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Chapter 2: Free Choice, Self-Determination, Community, and Character

Question I: How are the virtues and vices which make up character related to free choices?

1. The stability of moral persons which is called “character” has traditionally been attributed to virtues and vices. Even to speak of virtues and vices is to acknowledge that one’s existential self is lasting and structured and that one’s acts are not a mere series, like pearls on a string. Virtues and vices are considered to be both a residue of one’s previous acts and dispositions to engage in further acts similar in moral quality to those which gave rise to the dispositions.

St. Thomas and many later Catholic writers called virtues and vices “habits,” but in an unusual sense. In ordinary speech a habit is what shapes an unthinking routine of behavior. Thomas and his successors did not mean that virtues and vices are habits in this sense; they considered them aspects of character which make for consistency in deliberate behavior done by free choice (see S.t., 1–2, q. 49, aa. 1–3; q. 55, aa. 1–2).

To understand the general notion of virtue, one must recall that persons have several naturally given capacities.13 These are active potentialities, abilities to become by some sort of action. Due to a variety of factors, the whole range of possible action tends to become limited, and the limited range of action, at the same time, facilitated. The limitation and facilitation of actuations of capacities occurs by dispositions, which are acquired and more or less lasting qualities (see S.t., 1–2, q. 51, a. 2). One knows the disposition from the regularity and facility of the actuations of particular capacities.

Dispositions of one type are habits, such as motor skills. For example, a person who engages in a sport or carries out a task such as driving a car has a disposition (or a set of dispositions) which both limit and facilitate the actuations of the various capacities involved in the activity. The disposition persists; one does not lose it at once when one is not engaged in the activity. In English, we call dispositions “habits” only when they limit possible action to definite, recognizable patterns of behavior; habits are acquired by repetition of behaviors of empirically describable sorts, and habits lead to further instances of the same types of behavior. For example, one gets into the habit of drinking coffee each morning by drinking coffee many mornings, and the habit disposes one to go on doing the same sort of thing.

Although in Latin “habitus” extends to the whole range of dispositions, so that a virtue is a kind of “habitus,” in English a virtue is not a “habit.” Virtues are dispositions which limit action to that which is (at least in some sense) humanly fulfilling and which facilitate such good action. A person who has a virtue is disposed to act in a way which is good. Vices are dispositions similar to virtues, except that they dispose to bad action (see S.t., 1–2, q. 54, a. 3).

2. As was explained in question H, choices constitute one’s identity, and large choices organize one’s life and give it continuity. The constitutive and organizing power of choices provides the basis for explaining the data referred to as “character.”

3. A person’s existential dimension—that is, the capacity for free choices, the choices one makes, and whatever exists through choices—does not exist alone. A person has other dimensions as well, including a natural bodily dimension, an intellectual dimension, and a cultural, behavioral dimension. All become engaged in making and carrying out any choice. Hence the dispositions of all these dimensions affect one’s actions. And all the other dimensions of the self share in the goodness or badness of the existential self.

Thus, for instance, the dispositions of imagination and feeling which are present in a chaste person are very different from the dispositions of imagination and feeling present in one who is unchaste. Central to the virtue is one’s commitment—for example, to be a true husband or to be a playboy. However, the dispositions of other aspects of the self are important too. To the extent that they contribute to virtue, they do so not so much by habituation—that is, determination to behavioral routine—as by the disposition of imagination and feelings to conform to virtuous choices. Thus, a truly chaste married person will feel differently about sex with his or her partner than about other sexual stimulation, and will feel differently when sexual activity is appropriate and when it is not.

4. This suggests what is meant by “character.” It is the integral identity of the person—the entire person in all his or her dimensions as shaped by morally good and bad choices—considered as a disposition to further choices.14 Good character is simply a matter of morally good choices together with dispositions in all parts of the person to continue making and carrying out such choices. Because persons of good character are well integrated, they not only do what is right, but do it easily: Virtue lends facility to good will.

5. One who consistently acts according to a well-organized set of fundamental choices becomes a very unified and stable person. But he or she need not respond in stereotyped ways. Stable concerns and consistent evaluations give rise to very different responses to new opportunities and challenges. Thus choice accounts for both the stability and the flexibility rightly emphasized by St. Thomas’ theory of habit.

One can distinguish among virtues (or vices) in different ways, by using as a principle of distinction any intelligible set of factors relevant to choices. Thus virtues (or vices) can be distinguished by the different dimensions of the acting person, by different fields of behavior, and so on. No one of these accounts is definitive to the exclusion of others. Each is a way, helpful for some purposes, of dividing the same whole into intelligible parts.

6. Character is not merely individualistic. Good or bad communal choices comprise part of every individual’s life. So, for example, an expression like “the American character” is meaningful if it refers to those aspects of the characters of Americans which arise from their communal choices. However, communal “character” also refers to factors of common heredity and environment which have nothing to do with free choice. Moreover, the communal “character” popularly assigned to members of a particular group often expresses prejudice against them.

13. See George P. Klubertanz, S.J., for an extensive treatise on habits and virtues, with an emphasis on the Thomistic tradition, references to much secondary literature, and also to modern psychology: Habits and Virtues (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1965). He follows (97–101) Thomas in defining habit. Like Thomas, Klubertanz does not notice that choices of themselves last, and that the disposition established by a freely chosen act is nothing other than the persistent choice and the modifications of the personality it integrates.

14. Stanley Hauerwas, Character and the Christian Life: A Study in Theological Ethics (San Antonio, Tex.: Trinity University Press, 1975), 114–26, provides an analysis of character very close to mine, although he does not distinguish and relate the existential and other dimensions of the person. Because of the similarity of concept, much of what he says in his study about current action theory and Protestant ethics could be brought to bear to fill out the present, necessarily brief summary. Even some of Hauerwas’ critique (68–82) of the concept of character in Aristotle and St. Thomas brings out certain difficulties—ones I think arise mainly from their too definite conception of the end of the human person—while at the same time clarifying the manner in which, for them, character is the self, determined through morally significant action.