Learning to be good: Moral saints or virtuous persons?

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Cultural Foundations of Education


Emily Robertson


Moral saints, Self-love, Virtuous

Subject Categories

Educational Psychology | Philosophy


Learning to be good seems to be what moral education is about. But what conception of goodness should guide moral education? And how do we learn to be good? These questions are the focuses of this dissertation.

Writings in modern moral philosophy are filled with talk of "interests". In these discussions, people are held to become good when they learn to give proper weight to the interests of others instead of narrowly pursuing their own good. Here devoting oneself selflessly to the interests of others, the life of a moral saint, seems to be the maximally good life.

Arguing that there are unappealing features to such a life, some philosophers have attempted to restrict the domain of morality by partitioning the moral life into a moral minimum required of all persons and actions which go beyond the call of duty. I investigate these attempts to make modern moral ideals more compelling. I argue that these efforts are not wholly successful and examine ancient Greek virtue ethics as an alternative to the modern ideal.

Instead of the business of interests, the ancient Greeks' concern was with self-love, as opposed to self-negligence. Self-love is taking care of the health of one's soul. The healthy state of one's soul is what constitutes virtue. If we think of the point of living a life as enhancing the material we are given, a life of virtue is an enhanced life. The dominant modern moral theories, I argue, have neglected the importance of enhancing life and have instead focused on whittling down our ethical world into a more manageable size. The problem with these theories is that one can meet their ideal while being self-neglecting.

I argue that from the virtue perspective, the task of moral education is preparing children to become fully virtuous at some point in the future. This task goes beyond the goals of contemporary character education programs. It involves helping children form not only right habits but also appropriate emotional dispositions and the ability to know what decisions to make in crucial moral situations, "practical wisdom," as Aristotle called it.


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