The moral of the story

‘Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it.’ — Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland.

In times past, teachers, parents and moralists frowned upon fiction because it was not considered elevating writing.  It neither taught concrete skills nor high moral lessons.  By the 17th Century, writers started to find a way around that problem — they wrote books that had moral lessons.  Daniel DeFoe’s Moll Flanders may have been a R-rated picaresque adventure story, but the book’s subtitle clued the reader in to the fact that, despite the various raunchy scenes he (or she) would read, there would nevertheless be some elevating lesson by book’s end:

Moll Flanders : Who was Born in Newgate, and during a Life of continu’d Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv’d Honest, and dies a Penitent. Written from her own Memorandums . . .

By the 19th Century, it was a given that, in a fiction book, the protagonist’s experiences in the book would work a change on that character, leading her (or him) to a higher moral plane — and, moreover, a plane that the reader would do well to emulate.  (Although, off the top of my head, Alexander Dumas’ utterly delightful Three Musketeers is an exception to this rule, since D’Artagnan and his fellows remain perpetual, adventurous adolescents, with no moral growth whatsoever.  Maybe that’s a French thing….)

Two of my favorite 19th Century books have very pronounced moral lessons indeed, and they remain enormously popular despite (or maybe because of — but more of that later) those lessons.  The first is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and the second is Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.  Both of them, no doubt, are familiar to you too, although the latter is likely more familiar to the girls than the boys reading this.

In Pride and Prejudice, as you recall, Elizabeth Bennett is so put off by Mr. Darcy’s haughty demeanor and the insults he hurls her way that she is incapable of seeing the moral virtues that underpin his character, no matter how often those virtues are called to her attention.  Likewise, she is so flattered by Mr. Wickham’s attentions that she turns a deaf ear to all warnings about the manifest moral failings in his character.  Only through some hard won life lessons is she able to view the men correctly and, once having achieved that lesson, she is entitled to her reward — marrying the good man.  (Darcy, too, learns his lesson, realizing that there is a difference between mindless pride and the ability to develop a clear-sighted opinion of someone’s true moral worth.)

In Little Women, Jo March is a wonderful, enthusiastic, energetic girl (and, eventually, woman) who gets into a lot of trouble because she runs off half-cocked all the time.  Indeed, her impetuosity results in her being denied her heart’s desire:  an all-expenses paid trip to Europe.  However, she learns that life has consolations and that they may be much better than merely getting what one wishes.  By subordinating her own uncontrolled desires to the demands of hearth and home, she enriches her own character, learns better to appreciate those around her and, of course, is entitled to her reward — marrying a good man.

The lessons in both books are pretty clear to anyone who bothers to read them.  You don’t need an advanced English degree, and hours spent analyzing symbolism and myth, or even more hours deconstructing whatever is written, to figure out the moral lessons Alcott and March were making.  Those lessons lie at the core of each book, with the stories around them intended both to entertain and to accentuate the moral the reader takes away.

If Elizabeth just had a frivolous romance with Wickham, and disliked Darcy to the end, the story would be morally stagnant, and would fall in the category of junk romance, rather than great literature.  Austen’s charming writing is made worthwhile only because of the moral steel that underlies it.  Likewise, if Jo simply frolicked from one misadventure to another, Little Women would probably remain an unknown, shallow work of 19th Century children’s fiction.  What makes it interesting are Jo’s epic struggles to subdue her immature self to realize a truly fulfilled adult life.

What irks me is that so many remakes of these two books work assiduously to hide from the reader or viewer these core moral lessons — lessons that have kept these books vital for centuries. I’ve grumbled for years about Winona Ryder’s adaption of Little Women, which is a visually beautiful movie but which completely reverses the story’s moral unpinnings.  Jo goes through the movie just trying to do what she wants, and the viewer is given to understand that it’s just so unfair when events stop her.  At one point, she explains to Professor Baehr that her father’s philosophy was something along the lines of “if it feels good do it” (and I’m quoting liberally here, because I can’t remember the actual line in the movie, just the sense of it).  At that moment in the movie, I simply shut down.  No beautiful costumes or charming scenes could make up for the fact that Winona Ryder had turned on its head the book’s actual message, which is that, if it feels dutiful, morally appropriate and mature, do it.

