Jeremy Whitty, IE Business School Global MBA Student 2007-2008
“All good men whom I know have taught me that we do not commit a grievous error if we make it our purpose to be as good as possible.”
– Leo Strauss
I’m good parent and hope I’m a decent husband; a just above average business student, an engineer with little mathematical ability who is thinking of doing a PhD in something very mathematical, a less than insightful philosopher and to my eternal chagrin, a terrible poet. Hmm, should any future employer Google my name, there goes that job offer! I mention all this because whether in my role as a friend, a colleague or a close relative there is one aspect of human interaction that colours my opinions, my actions and my plans and also the opinion and actions of those around me. Yet it is something spoken outside of philosophy as Shakespeare is mentioned in teenage amateur dramatic clubs: someone you know is great because your teacher told you, who is difficult to read and when Kenneth Brannagh tries to make him contemporary and cool, he merely succeeds in making the Bard seem trite and stupid and uncomfortable to watch with strangers.
I am writing about Virtue, which I believe is the ether that makes all social contracts and personal relationships possible. Not only is it the Gluon for the physics of society, it is the scaffolding that supports local and global commerce. Somehow people deliver promises and the receiver pays, though the two may never meet. It is the reason we created God or He created us. Yet it suffers the same bias from almost all of us poor William suffers with our teenage friends. So if you are reading this and ‘Virtue’ does not read comfortably, copy and paste and use your word processor to replace it with “Being decent”, or “not being bad” or “honouring commitments” …. the list of alternatives is endless, personally I find substituting ‘Virtue’ with “deciding not to stab your friend in the back with a corkscrew just after he’s won the Lotto … and actually feeling okay about it” enlivens this piece no end. Negating the need for lawyers works too.
I understand IE Business School is bringing the Humanities to almost all of its courses. One presumes it is to help students become well rounded individuals with the intellectual abilities to reason through the increasing ethical issues facing the world of business and commerce today. One may also assume it’s to help the students become better, more virtuous people. This is all very laudable. But unlike learning to appreciate Chinese aesthetics, marvel at the diversity of India, go see Pulcinella or hang a Haiku in your living room as you listen to Bruce Springsteen, what about Virtue? It too falls within the ambit of the Humanities, so can it be taught?
In Protagoras Plato would like to say ‘no’. In the Republic, he says ‘yes’. Aristotle, always sticking to the mean, answers both ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Hobbes and Tocqueville fall into the ‘yeah’ camp but spend a lot of time qualifying this because for them, it is one of those ephemeral qualities, it is, in short, rather relative. I too believe it can be taught, but wonder, if it is something relative, should it be?
Today, we tend to associate virtue with chastity, or at least conformance to prevailing sexual mores. To quote The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary: “Virtue. Conformity to life and conduct….chastity and sexual purity”. Chastity may certainly be enforced and what is expected by society tends be well documented by its moral guardians. However, we need to look beyond this somewhat limited interpretation. The opposite of virtue is vice. Collins Concise English Dictionary defines vice as “an immoral wicked or evil habit”. The idea of habit being related to vice and so to virtue, brings us closer to the traditional meaning of virtue. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy defines virtue as “a personal quality conducive to the discovery of truth, the avoidance of error or some other … valuable goal”. Two and a half thousand years later, one can still hear Socrates reply, “Yes, but what is it?”