The Difference Between a Person with Good Habits and the Truly Virtuous


I have this nasty habit, and if human nature be similar, I suspect you may have it too. You see, whenever I walk into our out of a building and someone is close behind, I have this horrible tendency to actually stand there holding the door in an attempt to let the same person through with minimal work needed to open the door. A small vice, I suppose, but one that has been ingrained into me since my no doubt traumatizing childhood.

My parents, my teachers, my companions have all conspired against me in order to ensure that my virtue is held back. All things considered, though, I turned up alright...so far. I've managed to pull myself up by the boot straps in order to escape an unwholesome character.

A good parent tries to instill good habits in their child, habits that will be useful to child later in life. Holding doors for people is useful in keeping people from wanting to kick the crap out of you. Trust me, just don't do it once and look back to see the look on that person's face. It may be funny, but you'll be laughing by yourself before too long. It just annoys the crap out of people.

So, here you are, man of the world, taking on each new situation with your childhood ingrained habits at hand. And maybe these habits are good ones, damn good ones. Your a pretty damn good person they say. You hold the doors for others, you help old ladies across the street, you pay for thing with legitimate, legal tender, etc. Are you a virtuous person then?

Well, by usual, everyday language standards, probably. But this is the glamorous, high paying field of philosophy. We have to be more careful with how we say things. The word virtue in ancient Greece, arete, is a little more idealistic than the lackadaisical usage of today. It's closer to a state of excellence, doing the human thing not only great, but excellent.

So under this usage, the merely good-natured person is not truly virtuous, although they are on the right track. It's not enough to just do the actions out of habit, although that is part of it. There's something else that has to be there. There has to be, as Bruce Lee would say, "emotional content." The driving force has to be the person, the autonomous will, not merely a habit ingrained from childhood.

Becoming truly virtuous means taking responsibility for your actions, and to take responsibility for your actions means to have an understanding of the importance of acting in a particular way. The action is a habit, but a habit backed by understanding, backed by wisdom, backed by the "emotional content."

A child can act with good habits, but a man must act with wisdom, he must act knowing the ins and outs of the action.

The virtuous man has taken responsibility for his actions, he has made them personal to himself, he has made them important to his life for reasons beyond mere habit. To do so, however, takes some work. It takes hard work to come to realize our motivations, our reasons for doing certain things and not others. But then again, we are talking about excellence here. We can only think of something excellent as being something that takes at least a little work to achieve. It takes hard work and a strong character to want to take responsibility for how he lives, but through doing so, he achieves the attribute of arete and hopefully along with it, a wholesome life.

Mitchell Sahlfeld

6 Responses to "The Difference Between a Person with Good Habits and the Truly Virtuous"

Anonymous Says :
February 25, 2009 at 1:17 PM

Here's a question. Would you agree that to be moral, you cannot solely do that which is good, but you must do it out of "the kindness of your heart"? How many humans have the altruistic capacity to do every moral thing for the other's good, and not their own? Is it not still a moral--or virtuous--act? (Now, if they are doing good things for personal gain, than I don't believe it can still be virtuous)

To stretch this argument a bit further, can we not assume that there should be a higher, non-human, "thing" that these moral acts are performed for? No human can do all virtuous acts out of sincerity in heart; that would be a "perfect human." And "perfect human" reminds me of a famous character in history...

Mitchell Sahlfeld Says :
February 25, 2009 at 6:46 PM

I will agree that in order for an act to be considered moral or virtuous in the idealistic sense it must have some sort of emotional content involved. It must not merely be a drone-like habit performed only because that is how it was taught. This idea though can be a dangerous one because we never really are aware of all of the motives in a single person's mind.

I have no problem though with saying that an act can be for personal gain and still be virtuous. Everyone strives to be the best they can be and taking certain steps towards those endeavors is something that should not be condemned. A quick example is treating your body like a temple. You are the one gaining from doing good things.

Also, I see no reason there absolutely must be a higher being for which these actions are done for. I believe virtue ethics is capable of being an enclosed system. If the end is happiness, then to achieve this happiness a person must act a certain way, a way that expresses who they are and takes responsibility for that. If these actions are not performed, happiness is not achieved. It's a self-sufficient system that does not require a higher judger.

Of course no one can achieve the title of perfect human but I don't see any harm in attempting to reach a higher standard of ourselves. The virtue I was explaining was that of true human excellence. It is something that can be achieved by everyone, but that doesn't mean it is easy.

Thanks for Commenting! I hope to hear from you.

Anonymous Says :
February 26, 2009 at 3:38 PM

"I have no problem though with saying that an act can be for personal gain and still be virtuous."

How can that be? The act itself may be something wonderful, like giving to the poor, but it involves the person so thoroughly that if done for personal gain or any ulterior motive is present, does that not pollute the virtue in the act?

Mitchell Sahlfeld Says :
February 26, 2009 at 4:51 PM

You're absolutely right and I may not have been too clear when I said that. I mean that there are some acts which are done for personal gain which I see as virtuous. Acts such as taking care of your own body, trying to get good schooling, things in general that we try to do in order to improve ourselves in some way.

In the case of giving to the poor, yes, I believe you are right when you say that if you do it just to get a break on your taxes or just look good it stains the virtue of the act. That is an instance where I believe personal gain may need to be left out.

I believe there are instances of acts done for personal gain that we believe are virtuous and wholesome and there are acts in which we should pay attention to the person we are trying to help.

The virtue of the act is highly dependent upon the context of the act.

Mica B Says :
February 27, 2009 at 8:46 AM

I'm gonna go ahead and ignore the discussion that's going on here and tell a story.

This reminds me of once when I was walking along outside with my father. We reached the building where we were headed and he held the door open for me, and then stood there holding the door for a few extra seconds to allow the woman who was a few paces behind us to walk thorough as well. But instead of simply walking through the open door my father was holding, the woman halted in front of him and began to vomit forth an outraged barrage of feminist propaganda...she apparently took a lot of pride in opening doors by herself.

Anywho, it was silly. My dad wasn't being intentionally virtuous, nor was he acting in the way he had been trained by my grandmother who, in all her grace, swore like a sailor and drank liquor straight from the bottle. I didn't ask dad about it later, but I can only presume he acted naturally, not giving the action much thought when he politely held the door open for another human being who reacted in a completely unpredictable and unnecessary fashion.

Now, my dad trained me to be virtuous and hold doors open for people, but he also taught me to politely accept it when somebody wants to do me a favor, or wants to treat me well. He taught me to be gracious as well as accommodating but neither of these made me a particularly virtuous person.

Nathan Says :
April 2, 2009 at 7:21 AM

"can we not assume that there should be a higher, non-human, "thing" that these moral acts are performed for?"
I don't understand how this follows from anything. I feel no need to believe in anything super-human. Why can't our source of moral authority be found in mutual recognition of human beings--in a kind of Democratic social arrangement?

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