Pride and Prejudice has also been severely reduced.  There’s a whole new genre of books out there in which people try to write about Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy after their marriage, or in which they try to update the story.  Without exceptions, these books are dismal failures and they are failures because they are morally vacuous. The marriage genre tends to have sex, sex, sex, and doesn’t even deserve consideration here.  The “remakes,” which are allowed sex because they are updated, also fail, but for different reasons.

I just slogged through one the other day, something I normally wouldn’t have done but, between a $1.29 Goodwill price tag and a long wait at a swim meet, it seemed as good a thing to do as any.  It serves as a perfect example of the failings inherent in all of these remake books.  I’m not going to embarrass the author by giving away the name of the book.  Suffice to say that the plot revolves around a modern-day woman who adores Pride & Prejudice, but who unwittingly repeats all of Elizabeth’s mistakes:  being blind to the hero’s virtues and ignoring the cad’s vices.

Aside from the bad writing, what prevented the book from being even halfway decent was the absence of any personal growth or morality.  The book’s protagonist (I can’t make myself say the word “heroine”) had no value system driving her beliefs about the two men.  At the beginning of the book, one is nice and one is mean.  By the end of the book, she’s decided that the mean one is nice and the nice one is mean, but without coming to any greater understanding of her own failings. Elizabeth Bennett, as you may recall, realized that she was culplable in grossingly misunderstanding the two men.  Darcy may have been too proud, but her quick, witty persona made her guilty of easy leaps into dangerous prejudice.

Indeed, there’s only one P&P update that comes close to catching Austen’s spirit and that is Bridget Jones.  Unlike Elizabeth, who is a woman of discernment, intelligence and wit, Bridget is a pathetic, good-natured numbskill.  However, what distinguishes Bridget’s story from the sorry legion of P&P wannabes is the fact that the story marks her self-improvement.  When she hits the abyss with the Wickham character, rather than just castigating him, she works on improving herself.  In other words, the story has a moral.  Bridget never gains any insights into her own personality, but she does stop being pathetic, thereby making herself worthy of the better man.

The larger problem, of course, is that in a values-free society, where morality cannot exist without the accusation of being “judgmental,” it’s impossible to present to people the old-fashioned moral lessons.  There is no morality, there is only your own navel compass telling you what to do.

Think, for example, of the enormously popular Disney movie High School Musical.  On the one hand, it’s mercifully harmless, without swear words, violence or in-your-face sexuality.  On the other hand, the message is clear:  all you have to do to be a good (and, more importantly) popular person is to be yourself.  But we parents know that our children’s selves, unpolished by self-discipline, morality and compassion, can be pretty ugly.

It’s the ability to look outside of ourselves, to walk away from our prejudices and abandon our base passions, that makes us decent humans.  And that’s why the great books will always be great, and the modern adaptions will be flat, pathetic and uninspiring.

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  • heatherh

    I know which P and P book you’re referring to, and I agree with you. It had potential, but fell very short.

  • Charlie (Colorado)

    Heh. For a good time — recalling that I used to hang around with Duke English grad students — read Pride and Promiscuity.

    But here’s an odd thought I’ve been thinking: maybe the purpose or effect of literature is not to show the character’s moral progress, but — via mirroring perhaps — to cause the reader to repeat or emulate the character’s moral progress?

  • Ymarsakar

    If you want morality and growth, Book, watch Serenity (again) and Legend of the Galactic Heroes. You won’t be disappointed, if you want my prediction.

  • Ymarsakar

    I wrote up a review of that movie. If you are going to see it, be warned that the characters go morally downhill at the end of the film. They don’t go up.

    The ethics can also be described as “Hollywood’s version of how to fight terrorists with police powers”. That also describes the plot, although the plot is actually very good and captivating.

    At the end of my post, I wrote up an alternative ending to the movie. Those that have seen the movie already might want to read that part.

    If you want morality and ethics in a novel, Book, then read David Weber’s Honor Harrington series or better yet, Weber and Ringo’s March series. The first two books in the March series, 100% available for free at, gives a lot of character growth to the male hero.

