Rawlings School of Divinity
Doctor of Philosophy in Theology and Apologetics (PhD)
Ethics, Aristotle, Habituation, Virtue, Transformation, Depravity, God, Moral Psychology, Human Nature, Self-Image
Philosophy | Social and Behavioral Sciences
Mattson, Roy Michael, "Aristotle and Habituation: Is Virtue Really Attainable Without God's Help" (2019). Doctoral Dissertations and Projects. 2214.
We are by nature moral beings who desire virtue. This fact is borne out by innumerable studies. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Eudemian Ethics remain among the most influential works on ethics and human moral psychology. Aristotle claims that human beings can develop good character traits and achieve virtue with the appropriate upbringing (what Aristotle called habituation). Much of what Aristotle says about character traits, virtue, and habituation is accepted today and inspires character education. Yet recent results in experimental psychology challenge the notion of character traits and virtue as understood by Aristotle. The challenge is the abundance of evidence showing that almost all human beings lie, cheat, steal, and harm others; we lack virtue. Christian Miller captures the problem when he says, “the burden is on the Aristotelian to show how realizing such a normative ideal is psychologically realistic for beings like us.” This dissertation argues that virtue is not a realistic ideal for us absent God’s help. I contend that Aristotle was mistaken about human nature and the power of a good upbringing to create good character traits and achieve virtue. Further, I assert that Aristotle’s mistake has been incorporated into the secular western world view and contemporary character education methodologies. The error is a total disregard, even disdain, for the role of God in human moral development. That said, there is much to like about Aristotle’s ethics and moral psychology. Aristotle thinks virtue and happiness are integrally related, and happiness is universally desired. This makes virtue incredibly important. Aristotle thinks virtue combines practical reason and proper desires to ensure a person consistently chooses the noble and good. He thinks a proper upbringing is essential to attaining such character traits and moral reasoning skills. Most of Aristotle’s claims in this regard are accepted to this day. Sadly, Western history, contemporary western culture, and recent social science contradict core tenants of Aristotle’s ethics and moral psychology. The West enjoys the highest standard of living, a plethora of human rights, universal secondary education with unprecedented access to higher education, and a well ordered civil society, yet virtue is exceedingly rare. It appears that humans are fundamentally flawed to an extent that Aristotle failed to appreciate. That flaw cannot be remedied by habituation. But, virtue is not impossible. In fact, there is evidence that virtue is possible, especially with the help of a divinely inspired moral transformation. The most obvious and frequent examples of virtue appear to occur in connection with a relationship with God. Yet Aristotle, contemporary ethics, as well as contemporary educational methodologies, ignore the obvious flaw in our moral psychology and ignore the role of God in addressing it. Using the Apostle Paul, Augustine, John Newton, and Franklin Graham as examples, this dissertation argues that habituation is inadequate, and to some extent unnecessary, to attain virtue. Instead, a God inspired moral transformation is the most crucial ingredient in one’s journey towards virtue. Any upbringing and education that disregards the role of God in our quest for virtue is doing a great disservice to those it purports to help.