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[OPEN TRIBUNE] Can virtue be taught? Then again, should it be? Part 2 of 4

Jeremy Whitty, IE Business School Global MBA Student 2007-2008

Menosocrates_2

Plato asks whether “wisdom and temperance and courage and holiness” are “names of the same thing” as each depends on knowledge of what is good and evil. Protagoras objects that a man may be courageous and at the same time be “utterly unrighteous”, unholy, intemperate, and ignorant.”  However, Socrates has Protagoras admit that courage consists of knowledge, and cowardice of ignorance for what is and is not dangerous. 

At the start of the dialogue, Protagoras says virtue may be taught and Socrates opposes. In winning the argument that courage is a form of knowledge Socrates finds he has contradicted his earlier position.  “By attempting to prove that all things are knowledge, including justice and temperance and courage – which tends to show that virtue can certainly be taught”.

Meno asks Socrates, “Whether virtue is acquired by teaching or by practice… or in what other way?”  He replies one must first ask what virtue is. Is it related to knowledge? If so, how? Are there one or many different types of virtue? If there are many, how are they related? During the dialogue, alternatives are considered. If virtue is related to knowledge, it can be taught and learned like geometry.  If it is a habit, it can be acquired through practice.

When Meno tries to describe the many virtues Socrates asks for one description that defines them all. Meno answers it is the “capacity to govern men”. Socrates rejects this. Meno gives various characteristics. Socrates asks, “what do these characteristics have in common?"  Meno attempts a third definition as “desiring fine things and being able to acquire them”.  Socrates rejects this too; his real issue is probably with Meno’s opinion of ‘fine things’. An exasperated Meno says one cannot look for something unless one knows already what it is one is looking for. Perhaps he is right? Socrates uses the slave to ‘prove’ we do not learn -we recollect. We recollect because our immortal souls have seen it all before and so it is inside us. All we need are the right (leading?) questions to bring this knowledge to light.   This of course, is at variance with the Myth of Er at the end of the Republic, where, “this time around,” little if anything is remembered of one’s previous life.

However Socrates does not completely dismiss the possibilities of acquiring virtue through knowledge or habit but the question is raised why do virtuous fathers so often have less than virtuous sons? Neither does he dismiss the possibility that “virtue comes to the virtuous by the gift of God”. The only exceptions are the virtuous, if there are any, who can make others like themselves.  What truth is in each possibility cannot be determined until we know what virtue is. He appears content to suggest that there may be some truth in each. Though they still have no definition of virtue Socrates agrees to investigate whether virtue is teachable based on the assumption that if virtue is knowledge it will be teachable.  Is virtue knowledge?  He argues virtue is knowledge since knowledge is the only thing that is always good. He believes we all aspire towards ‘the Good’ and if we do something ‘bad’, it is through ignorance. After all, who would harm themselves if they actually knew they were doing so? He also says that he does not know of any teachers of virtue.  Thus, it appears virtue is not teachable.

To resolve this he distinguishes between knowledge and true belief. True belief, in practical terms, is as good a guide as knowledge.  This explains why the virtuous cannot pass on virtue; their virtue is based on true belief.  The problem with true belief is that it is always liable go awry unless ‘right reason’ or prudence guides it. It then becomes knowledge.  There is an important distinction between those who understand the reasons for their beliefs and those who do not for it shows the link between knowledge and teaching as opposed to indoctrination and rote learning. It shows that our beliefs are probably more secure when we understand our reasons for having them.