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  • Stephen A. Meigs

    You had some interesting things to say until the last couple paragraphs. How can people be self-disciplined any other way than by being themselves? That is what distinguishes self-discipline from discipline that comes from without. And being oneself is a very moral thing to be. And the ability and desire to look inside oneself by way of understanding what is there is essential to making a decent human. Tendencies towards self-discipline, morality and compassion are in children (to various degrees); they just need to be understood by the child correctly. As Locke would say, people aren’t born with innate principles, but with innate tendencies; but as one ages one sees patterns to one’s tendencies and comes to understandings of them, and the understandings become more important than the innate tendencies in directly guiding behavior. One could just assume (and many do) that one’s own moral nature is what people (or successful people) as a whole say it is; there is nothing good about this moral laziness or yielding one’s will to conformity. As Darcy would say, to yield without conviction is no compliment to the understanding. People should be led by their own sense of moral rightness. Taking what others say on faith is mostly just right when the resolution is of no very great moment (Elizabeth’s words) or there isn’t time to explain; and the extent one should allow oneself to be amenable to these persuasions should depend on one’s moral regard for the persuader, or, as with the case of parents of young children, a sense of the reasonableness of assuming them to have reason to be wiser than yourself, to be honest with you, and to have increased likelihood of having a nature similar to your own. Morality basically comes from within, and others at best can merely help one to find what is already there. As for discipline of children, it’s not mainly a matter of controlling the child rather than the child controlling himself; it’s more (ideally) a matter of the parent controlling the child rather than something external to the child’s own innate nature (e.g., an addiction) controlling him.

  • Ymarsakar

    When morality is decided by yourself, that’s called narcissism, not morality. Morality is decided by society. Ethics is decided by individuals. The difference is vast.

  • Stephen A. Meigs

    God forbid I should let society determine for me what is moral. Wide is the path to destruction. Was not suffering a witch to live moral in Salem? Was slavery moral in the antebellum South? Is stoning fornicators moral in backward Islamic societies? There is an underlying ideal definition to morality just as there are underlying ideal definitions to mathematical concepts. And trying to determine for oneself what the fundamental laws are and what they imply is not called narcissism, it’s called giving a damn enough to bother. I will not let society determine for me what is beautiful–I will make up my own mind, thank you very much. And even if it takes time that I could more selfishly employ in a quest for wealth, sex or pleasure, I will judge myself the consequences of my behaviors as regards making the world more or less beautiful, and evaluate my possible courses of action accordingly.

    Advancing morality requires sensitivity toward the character of others. Morality advances when moral people advance. Moral people love one another better than immoral people do, and that’s why people have to various degrees evolved to be moral. The most important love is that which involves romance and sex. Moral people are loved by their mates better, and so end up having, usually, more children. Immoral people get unselfish love in the mating sphere only to the extent they con the moral. But what they can’t get is love from sensitive (and therefore hard to con) people. This (and that the most important love is in the mating sphere) causes a very strong association between immorality and the inability to understand the character of others. And this association is extremely convenient to moral people and the advancement of morality, because though there is no simple direct test to see whether someone is selfish, there is a very simple direct test to see whether someone understands others. Sensitivity toward others can be judged by sensitivity toward oneself. But there is no way for someone to judge whether another understands her moral self when she doesn’t understand her moral self! People can’t be sensitive to others until they are first sensitive to themselves.

    Another consideration: That which is not used does not evolve. Understanding will evolve to the extent it is used. If people don’t much employ their special faculties because they be content to accept dogma rather than figuring things out for themselves, those faculties will not evolve. In particular, if moral faculties don’t evolve on account of people choosing to accept moral dogma rather than working things out for themselves, people won’t evolve the skills necessary to becoming more moral.

    Another consideration: Those who observe the external more than the internal tend to be those who are more interested in convincing others that their observations be correct than in the higher calling of figuring out the truth. For it is much easier to give evidence that a sensation of the external world be accurately described than it be to give evidence that an internal reflection be accurately described, especially toward those insensitive to the inner human. Reflection (in the Lockean sense) is nothing but perception of the inner workings of the mind. To the person reflecting, it is absolutely as legitimate and as sure as sensation. Those who favor sensation over reflection as regards human nature tend to be empirics who either (a) have little to zero capacity for understanding what human character be or (b) have allowed naked ambition for manipulating those (typically very immoral) people lacking the horse sense of what plausibly constitutes the authentic inner human to triumph over concern for the truth. Those who are more concerned with figuring out the truth than with publishing in the crap psychology journals that are filled with ill-defined pseudoconcepts such as “narcissism” will not neglect looking within for an understanding of moral nature.

