Find Enlightenment

Between Instinct and Habit
Aristotle on Habit
by Diana Mertz Hsieh

Date: 10 Mar 97
Forum: Washington University in St-Louis, Honors Thesis (magna cum laude)
Copyright: Diana Mertz Hsieh

In contrast to Nietzsche's theory of instinct, Aristotle's conception of moral dispositions or "habits" is presented within a systematic ethical framework. The substance of his discussion of habit, found in Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics, is intertwined with his examination of the nature of and relations between virtue, the mean, pleasure, and happiness, making for a complicated and subtle theory of moral dispositions. As such, Aristotle's account of moral dispositions has strengths -- and weaknesses -- which Nietzsche's does not share.

Habits, for Aristotle, are determinate states of character formed by training and giving rise to natural regularities in the individual's actions over time. In J.H. Randall's words, the excellences of the individual "can be considered as hexis or 'habits,' as powers possessed by the individual. A 'habit' or hexis for Aristotle is a kind of 'second nature,' an acquired power: like human 'nature' itself, a habit is a determinate power to act in a specific way" (Randall 254). Habits can foster the good life by cultivating virtue and by molding the passions to feel pleasure and pain in the right ways. Good moral judgment is not merely skill in some deductive process of moral judgment and the perform outwardly good actions; the virtuous man must take pleasure in virtue, choosing it for its own sake. Aristotle comments that "the man who does not rejoice in noble actions is not even good; since no one would call a man just who did not enjoy acting justly" (NE I:8, 1099a). Thus Aristotle's account of habit is well-grounded in a synthesis of the rational and emotional elements of moral judgment.

In this chapter, I first discuss Aristotle's perspective on habit, within the context of his larger discussion on virtue and happiness. I then examine the same three elements of habit -- their origin, the process by which they are created, and the results -- that I did for instinct. I pay particular attention to the ways in which Nietzsche's and Aristotle's accounts differ, in order to determine which perspective better addresses the demands of spontaneity, accuracy, and the development of moral skills.

Habit And Virtue In The Nicomachean Ethics:

Aristotle opens his discussion of virtue in Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics with the observation that, while intellectual virtue primarily originates in teaching, "moral virtue comes about as a result of habit" (NE II:1, 1103a). The causal connection between good habits and virtue is made in two distinct ways. First, virtues are states of character, rather than passions or faculties, and states of character are created only through a process of habituation. Second, virtue requires consistently good choices and a choosing of the action for its own sake. Because good habits give rise to consistent patterns of action and mold the passions to feel pleasure and pain rightly, they are instrumental in meeting these requirements of virtue. Thus the formation of habits -- good habits -- is essential to the Aristotelian good life at which virtue aims. As Aristotle commented, "it makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference" (NE II:1, 1103b).

(i) Virtues as states of character acquired by habituation

In making his initial connection between virtue and habit, Aristotle makes extensive use of the intermediary concept of "states of character." Aristotle defines virtue as "a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle" (NE II:6, 1106b). These states of character "arise out of like activities," i.e. out of habitually acting one way rather than another (NE II:1, 1103b). Our virtues must be states of character for Aristotle because they cannot be said to be either passion or faculties. We are not praised or blamed for our passions, because they do not involve choice, or for our faculties, because they exist within us by nature. Virtues, on the other hand, "are modes of choice or involve choice" (NE II:6, 1106a). Aristotle notes that while "in respect of the passions we are said to be moved," where virtues and vices are concerned, we are "disposed in a particular way" (NE II:6, 1106a). Aristotle arrives at the conclusion that virtues must be states of character by a process of elimination; virtues are not passions or faculties, so they must be states of character. In fact, it is states of character which we praise and blame, so that "the virtue of a man [is] the state of character which makes a man good and which makes him do his own work well" (NE II:6, 1106a).

States of character are then connected to the process of habituation by the fact that neither can they be taught nor do they naturally exist in humans. Intellectual virtue is a process which "in the main owes both its birth and its growth to teaching" because it is a matter of acquiring knowledge and using one's mind in the right way (NE I:1, 1103a). Those states of character which form moral virtue, on the other hand, require proper mental, emotional, and physical activity; they involve deliberating in the right way, feeling pleasure in virtuous action, and performing that virtuous action. Therefore, the process by which states of character and moral virtues are formed also must have mental, emotional, and physical elements, as the process of habit-formation does.

