moral habits

Over lunch the other day, I was talking with a friend about habits. We were talking about food, about why I’m vegan, and I was saying that at this point it’s easier for me to just keep on eating vegetarian than it would be to think about how to integrate meat and dairy back into my diet. That’s because I’ve cultivated the habit of eating vegetarian… just like anyone else, there are things I know I eat, and when I make decisions about eating, I go for what I know. This is why eating vegetarian doesn’t feel as restrictive to me as my diet sounds to everyone else.

It was helpful to talk this through, because it helped me see that being a vegetarian is just one way of developing a morally relevant habit. I believe, as Aristotle did, that your moral character is just the constellation of the morally relevant habits you have. Fleshing out what makes a “morally relevant habit” may be where Aristotle and I depart. I argue that a morally permissible habit is the tendency to perform a justifiable action that contributes to your happiness. An action is justifiable when, if asked, you can produce a reason or reasons that others accept. A reason justifies an action when it explains why you performed (or plan to perform) the action in terms acceptable to others.

Well, this raises some questions. Answering these kinds of questions in full detail and developing bullet-proof counterarguments is part of my past life, when I was working on a PhD in philosophy. It’s not part of my present life, so I don’t pretend to have all the answers. However, finding answers to the questions raised by a moral theory matter more to me now. Academia tends to trivialize the importance of questions of morality because ultimately nothing matters in the academic world. Academic stakes are as artificial as end-of-semester deadlines, but the concerns of morality are real… they extend beyond the ivory tower into the stomachs of starving children, the habits of the wealthy, and the procedures of the execution chamber. I don’t think I’ve got moral theory figured out, but at the same time, I’ve got to have something to live by. Duty-bound Kantianism and the calculations of utilitarians always seemed too cold to me. Something like Aristotle’s flavor of virtue ethics is a little warmer. So, this is why I’m concerned with habits.

Why should whether something is right or wrong depend on whether someone else accepts your reasons? I think morality is essentially a social institution. The limits of morally acceptable behavior are defined by people, not history, not duties, not gods. If you’re all by yourself, and you’re trying to decide to what to do, but whatever you do will affect no one (or no other sentient being), then I don’t think it really matters (morally) what you do. It might be honorable in some other, some non-moral, sense that you stop to consider how you should act. But, in order for your actions to be morally relevant, they have to affect people (or other sentient beings) and you have to perform those actions for reasons.

Whose acceptance of your reasons matters most? Reasons justify actions when they explain to those affected by your action why you did (or are doing or plan to do) that action. So, who has to accept your reasons? The person or people affected by your action. When you do something, and you have a reason for doing it, and the people affected by your action accept your reason for doing it, and doing that thing contributes to your happiness, then that action is a morally right action.



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