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Virtue and the
Happy Life

Every month we will present a topic for thought, reflection and study. When we read these truths, it is not just in some cursory fashion, but rather we should spend as much time as we can over the course of the month trying to really understand it and the implications that it brings.

We hope that this is a source for new knowledge or at least greater understanding of truths already known.

 

Introduction

 

Our intentional actions shape the world around us and more importantly shape us. Our free will directs our life. We shape our lives in a positive way through the development of virtues. Morality is about more than actions, rules, and contentious cases like the death penalty. It’s about living a happy life.

To show how and why this is true, we are going to explain some things. The first is that there is a difference between persons and their actions, united by habits. The second is to explain why we are going to talk about virtues and not just actions. The third is what those virtues are. 

We know a person is not the same as their actions. A cruel person can be kind and a just person unjust. Given that a person’s actions and their identity can differ, how do we determine who they are? 

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I. WHAT ARE HABITS?

Great Western thinkers have used the word habit to describe the abiding qualities that characterizes who a person is. Habits are a middle ground between a person and their actions. Habits form a person but are changeable. Scrooge, for e.g., started out a miser and ended up a philanthropist. 

How do habits develop? By repeated actions. Think about how a person gets in shape. They make the repeated choice of getting off of the couch and going to the gym. Over time, those actions become natural and eventually the person feels “off” if they don’t act that way.

Intentionality is key to identifying habits. Think about the pharisee of the pharisee and publican parable in Luke 19. His intention in his virtuous actions is to despise others. The intentions of a person’s habits determine who they are. They show the priorities we pursue on a regular basis. 

II. WHY DO GOOD HABITS
(VIRTUES) MATTER?

Virtues are good habits, and vices bad ones. However, a virtuous person is not just someone who consistently performs good actions. Having a virtue changes who they are. Every new moral action they approach they approach inclined to act well. 

Virtuous people are like professional golfers. A bad golfer may hit a good shot, a PGA pro a bad one. But the pro reliably hits good shots, the duffer does not. Consistency comes from the habit being in the person, not just the actions.

A PGA pro isn’t just someone who hits great shots. They are good golfers even when asleep. They have muscle memory, well-trained eyes, and a sense of strategy. The habit changed who they are, and the change leads to a greater frequency of good shots. They approach golf courses differently.

 

That approach translates into other areas of life. Businessmen ask for character references. The reference may not know how suited the person is for the job, but he does know the habits the person has. They will tell the boss if that person is lazy or hardworking, cooperative, or combative.

 

Habits’ intentionality directs their behaviors. A lustful man approaches women looking for sexual partners. His vice, even if unfulfilled, directs his actions. He may be polite to women, but for the wrong reasons. We can’t understand actions without knowing about habits and intentionality. 

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SUMMARY

By our freedom we shape our actions and ourselves. Habits connect persons and particular actions. Virtues that relate to God directly we put on hold. Virtues that are a path to a good life in this world, cardinal virtues, are the middle courses of action in difficult situations.

Going forward, we will look at each cardinal virtue and how we can better practice it. 

III. WHAT KINDS OF
VIRTUES ARE THERE?

 

Virtues are named by their capacity for directing certain actions. Temperance, for example, is the proper pursuit of pleasure. Virtues are named for activities done well. Theological virtues’ activity concern God directly, for the moment put on hold. Moral or Cardinal virtues concern activities on earth.

The four cardinal virtues govern activities on earth. Justice inclines us to good relationships with others. Temperance orders our desire for pleasure. Fortitude faces obstacles. Prudence is making good practical decisions. Cardinal means hinge, aptly used since living well hinges on those virtues.

All people try to make decisions, face obstacles, seek pleasure, and have relationships with others. Those virtues are natural, accessible to reason. The right course of action is not always obvious though everyone agrees it’s a middle course. E.g., a brave man is neither overcareful nor reckless. 

QUESTIONS

1.     What is a good habit you’d like to have? What do you need to do to develop it?

2.     What’s a bad habit you have? How does it change the way you act and see things?

3.     Do you ever judge persons by one individual action? Is this right or wrong? 

FURTHER READING

1.     Mt. 5, 1-11. What distinction is Our Lord making that we also made?

2.     Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis pgs. 76-80. How does virtue being a quality and not just actions affect our relationship with God? 

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