Why We Need Habits

Why do we need habits? If what makes people different from animals is their ability to know truth as such, wherever it is to be found, and not only some limited environment, and again, their capacity to love and seek for goodness, wherever it is to be found, habituation seems to be a kind of degradation of the human being. To act from habit is like acting from instinct, rather than from judgment and choice, insight and love.

To this I would say that it might, indeed, in some sense be ideal if we could have complete insight into the situations in which we live, know all of the implications and effects on human goods and relationships that various possible actions would have, and in view of all this, make a conscious choice before doing any new action.

All this, however, is mere fantasy, or at least speculation (maybe Adam could actually have made decisions that way before the fall). It is totally impossible for us to have every single aspect of a situation in mind, and to explicitly trace all of the particular goods involved in our actions (health, pleasure, the good of laughter, relationship with friends, material goods, etc.) in a detailed manner back to the supreme good, God himself. If we were to attempt to do so, we would take a ridiculous length of time to decide, for instance, when shopping, whether to buy a cheaper but slightly less good tasting or less healthy food  or a more expensive but better food.

In order to make decisions in a reasonable time frame and to act upon our decisions, we need to be immediately inclined to many particular goods to be loved and pursued: to the good of our family and friends, the good of society, the good of studying, the good of music, etc. Moreover, we need to be able to easily and readily make a judgment of the proportion of one good to another, as in the example of spending a little more money for better food.

This "readiness" and inclination to pursue certain goods, to favor one over another, to make a certain balance between them, is the result of a conditioning that occurs over time, as the result of many particular actions and we do, reactions we have to events that happen, our favorable or unfavorable perceptions of other person's behavior, especially those we consciously or unconsciously see as role models. When this conditioning acquires a kind of stability, it is what Aristotle and St. Thomas call a "habit."

In English we reserve the name "habit" for the kinds of conditioning that lead us regularly to a particular action, even without thinking about it. We don't give the name "habit" to primarily perceptive capacities, such as an acquired ability to readily recognize the music of Chopin, or to the acquired capability of quickly weighing up the advantages and disadvantages of one purchase or another. The name "habit" is mostly restricted to inclinations to actually perform a certain action. And even then, we usually don't use the term "habit" to the disposition to perform a certain action if a conscious decision is involved. E.g., if a husband has acquired the readiness to stop watching television, or to take out the trash, or other such things, as soon as his wife asks, we wouldn't tend the use the term "habit." But essentially the same kind of conditioning has occurred that occurs when we get into the habit of pressing the snooze on our alarm clock in the morning, of ruffling our hair, of arriving early (or late), etc. The main difference is that some of these habits (or dispositions) involve mostly our reasoning or perceptive faculties, others involve our instincts, others involve the whole person, with thought, choice, and emotion. We speak of habits mostly in reference to those dispositions that involve instinctive or even mostly unconscious action.

One disadvantage of this usage in speech is that we may not recognize all the parallels between this sort of conditioning, and the conditioning of our person–thought processes,  decision making processes, and emotional reactions–that is essential for virtuous behavior.

More Notes on the Goodness of the Passions

When a man is affected by a passion, things seem to him greater or smaller than they really are, as to a lover, what he loves seems better, and to him who fears, what he fears seems more dreadful. Consequently owing to the defect of right judgment, every passion, considered in itself, hinders the ability of deliberating well. (Summa Theologiae 44:2).

St. Thomas thus argues that while fear inclines us to think about how to avoid the thing or danger we are afraid of, it has the tendency to distort our judgment of the matter. From this it might seem to follow that it would be ideal never to feel fear, that we would thus act most reasonably and humanly. Thomas does not, however, draw this consequence, but affirms the value of fear for human, rational action.

If fear is moderate, not disturbing the reason very much, it conduces to acting well, insofar as it causes a certain solicitude, and makes a man deliberate and act with greater attention. If, however, fear increases so much as to disturb the reason, it hinders action even on the part of the soul. (Summa Theologiae 44:4)

In this passage Aquinas grants the point he made above, that even moderate fear has a certain tendency to incline our judgment to it, and in this way to make our judgment less objective. But when fear is moderate, and when it is directed to something that is a real danger, a real possible evil, then the benefits outweigh the harm.

In general the effect of such emotions, which is to make us focus on certain aspects of what is before us, and to judge them accordingly, has potential benefits and potential risks: (1a) Though an emotion such as fear may make us overestimate the fearfulness of an evil, (1b) if we would otherwise have underestimated it, then it brings our estimation closer to the truth; again, (2a) though the emotion may make us overlook certain things, (2b) it may also bring certain things to our attention, which we would otherwise not have given attention to.

