Friday, February 23, 2024

Teaching virtue

A famous Socratic question is whether virtue can be taught. This argument may seem to settle the question:

  1. If vice can be taught, virtue can be taught.

  2. Vice can be taught. (Clear empirical fact!)

  3. So, virtue can be taught.

Well, except that what I labeled as a clear empirical fact is not something that Socrates would accept. I think Socrates reads “to teach” as a success verb, with a necessary condition for teaching being the conveyance of knowledge. In other words, it’s not possible to teach falsehood, since knowledge is always of the truth, and presumably in “teaching” vice one is “teaching” falsehoods such as that greed is good.

That said, if we understand “to teach” in a less Socratic way, as didactic conveyance of views, skills and behavioral traits, then (2) is a clear empirical fact, and (1) is plausible, and hence (3) is plausible.

That said, it would not be surprising if it were harder to teach virtue even in this non-Socratic sense than it is to teach vice. After all, it is surely harder to teach someone to swim well than to swim badly.


James Reilly said...

This might be a bit off-topic, but do you think your Aristotelian optimism is compatible with the theistic argument from moral knowledge? I know you've expressed some fondness for that argument, but it seems that on your view our natures might be doing all of the needed work (since the norms are grounded in our natures, and given Aristotelian optimism our typical behavior and intuitions will be a sufficient guide). Of course, the Aristotelian view itself might give us new reasons to accept theism, but I was wondering whether it might do away with this particular argument (or at least weaken it).

Heavenly Philosophy said...

James Reilly:

Pruss says this in his draft of his book:

"The Natural Law metaethics yields knowability when we accept the Aristotelian harmony theses that things generally function correctly and that the various norms for a thing tend not to conflict. For instance, given such a thesis, the norms for our emotions---including emotions such as moral repugnance or moral admiration or the feeling of obligation---are likely to cohere with our norms for our actions, and by and large our emotions and actions are apt to be correct. This enables us to evaluate normative ethical theories according to the constraint of whether their requirements fit sufficiently with our emotions and require actions that are not too distant from those that people actually perform, especially in the case of people whose lives appear to be harmoniously flourishing. We thus have a rational equilibrium epistemology for our ethics." Norms, Natures, and God Chapter 3 (lines 32-38)

So, it does seem that Aristotelianism does solve the problem of moral knowledge. I'm not really a fan of that argument anyway, though.

James Reilly said...

Heavenly Philosophy:

Yes, that's what I was referring to. My question is whether the argument from moral knowledge might still have some force even given Aristotelian optimism, or whether it is more or less done away with.

Alexander R Pruss said...

But in Chapter 10, Pruss argues that all this optimism only makes sense given further metaphysical assumptions, and theism is the best version of these assumptions.

Heavenly Philosophy said...

Dr. Pruss:

It seems that you could have a few easy solutions to this problem. The first solution is that there is a simple law that correlates every causal disposition to a moral obligation. The second solution is that dispositions ground normative properties. The final solution is that normative and dispositional properties are identical.

Have you looked at David E. Alexander's (your former student) work on metaethics?

Alexander R Pruss said...

That dispositions ground normative properties had better be compatible with things going somewhat wrong. Presumably, we would try to account for this in terms of a conflict between dispositions. But if there can be a small conflict, then absent some optimistic story to the contrary, there can be a very large conflict. And a very large conflict could well undercut moral knowledge.

Heavenly Philosophy said...

Dr. Pruss:

I think one thing you should do in your book is talk about moral motivation. It's an interesting area of metaethics.

Heavenly Philosophy said...

Well, I could account for evil by just saying that evil is when a disposition is not exercised when it should or it is only exercised partially when it should. That's just the privation theory of evil (which you have criticized, however.)

I guess one problem with my first solution is that we wouldn't be able to know of the existence of such a law. For the next two solutions, they would seem to need to be analytic truths, although we shouldn't go to verificationism or empiricism (I'm convinced those critiques of moral knowledge leave us with radical skepticism.) Also, the axioms of mathematics don't just seem definitionally true but we can know them a priori.

Maybe another method of moral knowledge is abstracting the form of the object in your mind and then analyzing the nature of the form that is in your mind. This would give us some fallibility because people can't contain the entire form in their mind perfectly clearly, just like one cannot contain all of pi in one's mind, and the idea of abstracting forms seems to line up with Aquinas believes.