Can virtue be taught?

Our current level of corruption seems to support the idea that high moral standards cannot be taught

Our modern understanding of virtue comes close to agreeing with Aristotle. (Photo: Flickr)


The Corruption Perceptions Index, published yearly by Transparency International, measures the perceived levels of public sector corruption in 180 countries. The 2018 report shows that, the vast majority of countries assessed are making little or no progress in reducing corruption. Broken by region, the report shows Western Europe as the least corrupt region, and Sub-Saharan Africa as the most corrupt.

Delia Ferreira, chair of Transparency International, explains: “Our research makes a clear link between having a healthy democracy and successfully fighting public sector corruption. Corruption is much more likely to flourish where democratic foundations are weak…” That is clearly the case in the lower scoring regions, such as Africa, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East, where many of the countries struggle with ineffective institutions and weak democratic values.

I bring up corruption to discuss, with our contemporary lenses, a topic broached by Plato around 402 BCE in his Meno dialogue. The dialogue begins with Meno asking Socrates whether virtue can be taught. The question also concerns us, as parents, as we seek to teach values to our children.

Plato, through the voice of Socrates, first pushes Meno to define virtue. Meno has difficulty, since virtue takes on different meanings over time, and across cultures. To the ancient Romans, virtue was a lengthy list of qualities including manliness, honor, and more. Christianity combines the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love with the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, and temperance. And on it goes.

The same difficulties are found among thinkers. For René Descartes, virtue was correct reasoning to guide our actions. For Immanuel Kant, being virtuous was behaving in accordance with moral principles. Friedrich Nietzsche included solitude as a virtue. Ayn Rand’s seven virtues include independence and productiveness. And Benjamin Franklin had a checklist of thirteen virtues to guide his life. Here, it suffices to define virtue as behavior that shows high moral standards.

So, can behavior of high moral standards be taught to fight corruption? In Meno, Socrates concludes that virtue is not a kind of knowledge, and therefore it cannot be taught. He also does not believe that it is inborn. But then, where does virtue come from? The Socratic answer is that virtue is a habit guided by right opinions, inspired by God in a few people. I find this answer unsatisfactory. However, the level of contemporary corruption noted above seems to support the idea that high moral standards cannot be taught.

Our modern understanding comes close to agreeing with Aristotle. Psychologists believe that moral character is essentially formed before children begin formal schooling. Virtue is a function of genetic factors, for example, some people seem to be born with an exceptional aptitude for compassion which others lack. But virtue is also a function of early environmental and developmental familial influences. Thus, if we cannot teach virtue, how then, can we inspire high moral standards into the corrupt majority of world governments?

To be sure, as noted by Transparency International, effective democratic oversight helps. But, in one sense, that is equivalent to saying that surveillance deters crime. Police states, such as totalitarian and authoritarian governments, are among the most corrupt. A police state is not the prescription we are looking for.

While behavior of high moral standards cannot be taught, it can be learned. This is not a distinction without a difference. Teaching someone music does not make that person musical, and there are talented musicians who did not study music. Becoming virtuous is similar. Teaching implies a teacher and a student; learning requires only a student. We can learn from many sources without a teacher.

This reformulation suggests a possible approach for fighting corruption, and implies a foreign policy for those countries with the lowest corruption indices: Do not preach, focus on being an example of good governance. Some may deem this to be nationalistic or isolationistic. But, strengthening their own economic performance and democratic governance may be the most effective way to help others improve their governance. A foreign policy of teaching virtue by example, not by lesson plans.

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