Can Virtue Be Taught? Reflections on Plato’s Meno Dialogue
The following (informal) reflection was composed as commentary for a graduate class in the philosophy of education –Critical and Interpretive Methods in Education Research – about Plato’s dialogue, Meno. For those unfamiliar, the dialogue concerns itself with the questions asked in this post’s title: can virtue be taught? Plato, through the voice of character Socrates, concludes that virtue cannot be taught and is a faculty given by the gods (in secular language, it is inborn). I reprinted this reflection here as it may prove to some – okay, maybe only a handful – mildly interesting (no more than “mildly” though).
The question asked in Plato’s Meno dialogue is whether virtue can be taught. Quite rightly, the answer is in the negative (even though the evidence is quite flimsy, consisting only of the observation that no one bills themselves as a “virtue instructor”). But I think Plato could have framed the questions a bit differently, which may have given him a different answer; instead of asking whether virtue can be taught, he might have done better to ask whether virtue could be learned.
The big difference here is that asking whether x can be taught implies that there must be a teacher and a student. Asking whether something can be learned implies only that there is a student (life or experience may be a “teacher.”) To ask whether I was taught math is to ask whether an instructor instructed me in math. To ask whether I learned math is to ask whether I learned it, leaving open whether I was taught it by a math teacher or learned it myself either from a book or by some other means.
So whether virtue can be taught is a far different, and narrower, question than whether virtue can be learned. We all recognize, I think, the rightness of Plato’s suggestion that virtue cannot be taught. We can imagine, and perhaps know examples of, someone being able to recite “rules” of virtue (be honest, be fair, etc) while not being able to, or having the virtue to, put these ideas into practice. From my own experience of teaching students with Asperger’s syndrome, I have seen students who knew certain ‘rules” of virtue but not be able to translate this into practice.
In this sense, virtue cannot be taught in the same way that musicality cannot be taught. One can learn about virtue or about music but still lack the ability to be virtuous or musical. This is in large part because knowing how to be virtuous, like knowing how to be musical, is partly instinctual. When a drummer “knows” when to insert a particular groove in a particular spot in a song, she will probably tell you that she is acting largely on instinct (though the groove itself may be learned, its application is a matter of judgment). In the same way, knowing when, say, when to protect a guilty friend in the name of honor, or give a friend up in the name of honesty, is a matter of judgment (though those two virtues of honesty and honor may have been taught).
So, virtue can’t really be taught. But can it be learned? I think that it can, at least in part. Even though students in school may not have a “virtue 1” class, we all know that students are good at picking up on their surroundings and being influenced by those around them. This is why we all recognize the importance of who our kids “hang around with” – because we recognize that students learn from those around them, even when those around them have no intention to be teachers. In fact, it was often stressed to me when I was a teacher that I was to set an example for students and hold to strict ethical conduct, in part, because I was – like it or not – a teacher of moral behavior.
And beyond students learning conceptions of virtue from those around them – and there are a variety of conceptions of virtue, from the gangs to the catholic church’s), students learn virtue another way: by experience. Once students learn what moral behavior is from those around them, they try these ideas out on the world. They learn from their moral mistakes; being caught in a lie and disappointing a friend teaches them not to lie. Being egregiously wrong about something one was confident in may teach the value of humility, etc.
Sometimes, it also happens where experience will adjust a person’s sense of virtue by having an unvirtuous thing happen to them. Someone who is a petty thief may rethink their idea of virtue when they have something stolen from them and reflect on the pain it caused. Someone who brags may be confronted with others who brag, which can lead to reflections on how annoying the tendency is.
All of this is to say that while virtue may not be taught, this does not mean that it can be learned. Plato does allude to the idea that virtue is inborn (endowed by the gods). To some degree, of course, this is true; some people seem to be born with an extraordinary capacity for virtues like compassion, etc. Others seem to be born with little to no moral conscience (without which virtue is very difficult).
This does not mean that virtue can’t be learned; only that its foundation is inborn. Just like we recognize the idea that one can be “instructed in” virtues but fail to put them in practice (or desire to), we should recognize the converse: that people are capable of refining their views of virtue, that people may become more virtuous by reflective practice, and that it sometimes even happens where a person’s view of how to act virtuously changes drastically over time.
So, I do think that Plato’s question of whether virtue can be taught should have been rephrased to ask whether virtue can be learned. It would have made for a much more interesting and nuanced discussion, and, at least in part, an affirmative answer.