Saturday, November 26, 2011

Can Virtue be Taught?

... he makes me admit that my political career is a waste of time, while all that matters is just what I neglect: my personal shortcomings which cry out for the closest attention. So I refuse to listen to him; I stop my ears and tear myself away from him, for, like the Sirens he could make me stay by his side till I die.

Professing ignorance of virtue's nature, Socrates does not answer Meno's question, “Can virtue be taught?” Rather, they begin to seek its nature: for, knowing this, they will know whether it is teachable. Finding this tedious, Meno insists upon his original question. Socrates, unwilling to make a definitive statement in the circumstances, agrees to proceed hypothetically and produces two contradictory arguments. On the one hand, if virtue were knowledge, it would be teachable. It is reasonable to think this; for people act well by virtue and the one who acts with circumspection, acts well. On the other hand, if virtue were teachable, the children of virtuous men would unfailingly be virtuous – their fathers, after all, precisely because they are virtuous, could and would teach them. Yet virtuous men, such as Pericles, have children who are failures.

A diligent search for the nature and properties of virtue will resolve this dilemma. It will become clear that virtue is neither simply teachable, because it is not simply knowledge; not is it unteachable, for it is not wholly separate from knowledge.

To begin with a consideration of what people have thought about virtue seems appropriate: for the common conceptions about something help make its nature known. All moral philosophers, including those as different as Aristotle and Kant, agree that virtue is intrinsically connected to action. Moreover, all agree that we act well by virtue. Thus, when what makes a man act well is found, we shall have discovered what virtue is.

Now, every action has a corresponding power; for example, thinking has intellect, seeing has sight. Unlike these powers, an active power with many different activities is not, and cannot be, a sufficient principle of action: when it acts, it must act in a particular way but it is not naturally apt to choose one way without some other principle. For example, the hand is capable of many things: playing the violin or writing. Without some other principle, one cannot choose to do one of these because its natural power is not determined to either. Virtue must be a principle which determines such a power, because it makes a man to act well.

These principles are of two kinds: feelings and habits. Feelings cause transitory actions while habits cause characteristic ones. To illustrate this distinction, one can look to the arts: sometimes an otherwise inconsequential artist produces a masterpiece, the hymn of Tynnichus mentioned in Plato's Ion, for example; but sometimes artists, such as Mozart or Beethoven, consistently produce masterpieces.

Of these principles, virtue cannot be a feeling as it causes a person to excel. Now it is not because someone has angry or joyful feelings that he is excellent, but because he has these feelings for the right reasons. So, feelings are not causes of excellence, but are well managed by the excellent person. Thus, it is clear that virtue is not a feeling. It is, then a habit.

This conclusion is illustrated by experience. All think that virtues characterize the person: for people call the man virtuous who is known for either frequent good actions or great ones. Similarly, people call vicious someone notorious for frequent or great evil acts. This evidence suggests that virtue characterizes the excellent man. Habits are principles of characteristic actions; consequently, virtue is a habit of excellence.

Since virtue is a habit, clarifying what a habit is will reveal the nature and properties of virtue. A professional violinist is someone excellent because he has the habit of playing the violin. A novice, who lacks this habit, has considerable difficulty producing a beautiful tone. Even when told what to do, he cannot produce the action correctly. With practice, however, his arms and fingers become habituated to the actions of playing the violin: now it is easy to do reliably what was once difficult and intermittent. Thus we see that habit makes an indeterminate active power act a certain way easily and reliably.

Now, since virtuous action is habitual action, it must be done knowingly and for its own sake. For, in either case, the person will not act in a reliable way. If someone fights well in battle for the sake of praise, he will not act courageously when his action will go unnoticed. Similarly, someone who underestimates his enemy is confident until he realizes his mistake. Unlike these cases, since the courageous man knows the danger and acts because the action is good, he acts reliably in the face of danger.

If acting virtuously is acting well, it follows that one who acts well, acts according to knowledge. For an action is done well when it is neither extravagant nor stingy but is proportioned to the task at hand. But, if the object to be acheived is unknown, one cannot so proportion the action. Thus, a virtuous action presupposes knowledge of the object.

If a virtuous action is done according to one's knowledge, it is done for its own sake. As Aristotle says in the first book of the Ethics, happiness is activity in accordance with virtue. Thus, virtuous action is not an means to happiness, but happiness itself. Consequently, it must be done for its own sake.