A more crucial element to Aristotle's argument that states of character are acquired by habituation is found in his distinction between human attributes existing by nature and those existing by choice. Natural attributes "first acquire the potentiality and later exhibit the activity," while in the case of those characterized by choice "we get [them] first by exercising them" (NE II:1, 1103a). The faculties of sight and digestion, by which we see the world and extract sustenance from food, for example, exist by nature. As soon as developing humans acquire the potentiality for such activity, the activity naturally follows; we do not have to practice seeing in order to see or practice digesting in order to digest. On the other hand, learning to walk is an activity characterized by choice; it is not automatically accomplished once a certain level of physical development has been attained. Children learn to walk by actually practicing walking -- by standing, taking a few steps, falling down, and then repeating the whole process over and over again until the action becomes second nature and can be done with ease. Of actions in this second category, in which Aristotle includes building and lyre-playing, he writes "for the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them" (NE II:1, 1103a). Just as we could not pick up a lyre and automatically know how to play it, we cannot learn how to play based on another's explanation. We must repeatedly perform the action of playing the lyre in order to learn how to play, whether we end up learning to play well or badly.

Because virtue is characterized by choice, Aristotle classifies it as an action we learn by doing. Virtue does not automatically occur within us, as sight and digestion do, but rather is a state of character we can develop only by exercising it over time, i.e. by habitually acting virtuously. In Aristotle's words, "we are adapted by nature to receive [virtues] and are made perfect by habit" (NE II:1, 1003a). We acquire the virtue of justness by repeatedly taking just actions, the virtue of temperance by being temperate, and so on. Thus habit and virtue are necessarily intertwined in Aristotle's account of moral action. I will return to this issue of the role of repetition in habit in the discussion of the process by which habits are formed.

(ii) Virtues as chosen for its own sake through the passions

The second primary link between virtue and habit is found in Aristotle's presupposition that the good man must choose virtuous action for its own sake. A man who was drawn towards vice, but always acted rightly, even though it pained him, is not at all virtuous in the Aristotelian sense. The virtuous man must feel pleasure in virtuous action and pain in vicious action, such that his passions naturally draw him towards virtue and away from vice. Habits allow us to train our passions in the right way, so that we do choose virtue for its own sake and recoil away from vice.

This relationship between the passions and virtue first emerges in Aristotle's statement "we must take as a sign of moral character the pleasure or pain that ensues on acts" (NE II:3, 1104b). The passions of an individual reflect the inner commitment to virtue and the extent to which their virtue is part of them rather than simply a moral theory grafted onto their personality. Additionally, the passions greatly influence the moral choices an individual makes. "Moral excellence is concerned with pleasures and pains [because] it is on account of pleasure that we do bad things, and on the account of the pain that we abstain from noble ones" (NE II:3, 1104b). Thus the virtue of a man cannot be judged simply on the basis of his outwards action; his pleasures and pains tell us just as much, if not more, about his moral character. The link between our passions and our actions, in that pleasures and pains drive us to virtuous or vicious action, is "difficult to rub off engrained as it is in our life" because we have been guided by such passions since childhood (NE II:3, 1105a). Although our passions have the capacity to lead us away from virtue, we should not try to suppress them or eliminate their influence on moral decision-making. Rather because "they possess a high degree of educability and discrimination," we ought to train them to our advantage, so that we delight in virtue and feel anguish in vice (Nussbaum 78). With such habituation, we will, for example, take pleasure in acting kindly towards others, rather than feel resentment, which will thus dispose us to act consistently kindly in the future. In sum, "the man who uses [pleasure and pain] well will be good, and he who uses them badly bad" (NE I:3, 1105a).

