Yves Simon's excellent short work, The Definition of Moral Virtue, focusing in that post on two things in particular:  his identification of three moral positions common in modernity which attempt to dispense with the traditional conception of virtue, and the implications of his distinction between nature and use as modes of goodness or badness.  What I left unaddressed was another major theme of his book, the difference between mere habits and habitus.  

That the virtues -- and for that matter the vices -- are at their bases, in the sort of being which they have, habits is a standard commonplace of Virtue Ethics.  You can find that term readily used in most translations of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, or Aquinas' Disputed Questions on Virtue and Treatise On the Virtues, as well as in other classic texts of Virtue Ethics traditions of moral enquiry.  Simon cautions us against that, however, showing how the Greek hexis and its Latin translation habitus involve something more and something different than the concept "habit" which we so often unthinkingly substitute in their place -- and in telling us why, he also teaches us some important and often overlooked lessons about virtue and vice.

Incidentally,  the same problem underlying the use of "habit" would apply to some of the other terms and concepts occasionally used when explaining Virtue Ethics -- "disposition," "trait," even "quality." Sometimes they are used without any qualification, as when some presenters tell audiences that Virtue Ethics evaluates persons rather than actions (which is not true), and that they evaluate a person in terms of positive or negative traits.  One has to ask: positive or negative in what respect, and if the response is just a shrug, or if the answer just refers us to social approval, we're no longer talking about Virtue Ethics and its conception of virtue and vice, but about those of some other moral theory.  If one does qualify "trait," focusing on those aspects Virtue Ethics is particularly interested in, one will naturally say "character trait," and then it is a quick move to explain "character" by reference to "habit."

Habit and Habitus

Simon is not being a stickler for the Latin term, habitus, out of any motives of pedantry, elitism, or nostalgia. The real reasons are that the modern English term simply has too many associations -- many of them theoretical, stemming from late modern philosophy -- incompatible with what Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas meant by hexis or habitus, clearly evidenced not only by what they said about it, but what they insisted upon as essential for using it to understand virtues and vices -- whether moral or intellectual.

Hume, Bergson, Freud, James, and Dewey get mentioned specifically in Simon's "mixed dialectical and historical comments," because he regards each of them as making some contribution to our understanding of habits, and particularly their roles in intellectual and moral life.  His remarks about psychotherapy are particularly interesting:
modern psychoanalysis has proved conclusively that , far from being limited to somatic functions, habits also loom large in our cognitions and emotions.  For instance, how does a typical Freudian cure work?  By unmasking undesirable emotional habits!

What is important is to see that psychoanalytical therapy makes sense only if our emotions, as well as our somatic functions, can be habit-forming.
Simon identifies three key characteristics of the entire range of states which we call habit:
While we do act out of habit, habit itself is not an activity; it is only a disposition to act.  . . . This ability in reserve, so to speak, this steady and ready disposition to act, if and when called upon, is what Aristotle calls either an intermediary potency or an initial act.

The second characteristic of habit . . .  is its stabilization through repetition of acts.  Again, the number of repetitions required to establish a habit varies greatly from person to person, as well as from case to case.

Whatever necessity is found in habit, Hume declares categorically, is not of an objective character . . . We are all, of course, aware that there are degrees of necessity in our habits. . . But whether mild, strong, fierce, or irresistible, the necessity involved in habit is not and can never be an objective necessity.
The last characteristic is very interesting to consider, for it represents a case where some of the implications of ancient and medieval philosophy are only realized in the hands of an eminently modern thinker. Habit bears upon the contingent, that which can be otherwise than it is, not upon the realm of matters that must always be the same, that which can be entirely relied upon, that about which we don't deliberate, that whose particulars are determined in their specificity by some unalterable necessity -- all of these, of course, are very Aristotelian ways of talking, turned towards the object, but Hume, focusing on the human perceiving and acting subject, is noting that out of these contingents, through repetition and association, even deliberate or coerced attention, we produce a kind of subjective necessity within ourselves.

