Maggie: We discussed the definition of a virtue, but how do I develop a virtue? How do I become a good person?
John: I love the fact that you are asking such excellent questions. Never stop doing that. Asking questions is the first step towards gaining wisdom.
Also, it is important to remember that you are a good person. You already have certain virtues. You simply need to work on maintaining those virtues and work towards developing other virtues, just like we all do.
But let me see if I can provide you an answer to your specific question. To do that, I am again going to turn to Aristotle, who laid out a four stage process of moral development.
(i) Aristotle calls the first stage the “animal stage.” This is the stage where a person’s behavior is governed by pleasure and pain: when this person does something good, she is rewarded with something pleasurable; but when she does something bad, she is punished. This is generally the stage for young and middle-grade kids, whose parents use pleasure and pain, reward and punishment, to condition them to act correctly. (As an aside, effective parents are those who know how to successfully balance pleasure and pain to help their children develop good behavioral habits. But this is very hard to figure out, because each kid is different. So let’s give parents a break if they don’t get this balance exactly right.)
(ii) The second stage is referred to as “conditioning by others.” This is a stage where a person is governed less by pleasure and pain and more by the outside influences of others. Peer pressure is a good example of such conditioning. We often see people in this stage doing things or committing acts because their friends convince them to do so. Teachers also play a very large role during this stage, as do parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, police officers, and other community members. During this stage, it is important to carefully choose your friends and the other people in your life that influence you, because they will influence you.
(iii) The third stage is called “self-conditioning.” In this stage, a person starts to make decisions for herself that shape her own character. For example, this is the stage where you would decide to sit with a girl who is all by herself during lunch, instead of giving in to peer pressure and sitting with your group of friends. This is also the stage where, instead of relying on conditioning by others, you yourself choose to say no to such things as alcohol abuse, drug use, and sexual interactions. It can be hard to make these decisions, because you have to use your brain to control your emotions and desires. But once you make these decisions a few times, it becomes easier and easier to do so.
This stage will last your entire life, because you will always be working on developing or improving one or another virtue. I personally choose one virtue to work on each year. A few years ago, for example, I worked on improving the virtue of gratitude. I thought about all the people who have helped me throughout my life and I sent out one thank you card a week to those whom I could locate. By forcing myself to openly express gratitude for past contributions, I learned to more readily express gratitude for present contributions.
(iv) The final stage is called the “fixed character” stage. After sufficient conditioning by others and your own self-conditioning, you will develop a virtue. For example, after you choose to act kindly a sufficient amount of times, you will develop the virtue of kindness. At that point, you will be kind out of habit, without even having to think about it.
These four stages are not perfectly linear. While we should always be working to exist and live in the fourth stage, each of the four stages exists in every one of us to a greater or lesser degree. Let’s determine those areas of our lives where we are actually in the first and second stages of development, and work to improve those areas. Friends can help us do this, but let’s discuss friendship later.