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'Virtue is Knowledge' - Is it?

In The Meno the suggestion is offered, during a debate between Socrates and his new pupil, Meno, about what 'Virtue' is, that 'Virtue is Knowledge'. Whilst there is some debate about what this means specifically, overall there appears to be agreement that what Plato is suggesting is simply that to know what is good (or right, or just) is to do what is good - i.e. that anyone who has an understanding of virtue will themselves live a virtuous life. The suggestion is that people will always try to do good things, and if they do evil, they do so in the mistaken belief that what they are doing is right. This is a very contentious view, and debate focuses on two issues - whether this is actually observably the case in real life, and whether this could actually be what virtue means.

The first objection to this doctrine about Virtue is that it simply does not seem to be the case in real life that when people know that something is right they do it, or that they refrain from doing things when they know it is wrong. The doctrine would probably be slightly more excusable had Aristotle around the same time not been formulating a more realistic idea of psychology, separating the cognitive functions of humans into different parts, the vegetative (representing reflex action), the appetitive (representing pure desires) and what is most properly, in the modern sense especially, labelled cognitive. It seems clear that there are occasions when the appetitive functions overcome the cognitive, and with full understanding of the fact that something is wrong someone still does it to satisfy a pure desire. To say that a bank robber is oblivious to the fact that what he is doing is wrong seems to be stretching belief a little; rather than suggesting that she is doing it out of greed (or even simply for the thrill of it), and choosing to ignore the moral aspect.

One of the basic premises from which Plato derives this doctrine seems incredibly flawed - namely that good deeds always benefit the agent. This hardly seems to be the case in real life, especially with modern ideas of morality and what ethics is about. Certainly with modern ethical systems a large proportion of moral decision are precisely about the opposite of this - when an agent has to choose not to go for the action that simply benefits himself, but must forgo a certain personal interest for the benefit of others. I cannot see how Plato's doctrine could possibly sit well with modern ethical systems if it is seriously suggesting that the way to achieve what is good is simply to go for what benefits us the most. Surely such a claim would simply boil down to a complete system of selfishness and egocentricity - where rather that doing something because it is right, or just, in the way the Plato seems to be trying to use the term, we do things simply because it is in our interests. This does not seem to be a virtuous system at all, but one that appeals only to the self-interest of all individuals, stating that all agents should do what is good because they'll get lots out of it.

Aristotle, on this point, of course, would simply say that the things we perceive as good that we should indulge are those brought about by the true cognitive faculties, and that whilst there may be some advantage for ourselves, and in the short term, of indulging our appetitive functions, whilst these things may advantage the agent they will not in fact be good. Plato, however, in failing to divide opinions into those which aim at something good and those which appeal to lower faculties and thus are not, is unable to make a distinction between those decision that are spurned on by knowledge , or taken in spite of it.

To say that people must be uninformed if they do things which are bad is a claim which seems not only to have very little logical basis (being proposed simply, as it is, as an obvious premise) but also falls down to the first objection - that this simply does not appear to be the case. Some of the worst crimes that are committed are done in full knowledge of the facts, and perpetrated by people that would never be labelled ignorant. In fact often it is purely down to the fact that they knew how wrong the crime was that we consider it such a bad crime - that to do wrong knowingly is far worse than mistakenly following an ideal that an agent believes was right. The most horrific crimes, and the ones that keep us up at night, are not those where someone just has a warped view of ethics, and thus does things that many of us would see as wrong, but are those where the person sets out deliberately to do things that are clearly wrong, and understanding how wrong their actions would be.

Santas is quite correct to point out that even if we were to accept such strange premises, we would still not be committed to the sort of claim that Plato is making. Plato suggests that 'No one desires evil things', and yet it is perfectly compatible with his theory - in fact it is the very crux of his claims - that people will be attracted to evil, simply under a veil which they mistakenly believe is one of goodness. Indeed, Santas offers the objection of an unexpected bad thing. It does not even require a lack of knowledge, or a mistaken belief, for someone to get something bad believing they are aiming at something good. To say 'He crossed to help the lady across the street' does not imply a wrong act, yet clearly if this is referring to the same action as 'He got halfway across before being hit and killed by a joyrider' then one would suspect the man would not really have desired the consequences. Clearly the premise that a good deed always benefits the agent and thus is an attractive prospect for an agent cannot be correct in this case - unless we are to jump to the (rather silly, in my opinion) conclusion that crossing the road to help the lady across the street was in fact, in this case, a wrong action. This seems a silly road to go down.