We mold our passions to feel pleasure and pain in the right ways by creating good habits, which secures virtue as part of our firm and unchangeable character. Although Aristotle does not elaborate much on this point, presumably by making our principles of virtue integral to our character by habituation, we naturally take pleasure in acting virtuously, because virtuous action is an expression of our sense of self. Vicious action, on the other hand, conflicts with our inner character, leaving us with painful feelings. And so habituation conditions our painful and pleasurable emotions to respond in the right ways, so that we choose virtuous action for its own sake (NE II:4, 1105a).

Aristotle's account of habit, then, is firmly intertwined with his vision of virtue. Not only do habits give rise to consistently virtuous action, by regularizing patterns of behavior, but they also properly order our passions, so that we may choose virtue for its own sake.

Three Elements Of Habit:

In the previous chapter, three distinct elements of Nietzschean instincts were examined -- their origin, the process by which they are created, and resulting action. Aristotle's conception of habit can be analyzed along these same lines, in order to give a fuller account of his theory and to highlight the differences between Nietzsche's and Aristotle's perspectives on moral dispositions. For Aristotle, moral habits need not be self-created; they can just as well originate in youth or legislation as from within the individual. The process by which habits are created is not clearly specified, although he does liken that process to learning other skills, such as lyre-playing, in that both require actual practice at the actions themselves. The result of forming such good habits are settled dispositions to act virtuously, coupled with pleasure in choosing virtuous actions, so that virtuous action comes easily and naturally to the individual.

(i) Origin of habits

For Aristotle, a certain set of good habits must be formed in youth, long before such habits could actually be consciously chosen. In a discussion of the beneficiaries of an inquiry into the good life, he writes, "any one who is to listen intelligently to lectures about what is noble and just and, generally, about the subjects of political science must have been brought up in good habits" (NE I:4, 1095b). A person must already possess some good habits in order to be improved by Aristotle's investigation into the good life; he will not even be open to the knowledge which Aristotle has to offer unless he already strives for and loves the noble and the just. Virtue, then, is to a certain extent dependent upon things outside an individual's sphere of choice, such as the virtue possessed by his parents. Aristotle is not exaggerating his position then, when he states that "it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference" as to "whether we form habits of one kind or another from our very youth" (NE II:1, 1103b). Aristotle goes further, however, in legitimizing virtues which originate outside the individual by making good habits a proper end of politics. He writes "for legislators make the citizens good by forming habits in them, and this is the wish of ever legislator, and those who not not effect it miss their mark, and it is in this that a good constitution differs from a bad one" (NE II:1, 1103b).

That good habits must begin early in life, before an individual has even developed the capacity to be aware that habits are being instilled in him, shows that Aristotle is much less concerned with the degree of self-determination found in moral dispositions than Nietzsche is. On Nietzsche's account, instincts must be created in by a process initiated and directed by the individual in order to be truly morally valuable. Instincts, because they serve the ideals of self-mastery and freedom, must be self-created.

Nevertheless, Aristotle and Nietzsche do share an underlying point of agreement concerning the proper origin of moral dispositions, even if they do ultimately disagree about the value of dispositions created in youth. Nietzsche does hold that habits, mores, or instincts (used in the sense of unconscious mental processes which give rise to action) help create valuable instincts (in the sense of moral dispositions). In the case of the sovereign individual who develops the right to make promises, it is necessary that he be made "to a certain degree necessary, uniform, like among like, regular, and consequently calculable" through internalizing the morality of mores (GM II:2). Only after having adopted these social standards can he go through the process of overcoming both those mores and forgetfulness, in order to create within himself the instinct of responsibility for his promises. Thus, although the habits and mores inculcated in individuals without choice or awareness serve, in a certain sense, as an obstacle to the creation of genuine instincts, they are also, in a different sense, a necessary element in the process of creating those instincts. It is important to note, however, that Aristotle does not view early-formed habits as an obstacle of any sort to virtue. In fact, his esteem of the habits which legislators can build into citizens testifies to the degree to which moral habits, for Aristotle, can just as well originate from sources outside the individual as from within.

As an empirical matter, it is true that virtue later in life requires, in almost all cases, a decent moral upbringing. ŻIt is also true that legislators should heed the incentive effects of the laws they pass, i.e. the habits which their laws help form. Nevertheless, from a normative perspective, our moral dispositions, when self-created, give us a greater degree of control over our lives. By holding an ideal of consciously created moral dispositions, such that those dispositions give us, not others, greater control over our actions, we are better able to live our own lives and to take responsibility for our choices.

