education philosopher

Can Virtue Be Taught? Reflections on Plato’s Meno Dialogue

Posted in Education, Philosophy of, Philosophy by KevinCK on September 18, 2009

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.

PlatoSo 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). (more…)

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