We don’t spend nearly as much time nowadays thinking about how to teach virtue

I’ve been reading Plato recently, and one thing that’s stood out, at least in the early dialogues, is the emphasis on how to teach virtue. Over and over, Socrates either challenges the sophists for their inability to teach people to be good, or he is challenged and asked whether he knows how to teach people to be good (I’m still pretty early on in the ouevre, so I have no idea if he ever comes up with an answer on this).

What I’m struck by, however, is that this isn’t a question we think about very often. Our schools do pay some attention, particularly in elementary school, to teaching civic virtue and inculcating morality, but we don’t think about how to do it or what virtue consists of. Everybody is more or less like, “Treat people as you’d like to be treated” and then leaves it at that.

But there’s got to be more to it than that. The Socrates of Plato’s Dialogues seemed to be very concerned with the question of wisdom: “How do we get people to see and choose the good?”

What perplexes him is that since everyone is more or less able to see what’s good, why is it that anyone ever does evil? And since it is the truth that some people are more often able to choose the good, what makes those people different? And how can we produce more people like that?

And I don’t know that our modern society even thinks about these questions. What makes some people choose good?

As best as I can understand it, from our stories and movies, we think some people just have an instinct towards goodness. There’s a goodness in them. And when they’re presented with tough choices, they gravitate towards the difficult and good choice rather than the easy and evil choice.

But there has to be more to it than that? What makes people choose the good?

I guess we also place a lot of emphasis on early childhood parenting and attachment style. When people are conspicuously unable to emphasize with or trust other people, we blame it on a lack of love–or a distorted love–from their parents. These people can see the good (unless they’re sociopaths), but they’ve learned not to expect good from other people, so they see no reason to dispense it in return.

Maybe that’s our answer. Love your children and they will turn out good.

There’s a countervailing wisdom here, though, as there has been throughout history. If you love your children too much, then they’ll think too much of themselves and turn out to be evil. But there are other psychological theories to account for this–too much love, in this case, is viewed as narcissism. Parents who hover and interfere in their kids lives do it because they view their kids as an extension of themselves. In this case, kids never develop their own sense of self, and they find themselves at the mercy of outside opinion. Since they overvalue others’ opinion, they’re driven to commit expedient actions in order to retain public approval (rather than trusting in their own sense of what is right and wrong).

But it feels like in all this there’s very little role for society. Perhaps that’s right. Perhaps society doesn’t matter nearly as much as parenting when it comes to developing virtuous kids. But that doesn’t feel right. Somehow it seems like there ought to be more than that…