Moral Habituation: A Prerequisite for Aristotle’s Ethics Class – W.H. Allen Memorial Lecture

W.H. Allen Memorial Lecture

Wednesday, 14 September; reception 4:45; lecture 5:15
Kaye Scott Room, Ormond College, 49 College Crescent, Parkville

Dr Brennan McDavid, Seymour Reader, Ormond College

Moral Habituation: A Prerequisite for Aristotle’s Ethics Class

At Nicomachean Ethics 1.4, Aristotle  says that “the adequately prepared student of lectures about what is noble and just and, generally, about political matters needs to have been brought up well in their habits (τοις ὲθἐσιν ἢχθαι) […] A well brought up person either has the starting points [of ethical education] or can easily get hold of them” (1095b4—8). In this passage, Aristotle suggests that moral habituation (“bringing up well in habits”) is important preparation for ethical learning. In fact, many Aristotle scholars think that the process of learning to be good must begin with the shaping of pleasures and pains, i.e. development of character virtue.  But there is more to being good than just character virtue, of course: there is practical wisdom.

This paper explores Aristotle’s conception of the relationship between moral habituation and acquisition of practical wisdom. What are these “starting points” that are grasped by well-raised individuals and what is their precise role in relation to ethical learning and knowledge? Does Aristotle really think that moral habituation (i.e. being brought up well) is the only means by which we can acquire these “starting points” – or does he think that moral habituation is the best way, leaving open the possibility of alternative ways of acquiring them? Ultimately, I am interested in how the process of shaping our character through the acquisition of character virtues is connected with the process of shaping our intellect through acquisition of practical wisdom.