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


In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle asks whether virtue is related to knowledge and is there a unity to virtue. He makes a distinction between moral and intellectual virtue and turns the question about virtue and knowledge into one concerning a special kind of knowledge known as prudence. Prudence causes the formation and continuation of good moral habits such as ‘justice’, ‘courage’ and ‘temperance’.  By substituting a number of distinct intellectual virtues for the term ‘knowledge’ Aristotle answers Yes and No because not all the intellectual virtues, such as art and science are needed for courage, temperance and justice. Thus, some can be taught whilst others may be dependent on the person’s psychology – his willingness to be ‘prudent’ or even, divine inspiration.

Perhaps Socrates was wrong to seek a definition. Perhaps virtue is relative.  Aristotle defined virtue as the mean between conflicting vices, for instance courage falls somewhere between cowardice and being too rash.  Thomas Hobbes considered virtue as a bunch of “inconstant names” changing according to “the nature, disposition and interest of the speaker … for one calleth wisdom, what another fear; and one cruelty what another justice.” Hobbes rejects Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean and refuses to accept that virtue “consists of a mediocrity the passions”. Virtue, according to Hobbes is whatever one does to ensure peace and self-preservation.  What one is allowed to do to preserve oneself is taught by the laws of the state – the Leviathan, from whom one learns to obey or be punished.  Of course what a state promotes as virtuous may make one a good citizen but not necessarily a good person – witness the Germany of 1940, or the Japanese school system today “where education is replaced with indoctrination and free choice with conditioned reflex”.

Aristotle writes, “The virtue of the citizen must be relative to the constitution of the state of which he is a member … Hence the good citizen need not possess the virtue which makes a man good.” Tocqueville takes issue with this moral relativism. Writing in 1865 he predicts that in America, “all those … which favour trade are sure to be held in special honour, while all those virtues which sometimes bring glory will rank lower in public opinion”.

Can virtue, this relativistic virtue, be taught?  Oh yes. An executive might increase an organisation’s profits by relocating its Swiss manufacturing to Kashgar. He is doing well by the shareholders, possibly our pension funds, and he also helps bring prosperity to the Uighars. Heidi and Pieter may have a different opinion but he gets promoted and so his peers scramble to do the same thing.  Another company’s culture might perceive that working long days, through the weekend and taking, at most, a couple of days vacation per year as attributes prized in the ideal executive.  Where does it end? I don’t know, but if such a relative concept can be taught and can be used to indoctrinate, should it be taught?   I still think yes it should, but moderation is required when teaching it. But who decides what is moderate?  Being orderly, clean, polite and loyal is commendable. Working for profit, or at least maintaining a healthy cash flow, is a very worthy goal which many believe is the ultimate benefit to society. However, do those of us who advocate that virtue be thought realise we must actually hold some idea of what we believe is virtuous? The logical conclusion being to demand all thoughts be controlled so that all actions are virtuous? Are we ironically trying to recreate a world view destroyed by Copernicus? It’s an argument often raised against the Enlightenment, and one, thanks to history, the ‘Enlightenment’ has not adequately dealt with. Would amorality, liberalism, never mind unfettered libertinism, really lead us to a Hobbesian hell of “continual fear, and danger… and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”?


Christina Hoff-Sommers has called for schools to teach moral parables as a means of teaching virtue. Whether virtue can be taught or not appears to depend on whether there is an idea of ‘the Good’ that will guide our actions.  The Nicomachean Ethics insist every pursuit aims at some good. If Aristotle is correct, is there not a natural inclination in every person towards that Good, towards Virtue? If Plato in the Republic is right, the more one is in touch with this inclination, the easier one can learn to be virtuous.  Wherever virtue is taught those who teach it must adapt the Aristotelian idea of the mean. A balance must be made between complete unbridled freedom and the imposition of socially correct habits. Paraphrasing Aristotle: “Teaching virtues is relatively easy.  But to ensure that they be taught in the right circumstances, in the right manner, from the right motives, to the right extent, with the right ends in mind, requires considerable practical wisdom.” 

That is the rub: teaching virtue depends on practical wisdom, on prudence, which is the one virtue that must come from within.


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