Santas claims that the solution is to separate the two parts of the equation - knowing what virtue is, and knowing that virtuous things are the right thing to do. Normally I would say that Santas' objection seems mistaken, but in the case of Plato it seems very useful indeed. It is silly to make this distinction if 'Virtue' has been defined in a sensible way. 'Virtue' would normally be defined as 'what is right to do', and if you took this with the common Platonic ploy, of equating thought and action, then it would be perfectly apparent that virtue would seem to be knowledge - if someone had the thought 'X is the right thing to do' and thus did it, then clearly they'll have achieved virtue through knowledge. Unfortunately, it does not seem to be the case that Plato has defined virtue in this way.

In just the same way as he invents a new term 'The Good', explaining how this abstract thing reveals itself to people, and later fails completely to justify the fact that he equates 'Good' with good, he seems to have invented a new word 'Virtue' and hasn't successfully equated it with virtue. Plato explains that there is this thing which we can understand through contemplation and through knowledge, and which he calls 'Virtue', and then tries to explain why this thing should direct what we should do. If he had instead stuck with a normal definition of virtue - such as 'that thing which directs what we should do' then tried to show how this thing can be observed and tested, he would probably have had a much more successful enquiry. In the usual case, therefore, Santas would be wrong to claim that we need an additional component to show us that what is virtuous (i.e. what it behoves us to do) is the right thing to do, but with Plato's definition we clearly can't say that what is virtuous (i.e. that which is objectively right, and which is observable through an understanding of 'the form of the Good') is the right thing to do.

The second objection, and one that seems to be neglected, though in my opinion is just as useful to attack this doctrine as an ethical system, is that of whether such a doctrine could truly be called morally correct, and whether it would allow people to do good. The first problem, as I have already hinted at, is that this system seems to be one based entirely on self-interest. Plato tries to sell it to the reader by saying that doing good deeds is always good for the agent - but is this a moral thing to do? It is hard to see how Plato can get out of this, in the way Christians try to avoid hypocrisy by claiming that heaven is simply 'a reward', and not the reason in itself for doing good, since he seems to be justifying doing the right thing purely in terms of advantages for an agent.

Another aspect of this particular objection is whether agents have the free will necessary to be moral beings. If simply knowing about virtue is forces you to do what is right, can we honestly say that people have the ability to be good. This, of course, has been the focus of debate in many areas of ethics, and has not been sufficiently resolved. It does, however, seem difficult to argue that if you know something is right, then you'll do it, and if you don't do what is right then you obviously don't know that it is. Ultimately this would seem to remove any responsibility from wrong-doers, and also would fail to allow those that do act virtuously to do so deliberately - they would simply be automata, unable to choose between good and evil, and doomed to do what is right. Considering that Plato has strong views on punishment, it seems strange for him to be proposing such a doctrine, which is surely somewhat incompatible with such views. I doubt that many people would argue that our task with criminals is simply to educate them (so that in future they will be unable to do wrong deeds, since they understand what is right, and are thus obliged to follow this), and I'm not convinced Plato would argue this either.

Overall, therefore, without a much sharper definition of what he is talking about, Plato seems to have failed to have shown anything more than the obvious - that we should do what it is right to do - and certainly hasn't succeeded (as it appears he is attempting to) to tie in the moral aspects that he believes are introduced by his theory of forms. Any argument which is going to claim something which would seem so contrary to normal experiences of psychology would need to be very strong indeed in order to prove anything at all, and I do not think that critics can claim that Plato succeeds in persuading us of something which would require us to abandon many aspects of accepted psychology.