None of these three characteristics are incompatible with the older notion of habitus.  In fact, they all apply to moral virtues and vices.  But there is another characteristic generally ascribed to habits in modernity which excludes habitus.  Habits, once established, become more or less automatic.  We can find ourselves doing them without even having to think, steered along the channels now graven into our psychical life -- and this applies to emotion, just as much as to action or to thought.  What does this mean? Simon tells us:
Habit as such excludes voluntariness. . . . [A]cts done out of habit, insofar as they are done out of habit, are not voluntary acts. . . This is especially worth noting, because in this respect moral virtue is the very opposite of habit.  No matter how closely virtuous action may resemble action done out of habit, this is one aspect in which they differ radically.  Truly moral action is never involuntary.  In virtuous action we do precisely what we want to do.
I would go so far as to add that -- admittedly in a different way, in vicious action we also do precisely what, on some level, we want to do.

Habitus as Science or Knowledge

Before examining the specific type of habitus involved in moral virtue and vice, Simon notes that Aristotle and Aquinas actually use the term more broadly, to include several primarily intellectual states which nevertheless are not matters of a pure intellect disengaged from the rest of our being, but which establish their very roots in the human person.  These are: understanding (nous), art or skill (technē), philosophical wisdom (sophia), practical wisdom (phronēsis) and science (epistēmē) -- the latter of which might also be translated as "knowledge by a discipline." 

It is with this last type that Simon begins to definitively disentangle habitus from mere habit -- though until later in the book this move risks seeming a detour into a cul-de-sac.  Scientific knowledge, as traditional Virtue Ethics conceived of it, does take form as a disposition, and is established through repetition, but involves a different level of necessity than habit, one that finds itself reaffirmed -- despite empiricist and pragmatist interpretations -- by present-day scientists.
The practicing scientists may hedge about some ultimate meaning of "objectivity," but they are not so eager to concede that their knowledge, in whatever field, is only inter-subjective, let alone strictly personal.  Thus one may say that, whether they know it or not, most of them tend to think of their science as a habitus, that is, as a quality or dispositions, which, in contract to habit, is grounded in objective necessity.
This talk of the objective as opposed to the merely subjective could give the mistaken impression that habitus is in some way less personal, less congenial to the unfolding of the person and even relationships involved.  The second key difference between habit and habitus indicates this is not the case.
For while, as we have seen, even as they serve specific ends, habits operate automatically or mechanically, the operation of habitus is characterized by unmistakable vitality.  Habit relieves of the need to think; but habitus makes us think creatively.
A contrast between two different types of teachers fleshes this out with examples.
As students, we have all known two types of teachers, the pedantic and the inspiring.  The former have a definite method and operate according to well-established habits; the latter need  neither, because they know their subject through and through.  Indeed, we may say that teaching methods, which generate subjective habits, are but poor substitutes for the kind of objective intimacy with the subject matter to be taught, which we call habitus. . .  Compared to habit, habitus represents thought that is truly alive.
We might also say that those who possess such an intellectual habitus often not only know their subject through and through, but also have a long and deep affective involvement with their subject, a passion which is communicable and exercises its own force of attraction even upon those who are only first encountering the material.

Specifically Moral Habitus and Existential Readiness

Simon stresses that, although they are all types of habitus, moral virtue is not the same thing as the intellectual, theoretical virtue of science, nor the intellectual, practical virtue of skill. One key difference lies in the way that the person possessing (or even developing) the habitus in question is disposed to make use of it.  Art or science can be used well or poorly, for good or for evil -- it can even be used or not used, deliberately set aside.  Simon calls this sort of disposition one which embodies "qualitative readiness" -- that is, the person is disposed to be able to do, to know, to study, to teach something in a determinate way.

