Can Virtue Be Taught?

1990

 

The question “can virtue be taught” implies two questions. First, is virtue teachable to at least one man? Second, if virtue can be taught to at least one man, can it be taught to any man?

We must clarify two important concepts: what is virtue? and what do we mean by teach?


Virtue

Virtue is the quality of man which discerns right from wrong. This first requires having the knowledge of what is right and what is wrong, and then also requires mental judgment. But even this is not enough, for ultimately how a man acts is most important. A man with virtue must act in the virtuous way.

Therefore, “virtue” is really three things: the knowledge of right and wrong, the ability to discern right from wrong, and the final right action the man takes.

 

Taught/teaching

We must clarify what we mean by “taught.” We must also decide who we are teaching.

Teaching is a complex issue, and we must first clear up the concept that learning does not always require a teacher.

 

How teaching and learning may be done

Learning comes in many forms. Learning does not require a teacher in the strict sense. For example, one can learn from studying and emulating virtuous people. These virtuous people may be unaware that they are studied. The man is learning virtue, and his “teachers” are the virtuous men, even though the teachers are not physically present.

Experience is a second form. Many men learn virtue through experience, both personal and vicarious. If there is a “teacher” in this example, it would be a combination of life experiences and the reflective nature of the learner.

Further on the form of learning we call experience, we realize that a man can learn, even if he can no explain how he learned, or explain exactly what he knows. For example, after ourselves having been through a particular struggle, we can recognize that a friend is going through the same struggle. We can detect it, but we can not explain how we recognized it. As another example, consider the many musicians or engineers who have learned their craft and can perform well, but can’t explain what they have learned.

Therefore, a man can be “taught” through personal experience, by studying examples, or from a teacher who is physically with him. In all these cases, teaching is being done.



Who are we teaching?

We must specify who is to be taught. We see three types of teach-learn relationships: Some people teach themselves virtue, some people do not want to learn virtue, and some want to learn virtue but can not teach it to themselves.

Socrates investigated the third category - those who want to learn virtue but can not teach themselves. However, the second category is also important (those who do not want to learn virtue.) Those in the first category can teach themselves, and will be considered last or not at all. Therefore, we will first investigate whether we can teach to those who want to learn virtue, and then see if we can teach virtue to those who do not want to learn virtue.


Teaching the man who desires to be virtuous

 

Consider the man who desires to learn virtue. The primary goal is to teach him to act virtuously.
We can not make a man act. We can, however, persuade him to act. We can also teach him how to act.
Since this man desires to learn virtue, he needs no persuasion to act. Therefore we skip persuasion, and proceed to teach him how to act.

Knowing how to act requires knowledge of standards of right and wrong. All acts are to be judged right or wrong by these standards.

Note that his differs from a unifying theory of virtue, (from which all acts could be correctly judged.) A unifying theory of virtue* would be ideal, for we could base everything from it.

However, since no one has discovered such a universal theory, it can not be taught. Until then, we have standards for various subsets of virtue.


**Inserted footnote eight years later: my theory later based on Declaration of Independence, on pursuing happiness, and on doing whatever you want without harming others, is a unifying theory - it is my unifying theory.

 

Most situations are compatible with one of the standards. Thus these standards are very frequently useful. Yet the standards have limitations. When the limitations are reached, men must judge the best they can.

Thus, standards can be taught. Limitations can be taught. So, the knowledge of standards and their limitations can be taught.

Yet the full standards for possibilities of situations can never be taught. But what can be taught, is the judgment skills, the mental acuity which allows a man to judge right and wrong in new situations. The teacher can get a man to practice this. As with Plato in his dialogues between Socrates and a pupil, the pupil learns judgment skills.

We said virtue must end in the action. There are no absolutes in accomplishing a good act, for situations differ. Yet a man can learn techniques. With a knowledge of techniques, the man has a palette from which he can act virtuously in any particular situation.

Thus, knowledge, judgment skills, and techniques, can be taught to the man who desires to learn.



Teaching the man who does not want to act virtuously

 

Now we ask: Can anyone be taught to act virtuously? Consider the man who does not want to learn virtue. Although we can not make the man act, we can persuade him to act.

From experience, we know most men can be persuaded, and that they can be persuaded either by reason or by force.

We can persuade a man to seek virtue. We actually have three methods - two methods using reason, one method using force.

First we reason virtue is good in itself. If he does not respond virtuously, then we lower the benefits of virtue to his level: we reason virtue is good as a means to other things. We reason that a the man will be rewarded for virtuous acts. In the least effective case, the man will act virtuously in specific areas (which is better than no virtuous acts at all)

If the man still acts unvirtously, the we persuade him using beneficial force. Since the man does not change his behavior on his own, he must be forced to concentrate on his behavior and contend with it. We then limit his alternatives of facing his behavior so that he must change his behavior.

Many times this forcing requires that the teacher makes the man suffer emotionally. Christian texts talk of people who suffer until they ask God for help. Psychologists talk about “tough love” in which the parent or friend does not help the man in trouble so that the man will face the root cause. (The suffering was brought by the man’s unvirtous acts; the friend forces limited options). Many missionaries and everyday school teachers have lived through suffering, and know how it has made them more virtuous. Thus, the teacher has a sense of what forced activities will make the man suffer emotionally, and the teacher can create these artificially.

Then, with limited options before him, the man is forced to act in limited ways. The man is forced to act virtuously. Forced practice becomes habit. The man starts to act virtuously on his own. Eventually, the man appreciates the benefits of acting virtuously. Combine this with his habits from forced behavior, and the man is motivated to seek virtue on his own.


Summary

In summary, virtue is the knowledge of right from wrong, the ability to discern right from wrong, and the acts toward that right end. Virtue can be taught to anyone who desires to learn virtue.

Men who teach themselves learn through studying others, through experience, and through personal reflection. Men who want to learn but need a teacher learn through first learning the knowledge of the moral standards in common situations, then learning the techniques to help him act virtuously in a practical way.

If a man does not desire to learn virtue, he can be persuaded by reason or by force. When the man is persuaded by reason, then he changes his behavior on his on volition. When he is persuaded by force, he changes his behavior by necessity.

We can persuade men to seek virtue. We can teach them knowledge of right and wrong. We can teach them techniques to act virtuously. Therefore, virtue can be taught, and it can be taught to any man.