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Socrates' claim that virtue is knowledge


To: Scott B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Socrates' claim that virtue is knowledge
Date: 15th April 2010 11:14

Dear Scott,

Thank you for your email of 8 April with your essay for the University of London Ethics: Historical Perspectives BA module, in response to the question, 'How defensible is Socrates' claim that virtue is knowledge?'

It is pretty obvious to me -- and would also be to an examiner -- that you've missed the point of the question. You give lots of references to what Socrates says in the Protagoras, Meno etc. as well as spending some time on Plato's theory of recollection, and on the views of the Sophists. However, you won't gain credit for displaying your knowledge, if you can't show how this is relevant to the question being asked.

What you should have taken into consideration that this is a question from a paper on Ethics. What is the ethical problem or challenge that lies at the centre of Socrates' doctrine that virtue is knowledge? Do you agree with Socrates? or disagree? Why?

When you are asked, 'How defensible is theory XYZ?' your primary task is to consider objections to theory XYZ and either offer your defence, or explain why you think that the objections are valid. As the paper considers ethics from a historical perspective you should of course refer to the relevant texts. However, as I shall explain below, the relevant texts in this case are not confined to the dialogues of Plato.

In the Meno and also in the Protagoras, Socrates considers the conditional proposition that if virtue is knowledge, then it ought to be capable of being taught. This is not by any means an irrelevant consideration. However, from a logical point of view, even if virtue can't be taught it doesn't follow that it isn't knowledge: perhaps virtue is one of those things that you either you have -- in which case it is something that you know innately -- or you haven't. In other words, it would be possible to argue that you can't 'teach' virtue to someone who doesn't already have it.

As I said, that is a possible view to hold. It's not one that Socrates (Plato) considers because he has the theory of recollection: you can in a sense 'know' virtue innately yet at the same time not 'know' it because this innate knowledge has not yet been brought out, by a process which resembles 'teaching'.

Again, from a logical point of view, the converse of the proposition 'If virtue is knowledge then it can be taught' does not hold, in the sense which interests Socrates. Today I was reading an article criticizing 'neuro-linguistic programming' as an alternative therapy. In a way, the Sophists were doing a similar thing: teaching people techniques for how to be successful in the polis. But as Socrates never tires of saying, knowledge of techniques is not knowledge of 'virtue' in the absence of a capacity to appreciate whether an action which one proposes to carry out is good or evil, as opposed to being merely expedient for some ulterior purpose.

In the Republic, Plato leaves us in no doubt that knowledge of virtue is knowledge of the Good. The fact that you can teach 'virtues' as the Sophists understood this, does not show that Virtue with a capital 'V' (= knowledge of the Good) is knowledge.

Which brings us to the central question which you should have been trying to answer. You mention that according to the theory that virtue is knowledge, weakness of the will is impossible. This is, in effect, a potential objection to any account of ethics which takes a 'cognitivist' or 'objective' view. If I know what the right thing to do is, really know it, then I cannot fail to do the right thing. Otherwise ethical 'knowledge' would have no relevance to what we actually do. The objection is that there are, or seem to be, many cases where we do feel that we know, in the fullest sense, what we ought to do, but we just can't bring ourselves to do it. We're too weak. But that is nonsense, if Socrates is right.

This objection is one that worried Aristotle: in the Nichomachean Ethics he considers the 'problem of akrasia' (weakness of the will) and offers his alternative take on how akratic action is possible. It would have been perfectly acceptable to talk about Aristotle in your answer, as this is the classic discussion of Socrates' claim that virtue is knowledge.

Obviously, I can't write the essay for you. I can't stress strongly enough that in an examination you must take time to consider whether you really understand the point of the question. It's not enough that the question rings some bells. If you find yourself wondering why this particular question is being asked, then it is probably safe to assume that you've missed the point, and you'd be better off answering a different question!

All the best,