Moral Goodness Requires Education

There’s a very old notion, according to which education is a necessity for moral goodness. This assertion may strike us as shocking, outrageous, reprehensible — but probably only because we fail to slow down and think about what this assertion actually says, and what it might really mean.

Objection 1: “But I know plenty of people without much education who are the best sort of people, morally unimpeachable, entirely admirable.”

Objection 2: “But I’ve met plenty of people with a decade of graduate school under their belt who are absolutely insufferable, immature, untrustworthy, unvirtuous.”

In response to the first objection, I’d say we need to avoid using too restricted a sense of the word “education.” An education may include schools and classes and grades and diplomas, but it will never be restricted to those things, and even for those of us with (all too) many years of formal education, probably almost all of our moral learning and insight happened outside of (and perhaps in spite of) the formal coursework we had to undergo. It may well be that these supposedly uneducated people whose lives shine with virtue are in fact far better educated, in the ways that matter, than lots of folks who can write PhD after their name.

And this leads nicely to my response to the second objection, which is that we must also avoid adopting too expansive a definition of the word “education” for our assertion about moral goodness. Obviously no one would reasonably conclude that it means that education of any sort will lead us to virtue. If you spent a decade in banditry school you would not expect to emerge with an enlarged moral sensibility (though for all I know you might well leave that school with a better grasp of moral realities than will a person who spends a decade studying psychology or theology or philosophy or medicine in our system). Thus, it is not education as such that improves a person, but only the right kind of education.

And what sort of education would that be, which will succeed in leading us to moral excellence? Well, it’s at this point that the specific details become somewhat debatable. The statement, as we can now see, is all but tautological. Spelled out more explicitly, our assertion really means that moral goodness requires the sort of education that is requisite to moral goodness. What sort of education is this, exactly, in its purest form? Is it discipleship to a holy person? Is it communal, military-style training? Is it classroom instruction in history, in philosophical theorizing, in the social sciences, in literature and poetry and rhetoric? It may be any or none of these, or some combination, or the correct answer may even change relative to the society and the individual person. Still, trying to find the answer, and pursue whatever education seems best, is perhaps the most important task in a human life.

One last point, here: I think it is basically unavoidable to conclude on this account that education is necessary for moral goodness. What will remain uncertain at this point is whether it is also sufficient for moral goodness. There are compelling arguments to be made both for and against the sufficiency of education for moral goodness. My own mental shorthand is to think of this as the Platonic alternative and the Aristotelian alternative. For Aristotle, it seems, you can have a perfect grasp of all parts of right and wrong and still choose to act immorally. For Plato, on the other hand, if you seem to be perfectly educated in good and evil and yet choose the evil thing, then this simply shows that there is some aspect of your education that has been neglected or insufficiently absorbed, because it is impossible to think vice more desirable than virtue if they are correctly understood. Aristotle’s account feels more true to experience, I think it’s safe to say, but I’ve found it at least beneficial to think and act as if Plato is correct. I recommend it as a worthwhile exercise. I’m not entirely convinced, by the way, that Plato and Aristotle are entirely opposed or incompatible or impossible to harmonize on this point.

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