How to Be A Better Person
Barking for beans
My dog, Tim, has the bad habit of barking whenever he goes outside. It doesn’t really even matter if there is something to bark at. He just has to announce, rather loudly, his presence in the world. To get his attention, we started offering him incentives to come inside and stop barking–incentives in the form of beans, green beans, which have become his treat of choice as of late. Our plan, however, has worked too well. Now, Tim goes outside, turns towards the door and starts barking because he knows that’s how he gets a bean. He is barking for beans.
Tim goes outside; he barks; he gets a bean. Repeat. Repeat. Until finally, barking for beans is what he does. We all understand the method and probably have even tried using it on ourselves. Want to become a runner? Then go out every day and run. Want to better at playing the piano? Practice playing the piano. Want to stop smoking? Habituate yourself to not smoking.
We all know that we can train our bodies to become more efficient, if not proficient, in the things we want them to do. What if we could train our characters or our souls in the same way? Not everyone wants to be a fit, non-smoking, piano virtuoso. But most people, when they think about it, want to be good. When you imagine what others think of you, no one hopes that the general consensus is that she is a cowardly, stingy, stupid jerk.
How though do we become good? In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle indicates that we should use exactly the same method. Want to be less impatient with your barking dog? Practice being patient. Want to be kinder and more generous? Find opportunities to help others, giving of your time, your talents and your resources. Want to stop making so many petty remarks on Twitter? You get the idea.
The reason this works, Aristotle says, is because regardless of whether you are practicing the piano or habituating yourself to kindness is that you are actually training and transforming your desire. The more you do something, Aristotle argues, the more you understand why it is good and desirable in the first place, and eventually, you don’t have to work at wanting to do it. You just desire to do it. The first time you go for a run, it’s probably pretty hard and you might hate it. But if you gut it out and do it again and again, eventually you get better at it, and not soon after you actually come to look forward to it because you see its virtue or what’s good about it.
Sounds pretty easy, right? So why then is it that I have only been able to train my dog to bark for beans, let alone not habituated myself to anything resembling virtue? The difficulty lies in the nature of our desires. In theory, I desire to be generous. In practice, I’d really like to go on vacation. Until we have gone through the hard work of habituating ourselves to being less self-centred, our preference will always be for something more immediately gratifying. Like Tim, who barks now in order to get a bean, we need an incentive, some form of gratification that will make the hard work and effort pay off.
With something like running or exercise, the incentives are seemingly obvious and empirically knowable. You will be healthier; you will feel better about yourself; you will have bragging rights; you will be able to have that extra dessert. It is somewhat harder to incentivize virtue — after all, the whole point of being virtuous is that you shouldn’t need an incentive to do the right thing.
While Aristotle begins the Ethics with the less palatable suggestion that our laws should incentivize virtue, at the end of the book, Aristotle describes the virtue of friendship. When we love someone, Aristotle says, we actively will or desire their good, and are made happy by their virtues and success. Relationships grounded in love, Aristotle suggests, can provide a natural incentive and thus training ground for virtue. You readily sacrifice your immediate desires for the sake of someone you love because you actually desire their happiness and well-being. So in a way, you probably already have all of the incentives you require to become a better person — the happiness of your partner, your children, your parents, and your friends depends on it. And your happiness depends on theirs.
Originally published at sara-macdonald.com on January 24, 2017.