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The Magazine: Habit, virtue and the journey to become

The Magazine: Habit, virtue and the journey to become

by George Clifford


My formal study of ethics began with exploring moral decision-making. How do people make moral choices? What rules are important? When, if ever, and on what basis should one make an exception to those rules? A rule-based morality has an attractive simplicity. The process of assembling the evidence and arguments, and then analyzing which choice is the best (or least bad) from among the alternatives, intrigued me. My seminary ethics professors’ research and teaching interests were also focused on moral decision-making and moral dilemmas, reinforcing my initial orientation.


However, after a decade of studying, teaching, and preaching about moral decision-making, I realized that my focus was largely misplaced. True ethical dilemmas that require difficult moral decisions occur infrequently. Emphasizing rational deliberation ignores the large and ever-present emotional aspect of a person’s moral life. People get into moral difficulty generally because they fail to do what they know is good or right.


Perhaps as much as 95% of human behavior is a function of habit or acquired patterns (Nancey Murphy and Warren S. Brown, Did My Neurons Make Me Do It? Kindle Loc. 1472-73). Illustratively, I rarely consciously consider whether to tell the truth, to refrain from stealing, to honor my vow of fidelity to my partner, etc. I simply act in habitual ways. And, because cognitive research indicates that conscious thought usually if not always lags non-conscious brain activity, perhaps even the semblance of conscious moral decision-making is just that, illusion rather than a reality.


Consequently, my interest in ethics shifted from moral decision making to virtue ethics. Virtue ethics emphasizes cultivating habits (philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre calls them practices) that express who I want to be as a person. Virtue ethics aims to shape a person’s character such that ethical behavior becomes that individual’s habitual way of acting. Christian Ethics, I concluded, consists not of prescribing a set of moral principles but trying to describe a pattern of life that leads to life abundant and human flourishing.


I stopped pondering the question of what Jesus taught and started seeking to know Jesus and how he lived. For example, I stopped trying to reconcile the gospel record of Jesus saying that he came to fulfill the Mosaic Law with the several gospel accounts in which Jesus and his disciples apparently transgressed the Mosaic Law. I began inquiring about the virtues (or habits or practices) that Jesus embodied. Jesus, I recognized, acted in ways that bent or made exceptions to the Law if adhering to the Law (or to its then prevalent interpretation) would have resulted in behaviors that disrespected or devalued persons. In other words, respect for the well-being of others was a foundational virtue for Jesus.


In contrast to rule-based ethics, virtue ethics better coheres with our various relationships, a critical insight of feminist ethics. Ethicists such as Immanuel Kant incorrectly contend that a person should act the same toward everyone. In some circumstances, I rightly treat my family differently than I do my friends and my friends differently than I do strangers. Following Jesus’ example has implications for all of a person’s relationships, but requires us to act in ways appropriate to each relationship.


Admittedly, virtues may evoke conflicting actions. Do I tell the truth and hurt someone’s feelings or do I lie to avoid pointlessly inflicting harm? That is not merely a hypothetical query, as fans of the TV show Doc Martin recognize. Doc Martin tends to be ruthlessly honest, disregarding others’ feelings. The show is funny precisely because although most of us are usually honest, we routinely lie (intentionally deceive) to avoid hurting another person’s feelings. Good character formation has taught us how to reconcile situationally conflicting virtues without needing to weigh choices consciously or to compromise our moral character.


This Lent, try emulating Jesus more fully by giving up or taking on a specific habit or practice. Then, commit to making that habit a daily part of life for the next seven weeks with intentionally expecting the change to become permanent.


A 2013 study at University College London asked 96 participants “to choose an everyday behavior that they wanted to turn into a habit. They all chose something they didn’t already do that could be repeated every day; many were health-related: people chose things like ‘eating a piece of fruit with lunch’ and ‘running for 15 minutes after dinner.'” On average, participants required 66 days to form a new habit. As one might expect, some habits (e.g., drinking a glass of water after breakfast) developed quickly (20 days) whereas those forming an exercise habit (e.g., walking 10 minutes after breakfast) required more than twice as many days to form the habit. (J. Dean, Making Habits, Breaking Habits, pp. 3-7)


The Christian life is a journey of becoming. Eugene Peterson memorably described the Christian life as a long obedience in the same direction, phrasing perhaps adapted from a sentence in Chapter 5 of Friedrich Nietzsche‘s Beyond Good and Evil. Concentrating on developing (or ending!) only one habit each Lent will, over the course of 40, 50, or 70 years, inevitably result in a person who has a much greater resemblance to Jesus.


In the words of Mahatma Gandhi (quoted in Bruce Lipton, The Biology of Belief, p. 114):

Your beliefs become your thoughts

Your thoughts become your words

Your words become your actions

Your actions become your habits

Your habits become your values

Your values become your destiny




George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years, recently authored Just Counterterrorism, and blogs at Ethical Musings.


Image: Four Virtues by Kitagawa Utamaro


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