  • Ymarsakar

    God forbid I should let society determine for me what is moral.

    That’s already happened. MOre than half of what you think is right is because the people you love and your family have taught you is right. It is not something you just came up with yourself.

    Is murder right? Is rape right? Is child molestation right? Is any number of other things, that could be learned from any other culture, “right”? If not, you just had your morality informed by greater society, whether you realize it or not.

    Let’s not fool ourselves into actually thinking we had any choice as to what set of morals we were raised with. Or that we didn’t adopt a whole shat load of them consciously and sub-consciously.

    Like say, the resistance towards doing violence. That’s an American societally conditioned response, because sheep ain’t supposed to fight, they are supposed to work, be peaceful, and pay their taxes in wool.

    Many people break out of their conditions, for one reason or another, and throw off the morals they have learned, in order to adopt ethical systems of right and wrong that they have decided is superior or what not.

    There is an underlying ideal definition to morality just as there are underlying ideal definitions to mathematical concepts.

    Given that you don’t live in an ideal society, you can’t have ideal morality. Not even close.

    And trying to determine for oneself what the fundamental laws are and what they imply is not called narcissism

    it’s not called morality either, it’s called ethics. It is only narcissism when you think you make your own “morals” by some kind of personal solipsistic choice.

    Morality advances when moral people advance.

    Sort of like if more people in a society do the right things, the morality of that society will improve. Which is the same thing I already told you.

    If you wish to seek out beauty, then you would do better to read up on Aristotle. The problem with free will

  • Stephen A. Meigs

    It sounds like maybe we have differing definitions of morality, ethics, etc. I tend to think of ethics as what is concerned with conflicts between behavior that is moral and behavior that follows from duty to a group. E.g., if one is a soldier fighting for a cause whose success or failure isn’t very contingent, should one unselfishly risk one’s life for a fellow soldier who is immoral? It doesn’t increase beauty as I define it to do so, because the soldier is immoral. But because people who aren’t patriotic don’t tend to be patriotic toward one another, it is better to be a person who feels a patriotic duty (even to fellow soldiers who are immoral) than one who doesn’t. Good people who aren’t team players won’t succeed as well (in teams) as good people who are also team players. So often it is better to be patriotic and civil even when patriotic or civil behavior isn’t good. A more common conflict studied in ethics, where things are less clear (e.g., one may more easily leave the group), is where duty to the company one works for conflicts with moral behavior. You brought up some interesting points, which I shall probably discuss after having considered them for a while.

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  • Ymarsakar

    E.g., if one is a soldier fighting for a cause whose success or failure isn’t very contingent, should one unselfishly risk one’s life for a fellow soldier who is immoral?

    Robert E. Lee fought for the South and slavery even when he detested slavery.

    This is a set of honor that priorities loyalty to one’s state and home over nagging inconsistencies like slavery.

    Ethics decide which priorities should be supreme over other priorities.

    The morality of the South said Lee had to resign from the US Army and fight for his home. But that’s not the decision Lee would have wanted to make if he had free will. So, in a sense, Lee did not make an ethical decision. He made a moral one and an honorable one, for honor isn’t necessarily ethical all the time. And I’m not talking about “honor killings”, either, cause those guys don’t even have honor to begin with.

    because the soldier is immoral

    Fighting for your own nation and family isn’t immoral. That is what you were brought up to do. When you say a person fighting for his nation and family is “immoral”, you had better have a system of morality that makes it so and ONE that he follows. Cause otherwise, you’re talking about ethics, not morality.

    You brought up some interesting points, which I shall probably discuss after having considered them for a while.

    Take your time.

    here’s some help on what I mean by moral, immoral, and amoral.

    Amoral is the guy that doesn’t care about society’s laws, takes out a gun, shoots you six times, checks to make sure you are right, all because you bumped into him and then punched him once.

    Like this video, Link

    Moral is doing what your society says is right, what you were brought up to believe was right, and what your loved ones believe is right. Like say, your brother is wanted and on the run and he asks you for help. Your family expects you to help him. Society expects you to help your family, but society also expects you to obey its laws, which includes harboring fugitives. Which morality do you choose to follow? Either way, you will become IMMORAL, in the morals of one or the other. That’s called a moral dilemma. Different from an ethical dilemma, which says you should obey the law cause it is ethical, not moral. And that means turning your brother in, even though he is blood.