Since virtuous action must be done for its own sake, it seems impossible to acquire virtue. For since a habit is formed by repeated action, it seems like virtue would be formed by repeated virtuous action. If this were so, virtue would be unteachable because a virtuous action seems to suppose that one has the virtue.

This argument, however, does not take into account how one acquires habit. Before one acts well, one acts. Paying attention to the budding violinist shows this quite clearly: the beginner does not become an expert over night. Rather, through practice and the instruction of his teacher he acquires the art one step at a time. This is the key to the solution: one must act before one acts well; a paralyzed man is completely unable to play.

Practice, then, is necessary for all virtuous action. There are two aspects of practice without which it is useful: one must act frequently and one must know when one makes a mistake. If the first is missing, the action will not become habitual since habits are formed by repetition. If one does not know when one acts badly, then practice may form bad habits rather than good ones.

In one way, a child can be informed of right and wrong through reward and punishment. Since people naturally seek pleasure and avoid pain, one can cause a child to act appropriately by appropriate rewards and punishments. Although this is teaching, it is only so qualifiedly and should rather be called training. For, although the child acts rightly, it cannot explain why one action is preferable to another; to be taught, however, is to be shown why something is so.

Pleasure and pain, however, are more than instruments of reward and punishment: they are also good and evil to sense. For, pleasure (all other things being equal) is generally sought by all animals; thus, since the good is what all desire, pleasure is a good. Pain is the opposite of pleasure and the opposite of a good is an evil; thus, pain is an evil. Consequently, reward and punishment are not extrinsic to the practice of virtue: rather, they cause the child to discover virtuous and vicious actions in a manner analogous to the discovery of principles: through experience of good and evil, they arrive at what is universally so.

As princples relate to conclusions so is teaching virtue by reward and punishment to moral instruction. For, through the experience of pleasure and pain, the child begins to see basic principle such as “the good is what all desire.” Building on these, one could point out that a well-governed society is good and that such a society requires that its citizens respect the authorities. Seeing this, the learner could begin could put his knowledge into practice and thereby acquire the habit of justice. This mode of acquisition is more worthy of being called teaching: for, the person who becomes virtuous in this way sees why he should act.

The last way, and in some ways the most perfect way, virtue can be taught is by example. Someone can learn to act in a certain way through the example of those around him or by a poetic imitation of the action of a great man. Through seeing the actions in their context of circumstances and consequences, a feeling can be aroused in the onlooker's soul. If this feeling is appropriate it will attract him to a virtuous action or repulse him from a vicious one. Then, by acting according to this inclination, one can begin to acquire the habit of vice. There is a certain perfection in this: virtue subordinates one's desires to reason; example accomplishes this by aligning one's desires with reason. Moreover, this method avoids the revulsion associated with hypocrisy: since the teacher “practices what he preaches,” the student does not feel manipulated for the other's gain. Nevertheless, this mode is not precisely teaching: for teaching usually implies going from premises to conclusions, while one simply sees someone's example. It is, however, more like teaching than reward and punishment, because the motivation for the action is the action itself.

Although all of these ways can inform someone of how he should act, none of them can make a person virtuous: for, none of these compel one to act. Unlike geometry which may be sought for its own sake, knowledge about virtue is useless unless it is put into practice. One can do evil knowingly as Alcibiades points out in the passage from the Symposium quoted at the beginning. Recognizing this, Aristotle argues for several appetites whose desires can be opposed: most broadly, the sensitive appetite which is concerned with sensible goods and the intellectual appetite which is concerned with all goods insofar as they are good. Since some things seem to be good, but are not so, it happens that one does evil due to one's desire for pleasure. Not only is this true of sensitive appetites, but sometimes the will chooses some apparent good over a real good (one example is the sophist, presenting a position as true which he knows to be false). From this, the role of virtue in human life is clear: just as a great violinist plays beatiful music effortlessly, so the virtuous man does noble actions. This is because his virtues manage his desires and aid him in the execution of virtuous actions.

Thus Plato's dilemma has been resolved: virtue is not simply teachable because it is not simply knowledge; yet, it is not unteachable because it arises from actions in accordance eith reason. Considering the interaction between various faculties of the soul brings out several ways of teaching virtue: reward and punishment, moral instruction, and example. None of these, however, can make someone virtuous: ultimately, he must choose it for himself.