Americans are keen on the reforming power of facts: hence, on a special kind of moral education. We believe that social maladies like racism or high-risk sex can be cured by teaching people the evil consequences of their actions. This faith flows out of our optimism, and rarely examines its own premises. Yet if Americans can be taught right behavior, either we must be exceedingly gullible and malleable, or else “right behavior,” like the force of gravity, is so irrefutably a fact in the world that no sane person, once witting of it, would rebel against it.
Is right behavior, good character – what used to be called the life of virtue – really a fact in the world, like the shortest route between two points? If it is a fact, doesn’t it follow that the only reason to indulge in vice is ignorance? And if we grant this, is such ignorance beyond redemption, or (as we in America wish to believe) can virtue be attained through education?
These questions lie at the heart of Protagoras, Plato’s attempt to reconstruct the intellectual golden age of Athens, right before the war with Sparta and a few years before his own birth. The dialogue is a literary masterpiece, full of well-drawn characters and neat descriptions of place.
The setting is the house of Callias, richest man in the city and a patron of those wandering teachers called sophists. Protagoras is there, greatest of the sophists, best known today for his saying, “Man is the measure of all things.” Socrates arrives with a young friend, who wishes to be instructed by Protagoras. Other sophist celebrities are in attendance, as well as Socrates’ handsome young flame, Alcibiades; all participate, but the discussion moves mostly between Socrates and Protagoras, and the main theme is whether virtue can be taught.
Whatever the word “sophist” connotes today, Protagoras wasn’t it. He thought deeply and talked straight. But he denied that morality was a fact in the world, which placed him on the losing side of Greek and Western philosophy. For Protagoras, man was truly the measure: all notions of the good, justice, and virtue were conventions within communities of people, rather than objects in nature. A number of consequences followed.
First, philosophers desperately seeking a “true” or “natural” morality were wasting their time. All moralities – the Athenian and the Spartan, the American and the Saudi – are equally true and equally false. In fact, the words truth and falsehood aren’t applicable to morality.
Second, moral rules are good or bad only in a pragmatic sense: whether they achieve or fail to achieve the goals sought by those who heed them. Thus abstention from sex, a rule the Shakers enforced, might seem admirable to them but ultimately was a bad rule, because it was suicidal for the Shakers.
Third, from such premises Protagoras draws profoundly conservative conclusions. He was a traditionalist, not a relativist: since no “true” or “higher” morality exists, none can be appealed to for leverage in criticizing conventional morality. The only alternative to the community’s way of life is chaos.
Fourth, in consequence, it becomes trivially true that virtue can be taught, and is taught by the entire community to each new member. Protagoras tells a story in which Zeus, at the end of the creation, gives to all of humanity two virtues: respect for others and a sense of justice. The Protagorean faith was as deeply democratic as it was conservative.
Every individual had his share of moral wisdom. Every newborn was trained to do good and avoid evil by those he came in contact with. “As soon as a child can understand what is said to him, nurse, mother, tutor, and the father himself vie with each other to make him as good as possible, instructing him through everything he does or says, pointing out: ‘this is right and that is wrong, this is honorable and that disgraceful, this holy, that impious: do this, don’t do that’…”
What of Socrates? At first, he denies that virtue can be taught. After many sidetracks and sophistries, he concludes that virtue is knowledge, and so, in principle at least, teachable. By the end of the dialogue Protagoras and Socrates appear to agree, but in truth a vast gulf separates them.
Socrates believed that virtue – morality – was indeed a fact in the world. This belief is his great legacy: from Plato through Kant to Rawls, most philosophers have shared it. But identifying the fact “virtue” proved extremely difficult. Socrates never achieved it. Plato was forced to imagine a cosmic realm of “forms,” in essence calling into question all reality to justify the objectivity of the good. The knowledge on which virtue rests is, for Protagoras, the common sense of the people; for Socrates, it’s a complex, esoteric science, accessible only to a few brilliant minds.
As he made clear in the Gorgias, Socrates despised democracy as the rule of panderers. And as he (or Plato) proposed in the Republic, the government should ideally be in the guardianship of brilliant virtuous men, that is, of philosophers like himself. Ordinary persons will never attain the knowledge on which virtue depends, and so should never be trusted to rule themselves wisely.
What are we to make of this debate? Although Protagoras probably underestimated the “natural” or genetic aspect of behavior, he described the facts of moral life with far more insight than Socrates. The good is community property, not a cosmic force. The basis of morality is tradition, not logic or scientific observation. Virtue, trivially, can be taught, but it must also be learned, become habitual – and about this internal process, Protagoras remained silent.
If Protagoras was correct, moral “re-education” is possible, but only on a generational timeframe, if new parents choose to change what they teach their children; and even then the desired change might be blocked by the sheer weight of tradition. This tracks with the trajectory of American reform movements. Consider the campaigns against smoking and drugs: progress has been made, but slowly and unevenly. Changes that fly directly in the face of tradition, such as same-sex marriage, have had difficulty obtaining any traction at all.
The facts of nature, scientifically understood, have a tremendous importance to our moral life. They define the stage on which our decisions play out. But the decisions, if they are to be good decisions, depend not on knowledge of facts but on internalization of the community’s values: on good character, in sum.
I suspect many Americans will never accept this. We are optimistic, but also impatient. We would like to believe in the power of facts, and in the Socratic ideal that no man can do harm who has been taught the good. Yet the facts themselves conspire against this notion. Most of us, after all, have overeaten, knowing perfectly well that goodness lay in moderation.
Ultimately, moral change can only come from internal struggle. Success is never guaranteed. Family and community can assist, and teachers can persuade, but every reformation of morals must occur one human heart at a time.