(ii) The process of creating habits

Aristotle's account of the second element of habit -- the process by which moral habits are created -- is not particularly clear from his discussions in the Nicomachean Ethics. He offers two main arguments, one an analogy to learning physical skills, the other a differentiation between an individual acting in accordance with his own internal knowledge versus acting by chance. Nevertheless, an Aristotelian account of the process of habituation can be developed out of Aristotle's comments and from the suggestions of Sarah Broadie in her book Ethics with Aristotle.

In Chapter 1 of Book II, Aristotle connects the process of habituation to the way in which we learn to perform physical tasks. He states that "the virtues we get first by exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyre-players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts" (NE II:1, 1103a). In other words, just as we learn physical tasks by engaging in them, we learn virtue by being virtuous. Although this analogy gives Aristotle's description of the process of habituation a certain intuitive explanatory power, as Broadie points out, it "has almost nothing to say about how or why by acting in a certain way we acquire the corresponding moral dispositions" (Broadie 104).

In Chapter 4, Aristotle further addresses the issue of how habituation leads to virtue, in response to the objection that "if men do just and temperate acts, they are already just and temperate" (NE II:4, 1105a). In response, Aristotle argues that the moral "agent must be in a certain condition when he does [virtuous acts]" (NE II:4, 1105a). He cannot simply be acting "by chance or at the suggestion of another" (NE II:4, 1105a). The virtuous man in the first place "must have knowledge, second he must choose the acts and choose them for their own sakes, and thirdly his action must proceed from a firm and unchangeable character" (NE II:4, 1105a). Although this argument clarifies precisely what Aristotle believes habituation achieves, it still does not specify precisely how habituation achieves those results.

One interpretation of the process by which habits are created and thereby lead to virtue is that habitually acting just or brave, before one's character is actually just or brave is like performing warm-up exercises on the muscles before a workout; habit, like the warm-up, "softens up initial resistance" (Broadie 108). Aristotle's previously-discussed appeal to the distinction between activity occurring by nature (such as digestion) and activity characterized by choice supports this interpretation. Aristotle comments, for example, that

it is also plain that none of the moral virtues arise in us by nature; for nothing that exists by nature can form a habit contrary to its nature. For instance the stone which by nature moves downwards cannot be habituated to move upwards, not even if one tries to train it by throwing up then thousand times (NE II:1, 1003a).

But, as Broadie points out, "we need not take the passage to say (what would be illogical as well as unrealistic) that because sheer repetition cannot train a stone, therefore sheer repetition does train a human being to virtue" (Broadie 108). Broadie argues that blind repetition, in fact, cannot create good habits, because acting virtuously often demands very different types of actions, due to dissimilarities between moral situations. In the case of justice, "the just action is sometimes a giving, sometimes a withholding, sometimes treating people alike, sometimes different and so on (Broadie 108). Additionally, this interpretation of habit as merely physical repetition is contradicted by Aristotle's discussion of the psychological and emotional conditions of virtuous action which moral agents must meet discussed in the previous paragraph.

To fill in this gap in Aristotle's discussion of habit, Broadie offers her own positive account of how the process of habituation leads to virtue, based on the fact that habituation teaches us the skills necessary for good moral decision-making. According to Broadie, habit "engenders concrete experience of very general things: being an agent, trying, succeeding through trying, concentrating against distractions, looking for what is relevant. It generates the knowledge that one can rise to an occasion, as well as take pride in having so risen" (Broadie 109). By challenging ourselves to be just before we possess a stable disposition for justness, we practice and slowly gain experience in the difficult aspects of moral decision-making. The skills we do learn from habituation are more numerous than just those that Broadie lists, though. For example, an individual aiming for virtuous action will learn to be sensitive to the essential details of a moral situation, to make moral decisions under pressure, to be attentive to the feelings of friends, to defend her actions against unjust authority, to move beyond the pain of moral failure, to enjoy her own moral growth, etc.. Because these skills cannot be taught, but rather can only be slowly developed by an individual who is repeatedly performing certain actions, habitual action is required for their development. The relationship, in fact, is reciprocal; habitual action helps create such moral skills and those moral skills, in turn, make habitual action easier (and thus more habitual).

