In the psycho world one of the new and hottest topics is… habit. I approve. Dealing with habits and not insights is a good habit to get into.
For some reason Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen (henceforth JRR) thinks it has something to do with self-help, which is slightly misleading.
Yet, after taking us through her jumbled thought on the subject, in which she mixes and mismatches disparate figures like Steven Covey, Charles Duhigg, Montaigne, Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain, William James, Nietzsche and Carl Jung, JRR arrives at an interesting conclusion. She observes that what used to be a moral issue has now been transformed into a mental health issue.
From my perspective, the habit industry is a useful palliative to the therapy culture. If only for that, I am loath to criticize it, even when its proponents sound simple-minded and scientistic.
Strangely, for all of her compendious research, most of which is presented in grab-bag style, JRR manages to ignore Aristotle, the philosopher who was arguably the first to introduce the notion of habit in his ethics. When she quotes authors as saying that the best way to overcome a bad habit is to replace it with a good one, she ought to have known and noted that the idea comes to us from the Greek philosopher.
In part, she is showing how philosophical ideas make their way through the culture. The notion of habit might have begun with the great thinkers of the Western world, but it trickles down into the culture through the influence of lesser lights like Steven Covey.
I will not criticize the new awareness of the importance of habit because it provides an antidote to the dogma that is prevalent in the psycho world. That is, that insight cures or that changing the way the mind thinks will produce changes in behavior or emotion or even habit.
In the psycho world of the therapy culture people believe that treatment consists in allowing the mind to express the unexpressed or even the inexpressible. In truth, the technique does not work and has never really worked. And therapists have long known it.
JRR quotes Carl Jung:
Carl Jung, by contrast, offers a behaviouralist approach. ‘We seldom get rid of an evil merely by understanding its causes,’ he argues, observing that obstinate habits ‘do not disappear until replaced by other habits’.
Again, Jung is taking a page out of Aristotle. It is fair to call his approach behaviorist, but not behaviouralist. Perhaps JRR is trying to be sophisticated, but she comes across as affected. No one in the field uses the word.
The issue here is: how to you create a culture? How do you form a community where everyone follows the same rules? How do you create and sustain a community where everyone follows the same rules almost automatically, habitually.
To have a culture, you need to create a general consensus about which rules to follow. You need to teach the principles to everyone and to show how they work in concrete situations. Then, you need to persuade people to follow those rules.
In the past, religions have produced cultures. Religious leaders, from Moses to Jesus to Confucius to Lao-tse have articulated rules for good behavior, have shown them applied to specific situations, have convinced groups of people to follow the same rules, and have offered up an authority in whose name people should follow the rules.
In a more democratic world, these rules are discussed and debated. Thus they become less habitual by being placed under the aegis of the mind of each individual. Evidently, this causes a general coarsening of the culture, a flurry of bad behavior and social disruption.
When everyone is following the same rules, you have a culture. But, the rules need to be presented and taught. They might be taught from the pulpit, but, in our time, they will be presented through different media. For my part, I have no problem with Miss Manners when she teaches the way different rules are applied to different ethical conundrums. One can do a lot worse than Miss Manners.
As it happens, by a principle of mental economy, cultures only function effectively when people make a habit of following the rules. That is, as JRR points out, when they do so involuntarily.
This makes perfect sense. You use correct table manners habitually and you do not need to will yourself to pick up a fork or spoon. You do so without giving the matter very much, if any thought. When you were a child you were probably told which utensil to use and not to wipe your mouth on your shirt sleeve, but, over time, such practices become habitual.
If they are not, and if your dinner table companions do not similarly practice them, you will suffer some serious indigestion.
In a world where fewer people respect the authority of religion, they fall back on science, especially the science of human behavior. JRR suggests that people are being told to develop good habits because it is the mentally healthy thing to do, not because they should learn how to function effectively as social beings.
JRR is correct to point out that this is slightly alarming… not so much because the way we understand habits but because we no longer have any sense of what it means to be a good person, a decent human being, a paragon of good character. It is certainly not the same thing as being healthy.
Saying that the rules and laws of human culture are given by God tells us that human authority is not enough. If a human being has dreamed up the rules, we do not know whether or not he is doing so in order to exploit everyone. Surely, some people will refuse to obey the rules because they doubt his motives.
Nowadays science presents itself as the ultimate authority. Its practitioners present themselves as a secular priesthood that knows what is right and wrong, what is good and bad. In my view, they are presenting a stealth religion, generally a pagan and polytheistic religion as scientific fact. They worship at the altar of Athena or Minerva.
We should know well that science does not and cannot set down rules for good and bad ethical behavior. It can show that individuals who follow the rules set forth by religion can profit from it. But, they cannot derive the rules from science itself
Besides, scientists nowadays tend to promote the dogmas of the Church of the Liberal Pieties and to present them as scientific fact. Count climate change, vegetarianism, gender neuterdom and humanism among them.
JRR believes that the scientist approach detaches considerations of health and happiness completely from social context. When therapists suggest that a mental exercise can bring you happiness they are failing to see human beings within their social context. Their perspective is highly individualistic. They act as though the human mind exists in splendid isolation and can, if we gain direct access to it, be changed. Such was Freud's wager. It failed him and it failed everyone else who has ever tried it.
If you have no social context and no higher authority, who is to say which habits are good and which ones are bad?
Theories that see human behavior in terms of habits have always had their critics. Some critics have suggested that a highly organized life will lack spontaneous enthusiasm. They advise us to overcome habits and follow our bliss and our instincts. Others have suggested that good habits will make us into automatons, incapable of exercising free will.
The answer is quite simple: good habits are a sound basis for good behavior and good judgment, but they are not everything. If you have to debate with yourself which cereal you are going to have in the morning or how you are going to get to work or whether you should open this or that file first, you will be engaging in a series of wasteful and taxing mental exercises. Ruth Benedict once pointed out that if a Samurai warrior is involved in a sword fight and if he has to think before he parries a blow, he will be dead.
But then, if your life is organized and routinized, when the time comes to face a complex and difficult moral dilemma you will have the energy left to give it the serious attention it deserves. If you are wasting your time pondering before taking each of the myriad actions that constitute your everyday life, you will be too tired to think through a difficult problem.
Good habits are economical, but they are not the be-all and end-all of human existence.
Moreover, good habits give us resilience.
If you have been traumatized, your ability to perform certain basic human activities by habit, without having to think of them, might very well save your life.
If you have been traumatized and you start thinking about whether or not you will get out of bed, you are far more likely to stay in bed.