In the larger picture, the largest factor determining whether passions and emotions are beneficial or detrimental for truly human action, is the formation of the emotions, which takes place through the acquisition of virtue. When an emotion itself is a formed and reasonable passion, the overall effect is almost always good.

A note on Aquinas's use of scripture here: In the Sed Contra of 44:4 he cites St. Paul, "With fear and trembling work out your salvation" (Phil 2:12), and remarks in the body of the article that though excessive fear hinders us from acting well, St. Paul is not speaking of this kind of fear. This seems to be an indication that Aquinas is not simply using St. Paul as a "proof text" for an opinion he gets from, say, Aristotle, but sees a real and significant doctrine on the role of emotions in Christian life in the Sacred Scriptures, though of course, in this systematic work, he does not go into all detail of exegetical questions.

With fear and trembling work out your salvation

Aquinas on Pleasure as the Measure of Morality

In his treatise on the passions in the Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas, discussing the goodness of pleasure, asks whether pleasure is the measure or rule for judging moral goodness or badness. He argues that it is, on the basis of the three principles that (1) moral goodness depends upon the will, that (2) the goodness of the will depends chiefly upon the end to which it is directed, and that (3) pleasure or delight is most of all an end, since it is not desirable for the sake of anything further.

Moral goodness or badness depends chiefly on the will, as was said above (q. 20, a. 1); and it is chiefly from the end that we discern whether the will is good or evil. Now the end is taken to be that in which the will rests, and the rest of the will and of every appetite in the good is pleasure. And therefore man is judged to be good or bad chiefly according to the pleasure of the human will, since that man who takes pleasure in the works of virtue is good and virtuous, and that man who takes pleasure in evil works is evil (Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 34, a. 4).

The difficulty we encounter, however, is that pleasure itself always has a further measure–we take delight in an action that which we find or perceive to be good. Thomas consistently affirms that actions themselves are the ends of pleasures, in the sense that pleasures are explained by actions (e.g., we find pleasure in eating, and in seeking truth, because these things are naturally good for us). Now the most fundamental relationship we have to the good is not that of taking pleasure in it, but that of love for it. So it seems the criterion of the just man, or of the humble man, should be that he love justice or humility, not that he take delight in them. This is also fits with of virtue as the "order of love." If we look at virtue as St. Augustine does, as the "order of love" within us (ordo amoris), it seems we should rather say that love is the measure of moral goodness, rather than pleasure or delight.

From the perspective of historical influence and authorities, one thing to remark here is that Aquinas is here following Aristotle's Ethics in describing pleasure as the measure of moral goodness. The only other place I'm aware of where Aquinas unfolds this view of pleasure as the measure of goodness in detail, is in his Commentary on the Nichomachean Ethics.

Is Thomas Aquinas simply being inconsistent here, putting together the Augustinian (and his own) view where love has priority in regard to moral, human, and Christian goodness, with Aristotle's view? No, Thomas himself is aware of the difficulty, and addresses it in the first objection and reply to it in this article. The objection argues that love and desire come prior to pleasure, and therefore have more the character of a governing principle or measure. In response, Thomas says:

Love and desire precede pleasure in the order of generation. But pleasure precedes them with respect to the account of an end, which in actions has the account of a principle, by which judgment is most of all made, as by a rule or measure.

The "end" here is that which one comes to last, and which thus manifests everything that comes before it. The reason why an act of justice is morally good is indeed the love for justice from which it springs, but the manifestation of the goodness of justice is the delight the just man takes in acting justly. And since a measure or rule has to be readily known, it is pleasure which is described as the measure of goodness, rather than love.

Holy Envy

You might have thought occasionally, with holy envy, about the adolescent Apostle John, quem diligebat Iesus – whom Jesus loved. Wouldn’t you like to deserve to be called ‘the one who loves the Will of God’? Then take the necessary steps, day after day. (St. Josemarie Escriva, The Forge)

St. Thomas Aquinas defines envy as sadness over some good or excellence another person possesses, inasmuch as one perceives this good or excellence as taking away from one's own good. Understood in this way, envy is said to be bad "in itself", and indeed "in its species"

Now the focus of a person's sadness might be on his own not having what the other person has, with an accompanying wish to have it himself, or it might be on the other person's having what he doesn't, with the accompanying wish that the other not have it. (He gets to have a day off, and I don't! If he gets to, then I should too!… I don't get to have a day off, but he does! If I can't have one, he shouldn't either!)