    Immoral is doing what you know is wrong, by law, society, or family. Killing your father and stealing his crown, that’s called immoral. That is not, technically, evil or unethical, cause your father may have been Hitler and you needed to stop him, permanently.

  • Ymarsakar

    Cause otherwise, you’re talking about ethics, not morality.

    Ethics is not relative like morality. Morality says “tribalism is right in Iraq cause everyone does it and is corrupt” and our morality says “corruption sucks and hurts everyone cause’s that how it works here”. Ethics applies, equally, to all civilizations, societies, nations, and cultures. what is bad and ungood for you in one society, is bad for you in any other, given Ethics. Bad ethics means it has exceptions and thus, is falsifiable.

  • Stephen A. Meigs

    I am not familiar with the distinction between morality and ethics that you give. Did you get it from some particular philosopher? I could see how you might find it a useful distinction to make. I tend to use morality as similar in meaning to “the good”. The difference I sense is that “good” is more intrinsic than “moral” when applied to people. E.g., if a good girl becomes screwed up and becomes (say) a prostitute, she is still a good person because that is something intrinsic–it is her nature to love the beautiful, even though she has become an immoral person (in practice she doesn’t love the beautiful).

    Aristotle tends to associate virtue with love of beauty or fineness [kalos], i.e., with doing something “for the sake of the fine”

    ” Now the brave person is is unperturbed, as far as a human being can be. Hence, though he will fear even the sorts of things that are not irresistible, he will stand firm against them, in the right way, as prescribed by reason, for the sake of what is fine, since this is the end aimed at by virtue.”

    It is very useful, I think, to view goodness (=morality) as love of the beautiful. The thing is, that it is also very useful to think of the beautiful as partly goodness. Care must be applied to avoid illegitimate circularity. It seems to me Aristotle basically is attempting to deal with this difficulty when he introduces the concept of special justice (EN 1130b). Once you’ve defined virtue, you can define justice basically as behaving as though one loves virtue, but being just is itself a virtue, so the definition of justice involves virtue and the definition of virtue involves justice. Aristotle is forced to first define “general justice”, which basically is just the justice corresponding to (justly) loving typical virtues, and then define a new justice, special justice, which is the justice corresponding to (justly) loving (general? special and general?) justice, i.e., to not being greedy.

    I think what is necessary is to divide the beautiful into various disjoint components. The zero component contains the concrete virtues that do not involve love, justice, etc.; it is mostly talent, what is useful directly for survival. The n + 1 component corresponds to love of the n-component. So 1-beauty is love of 0-beauty, 2-beauty is love of 1-beauty, etc. The advantage of being a good person, and why goodness has evolved to various degrees, is that it tends to cause you to be loved by those who share your ideals. It follows that what a good person loves, i.e., what he finds beautiful, is likely to be about the same as what he loves others to love. Mathematically (thinking of the beautiful as forming a probability space), this suggests that the fraction of beauty that is n-beauty should be the same as the fraction of goodness that is love of n-beauty, i.e., that is n + 1-beauty. (Another way of thinking of this is that what is beautiful is part goodness, and the rest a concrete part that is not love of something.) This implies that the various components of beauty are geometrically distributed with ratio equal to the fraction of beauty that is love of something, i.e., that is not 0-beauty. I’m a little skeptical about this geometric weighting, though, since I seem to have gotten something without even defining what it means for some type of beauty to be a certain fraction of beauty as a whole. And what I think I mean by love is effective love, i.e., love that has the faculties behind it to work, and my argument for a geometric weighting sounds moderately less convincing when I think of love that way.

