Sunday, April 26, 2009

Teaching Ethics vs. Acquiring Virtue

A recent headline at a bioethics web site reads, "A New Model for Teaching Ethical Behavior." This brings to mind an issue that troubles me about contemporary American society. Many people of influence in America seem to think that instilling good "ethics" into others (whatever their conception of this entails) is primarily a matter of education--especially of the sort done in classrooms in high schools and colleges.

I don't have anything in particular against "Ethics" as a course of formal study. It is a perfectly legitimate subject considered as a branch of philosophy. However, we are badly mistaken if we think this is all we need to bring about a change in society for the better. Good people are not made by ethics courses.

How, then, are good people formed? By the consistent cultivation of virtue. Virtue is what makes a person truly good, not the mere acquisition of knowledge, however salutary.

Acquiring virtue is a long-term project that involves daily effort consistently engaged over time. Once virtue is attained, it "lives" or "resides" in the soul. It becomes a part of us, much more integral and central to our personal core than mere knowledge about something. This is why mere classes cannot by themselves make people more ethical. They can be helpful in an ancillary way, but they are not the crux of how virtue is instilled.

Virtue, unlike mere intellectual knowledge, is something that must be woven into the person like a pattern of thread in a textile. It cannot happen all at once, but requires many cycles of the loom as each strand of fabric is laid down until the whole piece is complete.

So often it seems, American cultural leaders act as though there is a simple solution to perceived deficits of moral rectitude; all we need is the right curriculum to be taught. If we could only find the right "model for teaching ethical behavior," we will be on the right path to positive societal transformation.

This is not so. For to acquire virtue we don't need a teacher in a classroom (though this can be helpful). Rather, we need a harmony of many things including a sustained desire to become good (virtuous) and consistent efforts to practice being good, with the good example, advice, and guidance of others more virtuous than we. The process is not unlike becoming skilled at playing a musical instrument. No matter how much you read about playing the piano, you will never become a skilled piano player unless you practice--and practice regularly for quite some time. And if we speak of those virtues which are particularly Christian and thus inseparable from faith, having been modeled perfectly for us by Jesus Christ, we need a confluence of divine grace allied with personal desire and regular (humble and hope-filled) practice. . . Such entails the beautiful journey of the saints.

1 comment:

  1. This reminds me of The Abolition of Man:

    "It still remains true that no justification of virtue will enable a man to be virtuous. Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism. I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite sceptical about ethics, but bred to believe that 'a gentleman does not cheat,' than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among sharpers."


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