While the latter type of envy is the worse of the two, both types are bad if and inasmuch as they consider the good of another person, in relation to one's good, as something bad and undesirable. This is contrary both to truth and to charity: to truth, since it is not truly bad, but good; to charity, which seeks the good of others.

What about "holy envy"? How does that relate to the usual meaning of envy?

While there are a couple of usages of holy envy, the most exemplary one is probably an admiration for a true and noble good that another person has, which one either cannot or does not have, accompanied by a longing so strong as to cause pain, or nearly do so. Inasmuch as there is a pain involved, a pain that somehow arises from not having something someone else has, it is similar to envy in the usual sense of the term. The difference is that the pain or sadness is not really about the other person's possession of good, but is caused by one's own great desire to possess that good. Supposing that this yearning and any consequent pain is not excessive, but remains without reason, and is not depressing, but motivating one to pursue that good, this yearning is itself good. This yearning for something truly good that one sees in another, this great desire that is or verges on being painful, is what is meant by "holy envy."

The Moral Goodness of the Passions

Can passion or emotion increase the moral goodness of human action, or does it always decrease it? It might seem at first that it always decreases it, since human or moral action is an action that is chosen deliberately, which implies a rational judgment. But passion tends to win reason's judgment over to itself: whenever we feel as though something is pleasant or unpleasant, good or bad, possible or impossible, etc., we will be inclined to judge the matter to be really so. Insofar as passion tends to sway reason over to itself, it impedes the judgment of reason. Thus it seems that passions or feelings make our judgments, and in consequence our decisions, less true, and consequently less good from a moral perspective.

Now, given that feelings or passions can be in accord with reason and with man's true good, and that they can be indirectly voluntary, being willed or permitted (see the previous post The Moral Value of the Passions), it is clear that this is something good. It is a moral good not only to do an act of kindness for someone, but it is also a moral good to feel kindly toward them.

Yet it is not simply a matter of two separate moral goods. Feeling kindly, if one also wills to be kindly, may increase the person's overall attention to and intention of being kind, and in this way intensify and perfect the human act as a voluntary act.

What about the objection, that passion always hinder rational judgment and choice? The first response to this is that sometimes passions or feelings actually come from rational judgment and choice, and so if they affect reason and choice afterward, it is by way of supporting them, not tearing them down. In such a case the passion does not decrease the moral goodness of an action. We may and should admit, however, that a judgment and choice which is largely the result of passion or emotion is less good or less bad than a similar judgment and choice that does not result from passion. Thus someone who strikes another person out of anger performs an act less morally bad than someone who strikes another person out of simple dislike for that person. Similarly someone who does an act of kindness for another person simply because of feeling pity for them, performs an act less morally good than someone who does an act of kindness for another person because that other person is a fellow human being and created in the image of God.

Does this mean, though, that the ideal is to never have any passions or emotions except those that are the result of rational judgment and choice? Yes and no. Considering only the abstract relationship between passion and reason, this is an ideal. But taking into account our actual situation and our limited ability to make rational judgments without the data of emotion, such an absolute priority of reason over emotion is not an ideal to be striven for. First of all, it is impossible. Secondly, it is actually undesirable for us in our present state, for several reasons: (1) we often need to react somehow or other to an event, before we have time to think. And it is better to react well in most such cases, and badly in a few, than to always do badly by failing to react in time; (2) we would often overlook many important aspects of a situation or of a person, if various feelings did not direct our attention to them; the feeling of pity, for example, often draws us to give more and more appropriate attention to the need of other persons than we would otherwise.

The Moral Value of the Passions

It is clear that passions, feelings, or emotions can be good or bad. First of all some are in themselves pleasant (and in this sense good), such as joy, hope, and similar emotions, others in themselves unpleasant (and in this sense bad), such as sadness, anxiety, and the like (though they can be good with respect to their purpose, as will shortly be evident). Secondly, and more importantly, passions can lead us to good actions or away from harmful actions. Fear of one's child being harmed may lead a person to give greater attention to the child; hope of completing a great project may lead a person to persevere and to give greater effort, and so on.

Thus the passions can be good and useful (or harmful, as the case may be), and in this sense have relevance for a human and moral life. But do the passions themselves have moral value? Are they themselves morally good or bad?

It might seem that  passions are not morally good or bad, since they are, after all, passive. They aren't something we do, but something we feel. Thus they don't seem to be voluntary, to be something we are responsible for, and so we can neither be blamed nor praised for them.

