Home Fall 2012 Unknown Unknowns: Is Virtue Something We Can Empirically Observe?

Unknown Unknowns: Is Virtue Something We Can Empirically Observe?

Published on October 11, 2012, in Fall 2012.


 Abstract: Given the general interest on the part of governments and educators to teach students about citizenship and character, it is worthwhile to examine particular assumptions about virtue, including that virtue is a definable thing or an identifiable set of qualities; that it can be observed and therefore known; and that it can be taught. Further, given the psychological research in this area and its subsequent impact on educational programs and policies, it is important for educators to question and contrast such research with the philosophical foundations (also influential on educational programs and policies) on which virtue is based.





There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. -Donald Rumsfeld, Former Secretary of State, 2002

Despite his notable unpopularity as former U.S. President George W. Bush’s Secretary of State, Donald Rumsfeld’s philosophical musings about knowledge (for which he received much mockery) are important, and relate to the recent American Educational Research Association’s conference theme, non satis scire (to know is not enough). To know is not enough but educators might consider a deeper challenge: question what we think we know in the first place. Serious consideration of the many “unknown unknowns” in education is a worthwhile undertaking and in particular, the possible unknown unknown, virtue, warrants further analysis

There is interest on the part of governments and educators to teach virtue education and character development, generally as a means to help students become good citizens. Concerned with the politics of virtue education and character development programs, for example, Howard, Berkowitz and Schaeffer (2004) emphasize the importance of such programs thus,

…[it] comes with the territory of teaching and schooling. It is not a question of whether to do character education but rather questions of how consciously and by what methods. The political sands will shift and create different contexts. In spite of these changes, character education will continue and character educators will continue to grapple with questions of how to be our best ethical selves and how best to help students to know, care about, and do the right thing (p. 210)

They argue further that by choosing the profession, educators accept responsibility “…to prepare individuals to make ethical judgments and to act on them…to do what one thinks ought to be done” (p. 189) and that as educators “…engage in preparing…youth to answer and respond to these and difficult personal issues and societal issues, their character development takes on growing importance” (p. 189).  

The importance of virtue projects and character education programs have been newly emphasized as necessary, now more than ever, given our increasingly inter-dependent and global world. The Ontario Ministry of Education (2008), for example, points out this importance in Finding Common Ground:Character Development in Ontario Schools, K–12, stressing that educators are responsible for “… preparing students to be citizens who have empathy and respect for others within our increasingly diverse communities” (p. 2). Educators are further responsible to help students “…understand deeply the importance of civic engagement and what it means to be productive citizens in an interdependent world (p. 2).

Given this interest in teaching students about citizenship, virtues and character, it is worthwhile to examine particular assumptions about virtue, including, that it is a definable thing or an identifiable set of qualities; that it can be observed and therefore known; and that it can be taught. Further, given some of the psychological research in this area and its subsequent impact on educational programs and policies, it is important for educators to question and contrast this research with some of the philosophical foundations on which virtue is based — philosophical foundations that are also influential on educational programs and policies. Interestingly though, philosophical foundations and arguments may have less sway than evidence-based research (including scientific and psychological research) in educational policy. As Biesta (2007) notes,

[p]roponents of evidence-based education stress that it is about time that educational research starts to follow the pattern that has created ‘‘the kind of progressive, systematic improvement over time that has characterized successful parts of our economy and society throughout the twentieth century, in fields such as medicine, agriculture, transportation, and technology” (p. 3)

Biesta further suggests “…some proponents go as far as to say that any practice not based upon scientific knowledge is inferior and should ultimately be banned” (p. 3). That scientific knowledge and research in education is considered superior to other forms of research or knowledge cannot be overstated as Biesta concludes that proponents of evidence-based education stress that,

…education ‘‘is too important to allow it to be determined by unfounded opinion, whether of politicians, teachers, researchers or anyone else.’’ They call for a culture ‘‘in which evidence is valued over opinion’’ and argue that any approach to decision-making that is not evidence-based is simply ‘‘pre-scientific’’ (p. 4).

Considering this context, my purpose here is to explore some understandings of the nature of virtue by 1) examining the assumption that it can be observed or known; 2) looking at some of the literature that suggests it is observable and identifiable; and 3) discussing the implications as they relate to education.

While we may think we can observe virtue, such an assumption may be grounded on particular psychological, scientific perspectives. Further, the assumption may be counter-intuitive to our desire to help students value and understand virtue in the first place. We unwittingly perpetuate the assumption when we assert that we can know one is virtuous by simply identifying observable, external behaviours. On the contrary, perhaps the inaccessible, deep interior of another–-what she values, her intentions and her private thoughts are just that–-inaccessible, at least to others. The problematic assumption that virtue is observable and can be known may be summarized thus:

Observability is fundamental to knowing;
Virtue is observable;
Therefore virtue can be known.

 Of significance is that the second premise (virtue is observable) is widely assumed to be the case, particularly in education. It does seem reasonable, however, that we make such an assumption, considering the general acceptance of the first premise – that observability is fundamental to knowing. So is observability, in fact, fundamental to knowing? The assumption that it is, appears justifiable, at least at first.

Consider a high school student, for example, who is asked to find out the temperature at which water boils. She will observe and reasonably conclude that because the thermometer reads 212 degrees at the same time as the water begins to boil, she can therefore know (based on her observations) that water boils at 212 degrees. We could say that she knows it because she observes it. The problem occurs when the assumption that you can know it because you’ve observed it, is extended beyond the science classroom, and erroneously applied to human behaviours, intentions and private, mental deliberations.

Now consider a different example where one cannot necessarily know something based on observation. A school principal refers a student to a counsellor believing she knows that the internal, emotional state of a disruptive, grade 8 student during an opening day, school-wide assembly, is one of anger and ill manners. The reason for this assessment is based on first-hand, empirical observation that the student shouted obscenities at others and resorted to physical violence. In this context, it seems reasonable for the principal to assert knowledge of the individual’s internal state, as evidenced by the observable, rude behaviour. The problem is that the conclusion (that the student is ill-mannered) could be incorrect and in fact was incorrect, in this particular case. As was later learned from the counsellor and student’s parents, the principal, the staff and student body were all unaware that the student suffered from Tourette’s Syndrome. Not only was the student acting involuntarily, he was not being intentionally rude. Sufferers of Tourette’s Syndrome may, in reality, feel no malice or anger toward others at all when outwardly exhibiting an often embarrassing, socially-unacceptable tic. Of importance in this example is the problem of observing what another values or intends at any particular time. Further, unlike the science student example where she apparently knows it because she observes it, the Tourettes example shows how the principal and others observed it but clearly didn’t know it. These distinctions are crucial as they highlight the need to examine assumptions made about observability, knowability and teachability.

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