4.2.1  Habits of Behaviour

(This is an archived page, from Edition 2 of the Patterns of Power book.  The current versions is at https://www.patternsofpower.org/patterns/moral/values/habits/).

The term 'behaviour' in this book is used to describe people's words, their actions and their demeanour towards others – any of which might give offence if their attitudes are contemptuous or hostile.  Most behaviour is spontaneous and is not carefully considered; it emerges from what Michael Oakeshott called a person’s “habit of behaviour”:

“The current situations of a normal life are met, not by consciously applying to ourselves a rule of behaviour, nor by conduct recognized as the expression of a moral ideal, but by acting in accordance with a certain habit of behaviour.” [1]

He argued that people learn their “habits of conduct” from the conduct of people around them:

“We acquire habits of conduct, not by constructing a way of living upon rules or precepts learned by heart and subsequently practised, but by living with people who habitually behave in a certain manner: we acquire habits of conduct in the same way as we acquire our native language.” [2]

This suggests that the emergence of moral values is largely a matter of culture and that it has more to do with a child’s observation of people’s conduct towards others than with education about the reasons why some types of behaviour are preferable.  Scientific studies into brain development have confirmed that a child learns how people behave before it is capable of understanding rules which are articulated in words.[3] 

Upbringing creates what has been called ‘the law within’,[4] by which a person exercises self-governance without the need of external moral or legal sanctions.  All aspects of governance can be less onerous if people voluntarily behave in a way which is acceptable to others around them.[5]

When people apply conscious thought to their behaviour with regard to other people, or try to modify it, they sometimes seek authority and justification from their beliefs: principles which are regarded as having authority, as part of what John Rawls referred to as “comprehensive moral conceptions”.[6]  There is more disagreement about beliefs than about behaviour.  As reviewed below, beliefs may have a religious (4.2.2.1) or a non-religious (4.2.3) foundation. 

© PatternsofPower.org, 2014



[1] Michael Oakeshott, in his essay The Tower of Babel (p.61), contrasted the "habit of behaviour" with an opposite basis for morality that he characterised as "the reflective application of a moral criterion", which in this book is referred to as the application of ‘beliefs’.  The essay appeared in his book Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays

[2] Ibid., p.62.

[3] One example of the scientific research is the book From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development, edited by Jack P. Shonkoff and Deborah Phillips, which was accessible in April 2014 at http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=9824.  A BBC podcast, The Infant Brain, which cited Piaget and Chomsky, was also available at that time, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00r2cn4.

[4] The Law Within is the title of one of Leonard E. Read’s Four Essays, which were available in April 2014 at http://smeedonstate-ism.com/Library/Four%20Essays%20by%20Leonard%20Read.pdf.

[5] Edmund Burke pointed out that individual conscience and governance are complementary to each other:

“Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.”

This much-quoted extract is from Edmund Burke’s Letter to a Member of the National Assembly in Answer to Some Objections to His Book on French Affairs, which was available in April 2014 at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/15700/15700-h/15700-h.htm

[6] In his book Political Liberalism, John Rawls described belief in these terms:

"A moral conception is comprehensive when it includes conceptions of what is of value in human life, and ideals of personal character, as well as ideals of friendship and of familial and associational relationships, and much else that is to inform our conduct, and in the limit to our life as a w=hole.  A conception is fully comprehensive if it covers all recognised values and virtues within one rather precisely articulated system;" (p. 13).