Virtue Can be Taught – A Response to the Central Question of Plato’s Meno

In the Meno, Plato has Socrates ask “Can Virtue Be Taught?” My answer is yes, because I believe virtue, like vice, is a kind of habit, and all habits can be acquired. How does one acquire the habit of behaving in virtuous ways and what does this mean for the teaching of virtue?

First, one begins by choosing a virtue and studying what it means or involves (e.g. kindness).

Second, one continues by doing small acts that exemplify the virtue (e.g. kind gestures). One can start small, working from where one is. An occasional act is appropriate at this stage.

Third, one lets the positive feedback one gets from the small actions reinforce that pattern of behavior (‘samskara’ or memory trace).

Fourth, one builds on the motivation from the reinforcement to continue doing more actions that exemplify the target virtue. One continues on in this way until behaving in accordance with that virtue becomes a habit.

In this way, one moves from, perhaps, an unkind person, to a person who does occasional kind things, to a person who often acts kindly, to a kind person. This same procedure can be applied to any virtue one wishes to acquire, whether it be compassion, wisdom, justice, mindfulness, consideration of others, courage, etc.

As a side note, the same process can be involuntarily pursued to develop vices or what we call ‘bad habits’ and negative character traits (e.g. cruelty, indifference, self-centered, arrogance, ignorance, self-deception, etc.). We must, therefore, be mindful of what patterns we are reinforcing in our behavior and what character traits we are turning into habits.

I contend that once one knows this process, one can teach it to others. One can guide another through the process of developing a virtue provided (1) they will to develop it, and 2) are willing to commit themselves to the process.  But how does one teach a person what a virtue is and why it is good?

The easiest way to teach someone what a virtue is is to give them examples of it in practice. If I wanted to teach someone what courage was, for instance, I would give them a great variety of examples of courage from WWI and II, from the lives of people with physical and mental exceptionalities, from people who lived in oppressed historical contexts, from survivors of holocausts and rapes, etc. Through these examples, they would come to understand what courage is.

Then I would ask them whether they think courage is good or valuable. We would dialogue based on their answer. If they decided courage was good or worth developing and, moreover, wished to develop it, then we could begin the process outlined above. This would be how I would approach teaching a particular virtue.

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