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  • Habituation and Character Change
  • Kathleen Poorman Dougherty

The standard view regarding character traits is that they are habituated, stable dispositions that develop over time. This position is put forth in its most familiar form in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, where he outlines the development of character, arguing that one becomes virtuous or vicious through habituation of the corresponding sorts of actions. Thus, we become generous by performing generous actions, courageous by performing courageous actions, rash by performing rash actions, and so on for all the virtues and vices. He puts it most directly at 1103b, saying, "To sum it up in a single account: a state [of character] results from [the repetition of] similar activities."1 Concomitant with this understanding of the development of character traits is the claim that once developed, character traits are stable and do not change rapidly or without the requisite rehabituation. Once a person has learned to be generous or courageous, the assumption is that she will, barring unusual circumstances, remain that way, for rehabituation is difficult and probably rare at best.

For the most part, this standard view of the development and entrenchment of character reflects our common experience. It is easy to acknowledge the personal difficulty of making changes in our character, even with respect to fairly insignificant habits (ask any nail-biter or procrastinator!) let alone more central and entrenched character traits. Likewise, most realistic people will not expect others to change and will take a promise to change as well-intentioned at best, if not also somewhat simple-minded. Yet, other common intuitions seem to conflict with this traditional view: we find it easy to accept literary examples, and potentially even some real-life examples, of people whose characters have undergone radical change either for the better or the worse [End Page 294] quite quickly. So, even though the standard view of character traits as entrenched dispositions that develop over time seems to fit our common experiences, radical character change must be comprehensible and even possible, or these literary examples would not resonate with us. It's these competing intuitions about character change that I give further consideration here, in hope that they can be reconciled.

More specifically, I consider how we ought to best understand cases of apparent moral transformation in light of this "standard view" that genuine moral character develops only through long-term habituation. First, I describe the traditional Aristotelian view in more detail, noting the important connections between habituation, practical wisdom and entrenchment. Then, I introduce two familiar literary cases of apparent moral transformation, namely Euripides' Hecuba and Dickens's Scrooge. Finally, I consider the skeptical response to these examples, namely that they do not represent genuine cases of rapid character change, but simply a misunderstanding or a misdescription of the process of character development. In doing so, I argue that it is perfectly plausible for such rapid character transformations to occur, because certain radical experiences may require a completely new interpretation of the world and necessitate a different form of engagement with it. Thus, I maintain that though it is generally true that character develops over time, it is neither conceptually nor practically impossible for character to change independently of habituation.


The development of the moral virtues, Aristotle tells us, is like learning a craft in that neither comes to us naturally, but rather both develop through practice and repetition: "we learn a craft by producing the same product that we must produce when we have learned it, becoming builders, e.g., by building and harpists by playing the harp; so also, then, we become just by doing just actions, temperate by doing temperate actions, brave by doing brave actions" (1103a32–1103b). But just as learning to build or play the harp is a long and arduous process, with many stumbles along the way, so is the development of virtue. We will certainly not get actions right the first time, but will likely fail many times along the way. As Nancy Sherman points out, the kind of habituation Aristotle has in mind cannot be blind or rote habituation.2 Developing virtue will not be a matter of behaving exactly the same way each...


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pp. 294-310
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