What Can And Cannot Be Taught

     Among the questions that every responsible man must address during his lifetime, this one has a special resonance for both parents and teachers:

     When I ask whether ethics can be taught, I mean by someone standing up in front of you and speaking, as in a classroom. Someone speaks about the virtue of courage for instance. He defines courage. He emphasizes that courage is standing firm in the midst of reasonable fears, not in the absence of fear. He distinguishes courage from traits that may look like courage but are not courage. He gives examples of courage.

     Has he imparted courage to those who listen to him? Obviously not. His listeners will not be one whit more courageous by having listened to him speak. And yet courage is perhaps the most decisive virtue. No one does the right thing under pressure without courage.

     Ethics is the collective noun for that bundle of virtues that define right and wrong actions toward others. To describe a virtue, however precisely and comprehensively, is not to impart it to one’s student. Neither is it sufficient to give examples of that virtue in action. Still worse, it is possible for the student to understand the virtue perfectly and completely, yet to internalize it so shallowly that it fails completely when put to the test. C. S. Lewis understood this:

     This, indeed, is probably one of the Enemy’s motives for creating a dangerous world—a world in which moral issues really come to the point. He sees as well as you do that courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means, at the point of highest reality. A chastity or honesty, or mercy, which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions. Pilate was merciful till it became risky.

     I’ve cited that passage many times, yet its significance still eludes many. What we mean by character is that he who possesses it not only understands the virtues, but holds consistently practicing them as his highest priority: above even his personal survival.

     That, I think, cannot be taught. No value can be.


     Aristotle was of the opinion that virtue is internalized through practice: i.e., that we can only become persons of character by practicing the virtues in our daily lives. Some virtues are more frequently tested than others, of course, but all of us will face a trial of each between the cradle and the grave. To understand the virtues might be necessary for this process to begin, but it isn’t sufficient. So where does a man of character acquire them? How does the elevation of the virtues to one’s highest priority begin?

     Don’t expect a definitive answer from me. It’s a problem that’s confounded some of the greatest thinkers in human history. Aristotle could only prescribe a method; he could not answer the vital question But why should I do so? That question is the bastion of the man who seeks to dismiss the virtues as important to Mankind.

     Some men of character become such through the emulation of an admired figure. They’ve seen the virtues in action, perhaps even at C. S. Lewis’s “point of highest reality.” Something in them responded to the sight powerfully enough to elicit admiration and the desire to emulate: “I want to be like him.” What follows can be variable, but for some at least it raises them to be that which they’ve admired in their heroes.

     I can hardly claim to have conducted an in-depth survey, but even so I’d guess that far more men of character have become such in that fashion than those who’ve reached it by coldly studying the virtues, how they conduce to human flourishing, and deciding as an entirely intellectual proposition that it would be best to prioritize the virtues within themselves. While it can be done, how often does it happen? Just how much intellectual horsepower does it take to deduce the centrality of the virtues to human life? More critically still, what conceivable mechanism leads to the conclusion that I ought to be this way — ?

     C. S. Lewis again:

     From propositions about fact alone no practical conclusion can ever be drawn. This will preserve society cannot lead to do this except by the mediation of society ought to be preserved. This will cost you your life cannot lead directly to do not do this: it can lead to it only through a felt desire or an acknowledged duty of self-preservation. The Innovator is trying to get a conclusion in the imperative mood out of premisses in the indicative mood: and though he continues trying to all eternity he cannot succeed, for the thing is impossible. We must therefore either extend the word Reason to include what our ancestors called Practical Reason and confess that judgements such as society ought to be preserved (though they can support themselves by no reason of the sort that Gaius and Titius demand) are not mere sentiments but are rationality itself; or else we must give up at once, and for ever, the attempt to find a core of ‘rational’ value behind all the sentiments we have debunked.

     And here as nowhere else, the “practical conclusion” is what matters.


     Philosophers have struggled for millennia with how and why character is acquired. I don’t expect to dispose of the problem in a Monday morning essay. But it’s something I’ve pondered for a long time. I’d like to encourage my Gentle Readers to ponder it as well. It’s not something to which most people give much thought.

     Perhaps the answer lies in the shadowed place within ourselves that also resists analytical exploration: the conscience. Philosophers have wrestled with that one, too – and equally to no avail. As I’m a religious man, you can guess my take on it:

     “The word ‘conscience’ means ‘knowing with.’ But knowing with whom? As we can’t read one another’s consciences, or transmit into them, it can only be God. Conscience is the channel God uses to help us make our judgment calls—which does not mean that if you and I make a particular one differently, then one of us is ‘wrong.’ You can never know what another person’s conscience has told him…or whether he’s really paid attention to it as he should.”
     “‘Judge not, that ye be not judged,’” Larry said.
     “Exactly,” Ray said. He pointed upward. “Do what you can with yourself, and leave the rest to Him.”

     Give it some thought…but don’t expect thought alone to crack it.

1 comment

    • Drumwaster on October 2, 2023 at 10:59 AM

    It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it. — Oscar Wilde

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