Monday, September 29, 2008

Can virtue be taught

Reading through the Meno recently, which begins with the question can virtue be taught. Socrates in his conversation with Meno initially comes to the conclusion that virtue is a sort of knowledge and that as knowledge it can be taught. But then he rejects the view that virtue can be taught, because there are no teachers of virtue(93a-94e). Presumably everyone can be a teacher of virtue, if we take seriously Protagoras' Great Speech in Plato's Protagoras. But Socrates runs into the great problem that great virtuous exemplars don't seem to invariably (or even frequently) have great virtuous exemplars for children. I don't think we can argue with the empirical facts. I have noticed too that great artists don't tend to produce great artist children. And a logical explanation is that one simply cannot teach one how to be a great artist. It would seem that one's own children would be the first person that one would try to teach if one could, but since it's unteachable, then it makes sense that they wouldn't be able to match the standards set by their parents.

But there might be other reasons beyond just the simple explanation that virtue isn't teachable. For one, being a great virtuous exemplar or a great artist is a full time job (in fact, more than a full time job, an over-full-time obsession even) and teaching one how to be great in one's image is also a full time job. Simply, these great virtuous men cannot teach greatness because they don't have time. Socrates tries to dismiss this argument by saying that these great men would find teachers of virtue for their children in their stead, but this assumes that one could easily find such a teacher. And it entirely ignores the whole time issue: why would there be anyone whose not out doing great things and who has time to idle away teaching other people's kids how to be great? If such teachers existed they would be in hot demand, but if the best potential teachers are those who are doing the most great things, then they certainly have little time for teaching and certainly would prefer to focus their efforts on their own children.

Another factor is that teaching virtue may be a totally different thing than being virtuous. Teaching ain't as easy as it looks. Teaching someone something and having that lesson stick is not as simply as simply saying it. In the case of virtue, punishment is a important part of that teaching process, and it's easy to imagine that a person who's a good example of virtue may not know how to meet out judicious and effective punishment.

In addition we might also simply have a sampling bias of sorts. In other words, simply saying that great individuals can't quite bring their children up to their exceptionally high standards doesn't exactly prove that virtue can't be taught if their children are better than average, even though short of the same standard of greatness as their parents. In other words, great artists may not produce great artist children, but they frequently do produce talented and intelligent artists. They're just not quite as good as their parents, but they're still better than most of the rest of us. We might still be able to say that one can't teach one's children how to be a great artist or virtuous exemplar because really what defines that last extra quality that sets one apart as great is precisely an originality that one must discover on one's own. But, still perhaps virtue can be taught.

Thus, if we're to take Socrates' original arguments without this unconvincing problematization, it would seem virtue can be taught. Or can it?

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