Can Virtuous Habits Be Cultivated?
The shopper covets the expensive item and worries vaguely about the credit card bill. The dieter contemplates the fine dessert. The ex-addict looks longingly at the cigarette, the bottle, or the drug, recalling the sweet feelings but also the problems and promises. The man and woman prepare to kiss, warm with alcohol and new intimacy, but are held back by thoughts of their respective spouses back home. The procrastinator thinks of the tough, worrisome task ahead but notes the deadline is still a week off, so perhaps it is fine to leave it one more day. Such moral and practical dilemmas pervade daily life.
Doing what is right requires strenuous effort to resist the alluring temptations of vice. You strive to resist selfish impulses and push yourself to do what moral duty prescribes. Virtue is hard work
Or is it? Could virtue become a habit — that is, a relatively effortless, automatic tendency to do what is morally right, with a minimum of inner struggle?
The answer to this question, crucial for understanding and improving the moral level of humanity, is emerging from scientific research on willpower. A recent study in which two hundred German citizens wore beepers for a week, and at random intervals reported on their desires at that moment, yielded a stunning finding. The researchers had sorted people into those with relatively good and relatively poor self-control based on questionnaires about their lives and habits. One fairly obvious prediction was that people with good self-control would resist desires more frequently than people with poor self-control. After all, that’s what self-control is for, to resist desires, right?
But the results came out strongly in the opposite direction. People with good self-control were less likely than others to resist desires as they went about their daily lives. How could this be? The answer is that people with good self-control avoid temptations and problem situations, rather than battling with them. Other research confirmed that self-control works most effectively by means of controlling habits, rather than by using willpower for direct control of one’s actions in the heat of the moment.