Nancy Sherman, in her book The Fabric of Character, is essentially in agreement with this account of the process of habituation. She writes,

"A more plausible conception [than rote blindness] of repeating the same action will involve trying to approximate some ideal action type that has been set as one's goal. Learning through repetition will then be a matter of successive trials that vary from one another as they approach this ideal way of acting. The practice is more a refinement of actions through successive trials than a sheer mechanical repetition of any one action" (Sherman 178-9).

The "rehearsal" involved in habituation, for Sherman, gives us practice in "critical capacities such as attending to a goal, recognizing mistakes and learning from them, understanding instructions, following tips and cues, [and] working out how to adapt a model's example to one's own behavior" (Sherman 179). Although Sherman is much more teleological in her explanation than Broadie, both share the view that habituation is a process by which certain, specific skills of moral decision-making are learned. And so the method by which repeated performance of virtuous action makes us virtuous becomes clearer.

These interpretations of the process of habituation allow us to extend and make more sense of Aristotle's analogy between habit and acquiring physical skills, such a building or lyre-playing. The development of the skills of moral decision-making through habitual action is like learning to be sensitive to being in key when singing or to learning how much mortar ought to be used in building a brick wall. By repeatedly singing and checking our tone against a piano, we develop our own inner ear, such that we slowly become better judges of whether we have gone flat or sharp without the aid of a piano. In building a brick wall, through practice, we get an an eye for how much mortar is the right amount, so that it feels as if we could perceptually see "the right amount." All of these small skills are gained through repetition and by comparing our results to external standards (such as a piano, a master builder, or the man of practical wisdom); by developing them, we acquire a capacity for singing, building, or virtue which we did not previously possess.

(iii) The action produced by habits

The third element of habit -- the results in action which the process of habituation brings -- is very clear in the Nicomachean Ethics. The final end for humans is happiness, which is found by fulfilling the characteristic function of man. That characteristic function of man is "a certain kind of life, and this to be an activity or actions of the soul implying a rational principle, and the function of a good man to be the good and noble performance of these… in accordance with the appropriate excellence" (NE I:8, 1098a). Thus "human good turns out to be activity of the soul in accordance with virtue" (NE I:8, 1098a). Good habits are a necessary element of the virtuous individual, such that good or bad habits help determine whether a life is, in the end, a happy one or not.

In addition, well-formed habits will allow us to take pleasure in virtue and feel pain in vice, such that we are easily and naturally impelled towards virtuous action and away from vicious action. Sherman even extends this basic idea by asking whether "pleasure [can] attach to a broader notion of development, in particular one which includes the acquisition and habituation of states, such as virtue." In that case, "pleasure would arise not only from the exercise of developed capacities and states upon appropriate objects, but from the activity or practice which constitutes their development" (Sherman 186). Thus, the pleasure gained from moral growth would serve as an impetus to further moral development.

Another, related consequence of forming good habits is a harmony between the passions. Aristotle notes that "for most men their pleasures are in conflict with one another because these [pleasures] are not by nature pleasant" (NE I:1, 1099a). In contrast, the actions in which the virtuous man takes pleasure are pleasant by nature, meaning that they are in agreement with his natural functions as a human. And so the passions of such a man are well-ordered and in harmony with one another, making the process of moral decision-making enormously less conflicted.

This account of moral dispositions, offered by Aristotle and supplemented by Broadie and Sherman, shows particular strength in the way in which it enables accurate, and yet spontaneous moral decision-making. Reason and passion are integrated through habituation; habituation both allows us to learn the myriad of important skills required for good moral decision-making, as well as conditions the emotions to feel pleasure in the right way, so that we will choose virtue for its own sake. This harmony, despite Aristotle's view that moral dispositions need not originate in the self, will prove to be valuable in the next and final chapter, where I will further develop the account of moral dispositions outlined in the first chapter.

Go to next section.

Find Enlightenment at