Can Ethics Be Taught?

When I ask whether ethics can be taught, I mean by someone standing up in front of you and speaking, as in a classroom.  Someone speaks about the virtue of courage for instance.  He defines courage. He emphasizes that courage is standing firm in the midst of reasonable fears, not in the absence of fear.  He distinguishes courage from traits that may look like courage but are not courage.  He gives examples of courage.

Has he imparted courage to those who listen to him?  Obviously not.  His listeners will not be one whit more courageous by having listened to him speak. And yet courage is perhaps the most decisive virtue.  No one does the right thing under pressure without courage.

Someone once defined Unitarianism as a feather bed to catch falling Christians.  I’ve wondered whether the idea that ethics can be taught in the classroom isn’t the same. Some people now say: “Jesus was not God but rather a Great Moral Teacher.” Well, if ethics cannot be taught, Jesus had nothing to do.

The result is that we must desperately hold onto the teachability of ethics if we are “in the Christian tradition” but not really believing Christians.  All the courses on ethics in universities of Christian foundation (“methods of ethics,” “types of ethical theory”) arose after those institutions became secularized.

“But what is the Sermon on the Mount,” you say, “if not teaching ethics?  Jesus taught ethics; therefore ethics can be taught.  Moreover, we are supposed to imitate Jesus.  Therefore, we should teach ethics ourselves.”

May I call attention to all the ways in which the Sermon on the Mount was different from a classroom lecture?

First, it was taught “by one having authority,” that is, by someone who could refer to the Decalogue as “what was said of old. . . but I say to you.”  In contrast, an ethics instructor, as such, has no authority whatsoever.  He is not a father or mother, or in loco parentis, or relying on the authority of the Church or Christ – as an instructor.

Second, its goal was to elicit repentance, acceptance of the Kingdom of God, and therefore baptism and entry into a community.  “Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” (Matthew 4:17)  But the aim of classroom instruction is that an individual will merely know something.  And anything that I merely know, the devil can know as well.

Third, every sentence in the Sermon on the Mount presupposes the presence of the Father and appeals to Him “who sees in secret” (Matthew 6:4).  In no way is it an analysis or explanation, but rather a kind of call, or meditation, in which listeners are invited to examine themselves and pray.


Fourth, it was offered within an already existing people and tradition, stretching back 1500 years to the call of Abram from Ur.  But classroom instruction starts de novo.  An instructor is often even regarded as more skilled if he sets down at the start all the premises he needs, so that his course relies on nothing outside itself.

Even so, there was no presumption of the Lord that by the end he had made anyone better.  “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock” (Matthew 7:24), which is to say it’s been left up to us.  Perhaps no one who hears those words will “do them.”  Even the fool has “heard” the Sermon and might score 100 percent in a pop quiz about it.

And we haven’t even mentioned Jesus’ real power conveyed. To some listeners, he was patently a source of grace. After he taught, as he was coming down from the mount, a leper approached and said, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” (Matthew 8:2)  No student ever said anything like this to an ethics instructor leaving the lecture hall.  Academic credentialing confers no supernatural powers.  The most perceptive lecture implies no font of grace.

So, whatever Jesus was doing in the Sermon on the Mount, he was not “teaching ethics.”  He was not playing the role of a Great Moral Teacher, but indeed acting as God.  Therefore, the only way to imitate him, would be to point others to him.  We cannot imitate the authority of God but must advert to it.

Socrates used to say that his sole wisdom was to understand that he lacked wisdom.  It looks like a contradiction, but is not.  He meant that genuine wisdom belongs to the gods – which as a mortal man he understood that he lacked – but that there is a kind of human wisdom, anyway, to recognize your lack of wisdom and therefore humble reliance on the gods.  A Socratic ethics teacher today might likewise say that his sole teaching is that he cannot teach ethics.

One other worry, of course, is that if we hold tightly to the idea that ethics can be taught, then we typically reduce ethics to what admits of being taught, and we tend to accept whatever is bound up with this misguided construction.

The way to understand what bothers us today about “elites” is that they are hothouse plants cultivated on the presumption that ethics can be taught.  Suppose ethics can be taught and is taught in secular institutions.  Then the better the institution, the better the persons.  And to be ethical is to have the right views.

And there is no need to serve in the military, or to be faithful come good or come ill, or to raise children, or to do humble work (without attention or credit) to become good.  Study and lab work are enough. And, of course, there is no need to rely on God or even to refer to God to be good. And traditions are pointless.

And finally, there’s no such thing as sin . . . or the devil. And we have no need of grace.


*Image: The Sermon on the Mount by Fra Angelico, c. 1437 [Museo di San Marco, Florence, Italy]

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Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His most recent book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available. His new book, Be Good Bankers: The Divine Economy in the Gospel of Matthew, is forthcoming from Regnery Gateway in the spring. Prof. Pakaluk was appointed to the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas Aquinas by Pope Benedict XVI.