Friday, November 17, 2006

"Habituation" and Moral Development

On Wednesday, Gavin Lawrence spoke here at UC Riverside on Aristotle's conception of moral development. Lawrence argued that Aristotle stood something like "habituation" -- the acquisition of habits -- near the center of moral development, especially early moral development. Unfortunately, Lawrence left the concept of "habituation" relatively undeveloped.

One issue I find intriguing is the proper method of encouraging the acquisition of moral habits early in development.

Consider first a non-moral example: If you want a child to learn to like broccoli, is it better to force him to eat it again and again, expecting he'll learn to tolerate it more and eventually develop a taste for it? Or is forcing it counterproductive, leading the child increasingly to dislike it?

Correspondingly, if you want a child to learn to share, is it better to force her to share, or does forcing moral actions, contrary to the inclinations of the child's heart, only poison morality for her and impair her moral development?

In asking this question, I had the ancient Chinese philosophers Xunzi and Mencius in mind. Xunzi seems to adopt the first perspective as a general policy, and Mencius may endore the latter (if P.J. Ivanhoe's interpretation is right, though I worry that Ivanhoe depends too much on a dubious interpretation of Mengzi 2A2). Ivanhoe's Mencius suggests that the best spur to moral development is encouraging people to reflect and discover their joy at behaving morally in certain situations; and as you act morally and reflect on this joy, the moral inclinations grow in breadth and strength.

I posed this question to Lawrence in the discussion period after his talk. He suggested that he doubted Aristotle would have thought there was one universally best way to encourage moral development. Maybe sometimes it's better to force, at other times to lay off. Surely that must be right (if a bit cagey). I wonder if we can't lay moral educators on a spectrum depending on the extent to which they see habituation by coercion as an important and non-damaging tool in moral education, and then dispute about how far to one end or the other of this spectrum it's best to go.

I posed the same question to my seven-year-old son Davy that evening, and here's what he said:
If you want a child to learn to like broccoli, put tasty sauce on it. If you want a child to learn to like to share, start with his sharing something he doesn't like anyway and make sure the other child has something really cool to share back.

Ah, the wisdom of those on whom moral education (and broccoli) is inflicted!


Brad C said...

This is a post after my own heart!

Any way, I only have a minute (have to run to a talk) but here are some thoughts that occur to me (associations):

First, peer and genetic influence is often greater than parental teaching on these issues (that is what lots of social psychologists argue anyway). I think that peer influences are more important than people like Leiter suggest and that ancient philosophers may have been responding to this when they assigned the arts a pivotal role in providing edifying representations that shape what we would now call "youth culture". Well, that is how I would argue we should interpret what Plato says in, e.g. the Laws, to make is his view seem reasonable. Iris Murdoch is someone else who has talked about this. Maybe people working on literature, the emotions, and morality do so too, but I am not sure about that.

Second, what about cases where we are trying to teach prohibitions? Here the choice seems to be between bribing/positively reinforcing, and withholding love/punishing. Here I think of neo-Freudian work on the conscience...

Justin Tiwald said...

Davy is wise beyond his years! By that I mean that his view may actually be quite close to Mencius' own.

You raise a great question about Xunzi and Aristotle, but I don't think Mencius has in mind the kind of habituation that depends on "forcing" good deeds. Mencius doesn't think, generally, that good deeds should be forced. One of his more interesting claims is that our moral sensibilities, which include desires for morally valuable ends, should be cultivated first, and only then should we attempt ambitious acts of heroism or sacrifice.

Of course, Mencius certainly does allow that students of the way should be forced to do *some* things. Much of their moral education will likely be forced. But he distinguishes between the forcing that goes into moral education and the forcing that goes into trying to do noble things before one has the proper desires and sensibilities for them. The former kind of forcing is necessary, but the latter kind is like the Farmer Song forcing the shoots to grow by pulling them out of the ground.

Van Norden's translation of 2A2 really brings this out, and I think it's truer to the text than Lau's:

"[The floodlike qi that motivates virtuous behavior] is produced by accumulated righteousness. It cannot be obtained by a seizure of righteousness. If some of one's actions leave one's heart unsatisfied, it will starve...One must work at it, but do not aim at it directly. Let the heart not forget, but do not help it grow. Do not be like the man from Song..."

How do we "work at it" without "aiming at it directly"? Surely there must be some analog to dipping the unsavory broccoli of righteousness in the tasty sauce of lesser goods--goods that come more naturally to us. And goods which, when reflected upon in the right way, help to develop our tastes for greater, more broccoli-like feats.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Hi Brad! Sorry about the slow reply. I agree with you about peer influence. Interesting connection to the ancient literature! You're also right that prohibitions have to work a bit differently. In many ways, "habit" seems far too simple a notion, even for very early moral development.

Justin, I guess I disagree with your interpretation of 2A2 -- and with Ivanhoe's and Van Norden's interpretations, which are similar. That makes me very nervous, indeed! But I think the "it" that is being cultivated by the farmer of Song is a qi that has to do with having dispositions that are situationally robust, and that the farmer of Song is not forcing good deed but rather exposing himself to temptations and situational pressures beyond his strength of character to resist....

Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot, dude! I was very inspired by your post about moral education for kids.

howard b said...


Free will was not an issue to Aristotle, understandably. You want to encourage good habits but don't we want to foster independence? Is that an issue at all for you?

I meant to write this reply about fifteen years ago