A few weeks ago, I decided to install a new light fixture and a dimmer in my bathroom, so I did what any philosopher would do: I researched light fixtures and switches to find exactly the right ones. The fixture was relatively easy, because — aside from accommodating dimmable bulbs — the issues were mostly aesthetic. The switch, however, was another matter: I wanted a smart switch with a memory to save the last light level setting, but I wanted an easy way to bring the light to maximum (without overwriting the normal level.) After a good bit of research and deliberation, I found exactly what I wanted: a pushbutton smart switch with lots of features. Then, I methodically planned the installation of the new items, installed and tested everything, and at last, my new light and switch were ready for use. I was quite pleased.

For the next several weeks — including earlier today — I’ve walked into the bathroom as I have hundreds of times and flipped a switch that is no longer there to be flipped. You know what I mean: I “automatically” engaged in a routine I’ve performed so often that it has become automatic: I walk into the room barely intending to turn on the light, and my body seems to take over. But now . . . my body’s automatic routine no longer works. Or rather, it does work, but the conditions have changed.

From one perspective, this is pretty comical: After all, I went to considerable trouble to find and install the new switch, so no one is more aware than I am that the new switch is there, ready and waiting. But yet, “I” try to flip the old switch anyway, in spite of what “I” know (and did!).

No doubt as time goes by I will develop different habits. In fact, I’m at the stage of remembering the new switch much of the time, in which case I become intentional about pushing the button instead of flipping the switch. Even so, there are times — like this morning — when I don’t. Perhaps I’m thinking of something else; perhaps I’m not attending to anything particular. Perhaps I’m preoccupied, or just occupied with something, like running a little Sibelius or Dvorak in my head. But the result of inattention is that my body seems to take over and flip a switch that isn’t there.

And then there’s the fact that operating the new switch has not become automatic — which means I have to pay attention to what I’m doing, and that seems like extra work. Note that it seems like extra work in spite of the fact that I’m the one who wanted a different switch!

As this little comedy unfolded, I realized that it’s actually a microcosm of the struggle to be a rational animal. Let me put it like this: My rational part knows all about the new switch, but my animal part seems to have a mind of its own, and that’s a pretty brutish mind of inclinations and impulses and habits. There’s also a lesson here about how we depend on “routines” to get through the day, routines that have become habitual.

At a deeper level, there’s a lesson about habits. We can be quite deliberate about changing something, but in some peculiar way, our habits have to catch up with our deliberate choices. Think about choosing to pursue excellence in some activity: However, deliberate that choice may be, it takes commitment to that choice — and to the actions it requires to realize the choice — and that often means not just cultivating new habits but “uncultivating” existing habits to make room for the new ones. And that requires me to spend some time being intentional about making this room and cultivating the new habits, which takes an investment of energy. I’m confident that I’ll notice one day soon that operating the new switch has also become automatic.

This whole process — an initial deliberate choice with intentional “follow-up” choices that cultivate new habits — is what Aristotle means in the Nicomachean Ethics by the term prohairesis. This term has been variously translated as “choice,” “intention,” and even “volition.” None of these translations is wrong — but none is quite right either. I propose something like “deliberate commitment to a plan for excellencifying.” Unpacking a bit, a plan involves a goal that we want to reach, and the importance of committing the needed time and energy to take the appropriate steps to get there. And of course the whole process is deliberate, not merely in the sense of intentional, but in the sense that the plan is guided by practical reason. And because excellencifying is always a process that unfolds in repeated action, the process includes unforming habits to make way for new habits.

My experience with the switch is a simplistic illustration of this process of prohairesis. It’s not a simple matter of a single deliberate choice: If it were, then I wouldn’t keep trying to flip the switch that isn’t there. Rather, it requires a period of intentional action, an investment of energy and attention, until habits begin to take root.

And finally, there’s yet another lesson here. In case you are inclined to think of yourself as a rational agent condemned to live in an uneasy partnership with an animal nature that resists rational agency, that’s only part of the story of the human condition. Yes, it’s comical (and annoying) that I keep flipping a switch that isn’t there, but the capacity to form habits that, as it were, streamline the pursuit of our goals is one of the gifts of our dual nature. In other words, it’s not that my rational self is constantly dragging around a ball and chain, though it can seem like that in the midst of deliberate change. Rather, forming habits conducive to excellence can actually help us sustain our deliberate choices through challenges to our commitment.

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