But this objection doesn't sufficiently take into account the various indirect ways in which we can control our feelings, and thus ways in which feelings themselves are voluntary, though indirectly. A person is able to, for example, nourish a grudge, by deliberately thinking about his grievance against someone. Similarly someone is able to increase feelings of sympathy, inasmuch as, e.g., he imagines himself in the place of a suffering person. Or again, to decrease his anger, inasmuch as he takes care to think on the bigger picture, on positive aspects of the situation instead of negative ones, etc. In such cases the greater or lesser degree of emotion is itself voluntary, to the extent that one voluntarily promotes or hinders it.

A lesser, but still very important way in which an emotion or lack thereof can be voluntary, is inasmuch as someone is physically, psychically and morally capable of doing something to increase or lessen the emotion, and ought to do so, yet fails to do so. In this case the omission itself, being voluntary, makes the consequent lack of influence over the emotion also voluntary in a secondary way. Thus a person inclined to violent anger, if he fails to take any precautions to control his anger, may be rightly blamed for the escalation of his anger.

The Good of the Irascible Appetite

Why does human nature have "irascible" appetites? St. Thomas Aquinas, in explaining why we have an irascible faculty–which though named from "anger", ira, includes all appetite aimed at attaining goals which are difficult, and which require overcoming obstacles (not necessarily enemies)–makes a comparison with all natural and corruptible things, and says that things which are fallible, and can be hindered from reaching an end, need to have an inclination not only to seek their end, but also to overcome obstacles.

One might here raise an objection: in the case of man, at least, the desire for a good or pleasant end should be enough, since when a person is seeking an end, then he will not only go towards that end out of his desire for it, but will also push aside or go through obstacles out of that same desire. Take the case of a man who desires to untie a package. If he encounters difficulty in untying the knot, his desire to untie the package is enough to make him persevere, without getting angry or high-spirited, or being dead set on finishing the untying whatever happens. In fact, he may be less effective if he gets angry at the knotted cord. To what purpose then an additional appetite aimed specifically at overcoming this obstacle?

Leaving aside for a moment this particular example, I'll try to expand on St. Thomas's explanation, and then then return to discuss the particular case.

The sensitive appetites do not attain to the account of the good as such, but directly concern very particular goods. Hence, anything painful has a nearly direct contrariety to pleasurable goods. Moreover, as Plato remarked, we estimate a pleasure or pain that is present to us as greater than an actually equal pleasure or pain in the future. For these reasons, a present difficulty or pain involved in seeking the goods we want, by lessening the desire aroused by our imagination of these goods, would hinder our efforts to attain them. For example, a man trying to push a heavy stone in his garden in order to make room to plant more vegetables, will be at least somewhat put off by his hand hurting.

In order to be more successful in attaining the goods we want, in the face of difficulties, we have a special desire which is aimed at the “difficult good”. Such a desire is not directly mitigated by the difficulty or pain involved, but indeed strengthened, though it can be indirectly weakened, inasmuch as the desire on which it is based (the desire of attaining something good and pleasant) is weakened by the difficulty or pain. To avoid even this indirect mitigation from being too substantial, the irascible appetites have a kind of independence from the simple desires on which they are based. Once someone, foreseeing great difficulties in winning a prize in a contest, steels himself to do so, he may well persist in his attempts, even if he no longer has the original desire to win the prize—if he learns that it is not what he thought it was. Similarly, when a person who is angry with someone because he thinks the other person cheated, learns that they didn't, he may remain angry… and perhaps think of other bad things the person did, to “justify” the anger.

This distinct and somewhat independent desire for achieving difficult goods, precisely because of its specific relationship to what is difficult, and its independence from simple desire for what is good or bad, supports us far more in seeking future goods when things get difficult than the simple desire for them would. The flip side of this, however, is that this desire can support us too much. If the person becomes really resolved to move that stone whatever happens, he may break his wrist in the process, a result that isn't justified for the sake of growing a few more vegetables. Anger especially in many cases moves us more than is justified. It is probably mostly useful in situations where (1) physical aggression is required, or (2) a particular person is disposed to inertia even when notices injustices which he could and should rectify.

Returning to the particular case of the knotted package, it is probable that anger, or even great determination is not particularly useful in this case, unless the best way of opening the package is ripping the rope by bare strength (supposing no knife is available, and the knot can't be untied). But this doesn't show that anger or spiritedness is unnecessary, only that it is not perfectly well directed. Anger, spiritedness, determination are helpful in overcoming specific kinds of obstacles, or in specific situations for specific persons, but as immediate appetites not perfectly governed by reason, these appetites of anger, determination, drive, etc., are also often aroused in situations where they aren't so helpful.