How to Become Good

Don’t miss David Brooks’ column in today’s NYTimes. He contrasts two models for developing virtue. One, redolent of the 19th century, emphasizes will power. In this model it’s important to clarify the nature of virtue and inspire people to live up to it.

The second model suggests that will power is helpless unless formed into habits. Bad habits must be overcome, and good habits inculcated, by strategically clever gambits. Sometimes the approaches are behavioral, sometimes cognitive, but they always approach the goal indirectly.

For example, if you want to lose weight, under model 1 you set a goal and read weight loss literature to inspire you. It’s strictly a matter of counting calories and will power. Under model 2, you analyze the situations in which you overeat, and find stratagems to defuse them: serving on a smaller plate, asking for a doggy bag at the same moment you place your order, moving the bread basket to the other side of the table, out of your reach.

But, notes Brooks, what is seldom noticed is the dependence of this strategy on a larger sense of meaning and purpose, often gained through some sort of religious narrative. AA is a potent example. It’s not about will power, and it’s not about psychic manipulation. It depends on finding your place in a semi-religious narrative and community of recovery.

“The important habitual neural networks are not formed by mere routine, nor can they be reversed by clever triggers. They are burned in by emotion and fortified by strong yearnings, like the yearnings for admiration and righteousness.”

Lots to think about there.

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