4.2.1 Acquiring Habits of Behaviour

The process of acquiring habits of behaviour begins in infancy: babies and children imitate those around them, without written rules.

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, in his essay The Tower of Babel, 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.” [p. 61]

He argued that people learn 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.” [p. 62]

This suggests that the emergence of moral values in an individual is largely a matter of culture.  It has more to do with a child’s observation of people’s conduct towards others than with education about why some types of behaviour are preferable.  By experience, most people learn that life is better if they show consideration to those around them – they learn the importance of reciprocity.

Scientific studies into brain development, such as the book From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development, have confirmed Oakeshott’s observation that an infant learns how people behave before it is capable of understanding rules which are articulated in words:

“From birth to age 5, children rapidly develop foundational capabilities on which subsequent development builds. In addition to their remarkable linguistic and cognitive gains, they exhibit dramatic progress in their emotional, social, regulatory, and moral capacities.”

All aspects of governance can be less onerous if people voluntarily behave in a way which is acceptable to others around them.  As Edmund Burke pointed out, in his Letter to a Member of the National Assembly in Answer to Some Objections to His Book on French Affairs, self-regulation is complementary to governance:

 “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.”

Those who might influence a child in its early years, while it is acquiring habits of behaviour, include family, friends, teachers, and possibly characters in books, films and television.  Not all these influences are intentional.  What is said and done in the presence of children does not always take account of their propensity to imitate those they admire or fear.

A child might also ask for a justification of an observed pattern of moral behaviour – to provide both “the power to criticize, to reform and to explain itself” and “the appropriate intellectual confidence”, in Oakeshott’s words (p.70).  The next three sections of this book describe some different justifications: religious (4.2.2), non-religious (4.2.3) and negotiated human rights (4.2.4).


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This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/421a.htm