4.2.1 Habits of Behaviour

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 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, such as the book From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development, have confirmed that a child 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.”

This means that most people know how they should behave, from childhood onwards. 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.”

All aspects of governance can be less onerous if people voluntarily behave in a way which is acceptable to others around them.

Those who might influence a child in its early years 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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