    One could define things very broadly with reference to the distant future. E.g., if a peacock loves fancy tail feathers in a broad general sense, he also will in practice behave as though he loves love of fancy tail feathers, because love of fancy tail feathers is something that peacocks need to have in order for fancy tail feathers to evolve. If peacocks behave as though their end is to make peacocks more full of fancy tail feathers in the very distant future, they will behave toward one another in a fairly moral (in my sense) and just way. But a peacock dividing beauty up into parts and weighting the parts geometrically tends to make it so what the peacock finds beautiful in a mate is more similar to what the definition of beauty directly suggests, and makes peacocks’ imagining the distant future much less necessary or dependent on the particular time in the future imagined. So even in peacocks I imagine a sort of geometric sequence appearing in their definition of beauty or whatever part of their brain causes their preferences. The difference I’m guessing is that 0-beauty for a peacock is mostly fancy tail feathers, while for humans (more capable of reasoning with abstractions) it is more like talent. There is an advantage to oneself in taking 0-beauty to be something that is useful to have in a mate. I think a broad interpretation of beauty is appropriate even if one breaks beauty up into components as I suggest. It is useful to think of good behavior as that which makes the world (or universe) a more beautiful (or finer) place (in the distant future).

  • Ymarsakar

    Did you get it from some particular philosopher?

    Not really. This is just the general framework you pick up from philosophy or any philosopher, at least any philosopher from Ancient Greece. The most notable philosopher, and the one I believe got the most things right, would be Aristotle.

  • Stephen A. Meigs

    I noticed Ymarsakar that your conception of ethics is similar to the ethikos of Aristotle. But “morality” is apparently Latinate in origin, and the translation I have of Nicomachean Ethics (translated by Terence Irwin) avoids using the term “morality” for any of Aristotle’s concepts. My Modern Greek dictionary translates morality and ethics both with ethikos. Maybe you are using “morality” to render enkrates? The translation I use renders this as “continent”, admittedly an expression that sounds ridiculous since nowadays in English “continent” and “incontinent” are mostly just used to describe someone’s ability to control urination. But I guess that was the tradition. Maybe it is true that some philosophers nowadays consider morality as relative, but I haven’t found any philosophers since Locke I value much, so I haven’t studied them much, either. (Russell is OK.)

    Aristotle is my favorite ancient philosopher, but his contention that none of the virtues of character arise naturally and his emphasis on habit seem overblown. Continence [enkrates] is mainly important when dealing with addictions. On the one hand, one needs to use willpower when confronted with addictions like drugs or depravity. When eating food a kind of thoughtful continent sacredness is very helpful by way of avoiding excess. Also, a contrary kind of continence is appropriate when one is confronted with something that makes one feel like quitting would be an addiction. E.g., when fighting cave monsters in a computer game, one can get too obsessed, because emotionally giving up might make one feel as though one has given up because some nefarious addiction (from the monsters) has made one feel like giving up. It is better, e.g. in fighting wars, to be calm because one understands the incontinent emotions are only appropriate when one is getting molested (forcibly sodomized) than because one believes these insane-like berserk or numb emotions have no appropriateness. Sometimes people really do get molested. Unlike with addictions, incontinent feelings arising from anti-addictions are imho worth playing with in moderation though, since doing so teaches oneself something. As for habits, a habitual routine can be useful, but not so much because it strengthens will power, but just because one can live more lazily and with less strain if one can do everyday things by habit, as routine encourages.

  • Ymarsakar

    My Modern Greek dictionary translates morality and ethics both with ethikos. Maybe you are using “morality” to render enkrates?

    Morality is subjective, meaning it works for one person but maybe not another. Different honor codes are also the same as morality. IT’s right in their culture, wrong in another.

    Ethics is not subjective and does not want to be.

    That is the basic difference. So, even if the modern dictionaries, not designed to speak of philosophy and debate its fine points, say that morality and ethics are both contained in one Greek word, it doesn’t really matter.

    Aristotle is my favorite ancient philosopher, but his contention that none of the virtues of character arise naturally and his emphasis on habit seem overblown.

    People get addicted cause they have gotten into the habit of raising their tolerance and being physiologically dependent on the substance to feel normal.

    That is habit, not some kind of ephemeral use of will power.

    You don’t need will power when you are in the habit of doing things a certain way. You just do it. You don’t need will power because there’s nothing inside of you resisting it. As for external factors resisting you, you just grind them down through repetition.

    when fighting cave monsters in a computer game, one can get too obsessed, because emotionally giving up might make one feel as though one has given up because some nefarious addiction (from the monsters) has made one feel like giving up.

    That’s not a very good argument against Aristotle’s Virtue Theory in terms of the importance placed on habit.

    The rewards of pleasure and pain modify people’s behaviors, but they don’t decide them. When a person responds to pleasure and pain in repetitious fashions, then a habit forms. And whether that habit is good or bad for you, depends on what the action you are repeating provides in terms of real life consequences.

