Building Virtue or Any Other Habit

It’s hard to say exactly what makes somebody want to become virtuous.

For many it is a religious conversion.

For others it’s a realization that debt, porn, or drugs have ruined their lives.

Some people come to the conclusion that virtue truly is a good and seek it because they know human beings are supposed to seek the good. They come to agree with Teddy Roosevelt, “Bodily vigor is good, and vigor of intellect is even better, but far above both is character.”1

Ultimately, of course, the desire for virtue has to do with an estimation of how to become happy and how to flourish.2

But once somebody wants virtue (good habits, moral and otherwise), they have to start taking practical steps to get there. If they don’t they’ll regularly feel defeated or inadequate or worse, they’ll actually become morally worse. Roosevelt observed this in a paragraph about idealistic statesmen:

But the possession or preaching of these high ideals may not only be useless, but a source of positive harm, if unaccompanied by practical good sense, if they do not lead to the effort to get the best possible when the perfect best is not attainable— and in this life the perfect best rarely is attainable.3

So, what does it take to get virtue? Well there are two obvious things to say. First, we need to know what virtue is and the virtues are. Then, we need to know specific habits that will transform us. But aside from these two obvious matters there’s an important mental trick for learning any new thing:

Imagine the most virtuous person you know and act as though you were this person in your shoes.

In other words, fake it till you make it. Now, I don’t mean that you should emulate their interests, sense of humor, or other mere personality traits. But rather their honesty, discipline, kindness, mindset, spirituality, and prudence.

What I’m saying is counter-intuitive. Faking having a virtue seems like hypocrisy, the polar opposite of virtue.4 But this isn’t quite so. When one does math problems or basketball drills before they fully understand them, they are “pretending” as they go through the motions until understanding and skill are developed. The hypocrisy would be claiming to be good at basketball while still faking it. With virtue, hypocrisy would be claiming in public to have traits one secretly does not have or worse, that one secretly despises.5

C.S. Lewis, a classics scholar and no stranger to the study of virtue academically and personally observed this:

“Very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already. That is why children’s games are so important. They are always pretending to be grown-ups— playing soldiers, playing shop. But all the time, they are hardening their muscles and sharpening their wits so that the pretence of being grown-up helps them to grow up in earnest.”6

Similarly, in his essay on compensation Emerson wrote:

The law of nature is, Do the thing, and you shall have the power: but they who do not the thing have not the power.7

So, how do you become a good person? A virtuous person? I’d suggest that you first admit that you’re not. But then start acting like a virtuous person.

Here are two examples:

If you want to get out of debt, find the things people who have no debt do and then do those things. If you treat your life, temporarily like a movie, think of it as a story where in the third act you suddenly realized how stupid it is to have negative money and became a financially wise person because you realized how much you wanted to help others by investing in small businesses. So, you start living like this different person until you are out of debt and have a surplus of cash for investments. At this point, the temptation is to start living like Act 1 again, but this got you into debt. So you continue living in the montage that changed your life, but the point being that your “faking it” until it becomes who you are.

Think about the amount of fake outrage people have over politics. They often pretend to be angry, offended, and deeply morally concerned on an emotional level on the internet about all of these people who don’t know them, that they will never meet, and who don’t care if they live or die. But what is so interesting is that this election has brought the emotional moral posturing of the hyperreality online into the real world. People go into hysterics over politics as though disagreeing or agreeing with this or that idea is a deeply offensive issue. In this case people have taken the vice of intemperance and pretended to be emotionally unhinged until it weakened their minds in the real world.

Similar strategies work for overcoming porn addiction, losing weight, starting to tell the truth, and controlling your emotions. Negatively “do the thing and have the power” works for bad habits as well.


1Roosevelt, Theodore. The Strenuous Life, Essays and Addresses (Kindle Location 941). Vook, Inc.. Kindle Edition. Read Ecclesiastes to see how an ancient man saw that bodily, sensory, and intellectual vigor still lead to dissatisfaction without ethical vigor.

2Virtue is not opposed to happiness. Weirdly, even when many modern authors in favor of virtue ethics write about virtue ethics, they have very little to say about individual human beings or their families experiencing happiness, contentment, prosperity, or success.

3Roosevelt, Theodore. The Strenuous Life, Essays and Addresses (Kindle Locations 1100-1102). Vook, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

4This is especially so in a modern world where the Socratic ideal of self-realization and personal growth in education has been subsumed under the head of an ethics of authenticity wherein being “true to yourself” as you are in the moment without consideration of the fact that you’re an instance of a larger category of humans with a shared nature is considered paramount to happiness. So people are stuck with no ideals except those which they feel are ideal regardless of whether they correspond with the very essence of being human.

5I suspect that nearly every politician despises most of their voters as well as the values they themselves espouse. A weird example in another direction is the “nice guy” who feels that being so nice doesn’t help him and secretly resents his niceness and the people by whom he feels rejected but desires so much to be seen as nice that he can never assert himself. It’s a pretty sick way to live, but it appears very common especially among college students who ask me for advice at work or in relationships.

6Lewis, C. S.. Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis Signature Classics) (p. 188). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

7Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson (p. 33). . Kindle Edition.

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