In addition to this, there is also what Simon calls "existential readiness" -- a new way of conceiving of the old Aristotelian-Thomist concept of finality -- the sort of readiness which actually inclines the person possessing it towards comportment of a certain kind, a certain quality.  Although Simon does not explain it in these terms, his distinction could be expressed like this:  Qualitative readiness is the disposition enabling one to do something of a certain determinate sort, if one decides or determines to do so.  Existential readiness is the disposition to determine or decide to do things of that sort.  Science or art involve qualitative readiness without necessarily involving existential readiness.
By contrast, if you have a friend distinguished by his prudence, or temperance, or courage, or a sense of justice, you are not worried that he may waste his virtues.  You may confidently expect your friend always to do the right thing at the right time, which is also why, if you have a moral problem, he is the person to whom you will go to for advice.  He may not tell you exactly what to do, for only you can solve your own moral problems, but you do not have the slightest doubt that, if he tells you what he would do in your situation, he would indeed do it.
Now, this invocation of existential readiness makes the habitus of moral virtue sound a bit more like the earlier discussed habit, does it not?  There's really three issues involved at this point.  The first is that in fact, habitus does necessarily incorporate habit.  Simon clarifies at a few points:
Clearly, habit is qualitatively specific, as we would not expect anyone to do out of habit the opposite of what he does out of habit.  But neither would we call it a habit if it was not done regularly when the proper occasion arose.  On this account, then, habit is far more like virtue than like science or art, which as we said, includes not only qualitative and not existential readiness.

[N]otice that our habits often involve another kind of existential readiness which is not so much independent as it is instrumental. . . .  the importance of instrumental habits in matters of morality can never, in my opinion, be overestimated.

In fact, without confirmed habits, I do not see how anybody's virtue could be trusted. Take for instance the case of a man who after years of dissipation undergoes a moral conversion.  You know him well, and you have every reason to believe that he is sincere, that his change of mind and heart is genuine.  but you will still not let him drive the school bus the next day. . .  What you want to do is to give the man time to build up the habit of moderation. . . His moral conversion has turned him in the right direction, but he still has to acquire the habit of stopping after the first glass or two. . . In other words, the existential readiness of the virtue of temperance requires the habit of moderation as its instrument.

Virtue, the Objective, and Freedom

Besides the connection of habit and virtue as habitus, two other worrisome and interconnected issues remain.  One of these is the fact that we noted earlier that whatever sense of necessity habit can produce is merely subjective.  The habitus of science, we also saw, bears on a necessity which is objective in nature.  What about moral virtue, though?  Clearly it's not scientific knowledge -- that's precisely where Aristotle broke with Plato.
[I]f there is anything certain in [Aristotle's] philosophy, it is the principle that human excellence demands a rational, and that means not only free and voluntary, but an objective way of acting, which certainly is not the way of habit.  Recall David Hume's principle:  the necessity of habit is subjective, not objective necessity.  Yet for Aristotle nothing is more objectively related to the good of man than moral virtue.
So, at least if we are willing to follow Aristotle and his successors, even though it does bear upon the contingent, the habitus of moral virtue does involve some sort of objective necessity.  This brings an long-looming concern to its crux, though:
How can virtue confirm an objective and necessary relation at the same time as it expresses what is most voluntary and free in a person.  Do not voluntariness and freedom contradict objective necessity, which implies an absence of choice?  If I literally cannot do otherwise, how can I be free?
This is a genuine concern, though it does, as Simon -- among so many others -- points out, conceal a mistaken way of framing the issue, the "fallacy of freedom conceived as indeterminacy and explaining free choice as mastery over and ends as well as the means that lead to those ends."  Without venturing deeply into the complexities of that set of issues, Simon points out:

. . . the consequences of such common human failings as intemperance, lack of courage, imprudence, and the temptation to take advantage of other people.  The unfortunate person suffering from such a lack of virtues can hardly be considered acting freely and objectively; on the contrary, he is plainly seen as harming himself and others precisely because he cannot -- subjectively -- help himself.  But what would happen if this man acquired temperance, courage, prudence, and justice?  He would be able to do not what seems right for him subjectively, but what is right objectively.

Simon concludes, and this is where I'll draw to a close out short excursion into this excellent book, The Definition of Moral Virtue:
In possession of virtues, then, one freely abstains from doing wrong because it is wrong, and one freely does right because it is the thing to do.

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