    Is it a good thing to give up or is it a bad thing? If one is good and the other bad, then one leads you further on the path to virtue while the other leads you closer to vice when repeated.

    because one understands the incontinent emotions are only appropriate

    There’s nothing fundamentally moral or immoral about having emotions. Which, I assume, is what you mean by “incontinent” since you mentioned morality was continent.

    but just because one can live more lazily and with less strain if one can do everyday things by habit, as routine encourages.

    You forget that to create and acquire habits, require effort. They require far more effort, patience, and time than the momentary will power it takes to resist temptations and addictions for a moment in time. Habits are for almost forever. But there’s no certainty that if you make a great effort now, right here, that you will get into the habit of dong so next time.

    Virtue deals with future consequences and the future well being of both the person and the people they affect. That is why habits are so important to virtue and vice.

  • Stephen A. Meigs

    The rewards of pleasure and pain modify people’s behaviors, but they don’t decide them. When a person responds to pleasure and pain in repetitious fashions, then a habit forms. And whether that habit is good or bad for you, depends on what the action you are repeating provides in terms of real life consequences.

    Is it a good thing to give up or is it a bad thing? If one is good and the other bad, then one leads you further on the path to virtue while the other leads you closer to vice when repeated.

    Habit is not the only way to steel oneself against emotions that get in the way of virtue. If one comes to understand these emotions rationally, then the brain has a way of increasing the reasonableness of the emotions. And a good way to lessen unreasonable emotions is to play with them: to study them carefully while having them, which is ultimately just understanding oneself. This is a bad approach with chemical addictions, because the feelings created by chemical addictions are not you, but it is useful with anti-addictions. Every emotion has a purpose, and when the purpose is better understood, its presence becomes more what one would expect.

    I think people underestimate the importance of establishing good eating habits. For example, sometimes I can play computer games more than I should like. I would prefer, for example, to study math. But it seems like when I feel like playing computer games too much or otherwise behave in seemingly unreasonable ways, usually that is associated with a period of careless eating. Why just the other day without thinking about it I chowed down three or four bananas (I didn’t even keep track) and got all excited about my having discovered a new math joke, and posted it in a place that doesn’t allow edits without even realizing I had confused the square of the square root with the square root of the square. It was mortifying. But eating is rather different from typical addictions. One must eat. And so it behooves one to not forget what one eats, whereas one can just forget drunkenness, etc. And people have a tendency to eat when nervous. So whereas nervousness and fear can keep one away from abuse, it won’t keep one away from an eating addiction. I think that is why eating rashly is associated with anti-addictions. Certain bacteria in the gut have probably evolved so as to make people feel nervous and compulsive because that tends to cause eating. When people feel nervous and excited, they eat, because emotionally they feel as though maybe some thing has a hold of them, in which case it will likely monopolize the food bowl. And when people feel nervous and compulsive, they feel like playing computer games more than usual.

    I used to feel sort of like you. At one point, I went about five years without playing a game or looking at sports. But looking back, I think I was too severe with myself there.

    Much of fear of addiction in men comes from females manipulating males into thinking that the sexual pleasures males experience are unreasonable. Males tend to be pleased by sex from numerous females, and females are forever trying to make males think that males are succumbing to an addiction when they explore their own sexual desires and more particularly pleasures, lest they realize they want sex with lots of females. Not that females care much how many females a male has had (meaningful) sex with, but a bad one usually wants to have an explanation handy for why any male who wants to have sex with her is a beast if he doesn’t want to care for her and their offspring, since having this explanation handy might trick males into caring and marriage. The habit of avoiding sexual fantasy and the pleasures thereof is a very bad habit for people to try to form, such a bad and common habit (also common is the waste of energy and time expended by males trying futilely to gain this habit) that it rather sours me toward the whole emphasis on habit as a particularly important virtue. If males weren’t so ridiculously afraid of being addicted to their own sexual pleasure, maybe they wouldn’t be so afraid of listening to their own natural sexual tendencies, and then they’d realize just how complex and beautiful these tendencies can be (except, of course, for the few who have naturally simple or ugly sexual tendencies), which is the first step toward gaining an understanding of them that would cause true refinement of their sexual behavior.

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