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Book Chapter

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Lexington Books / Rowman & Littlefield Publishers


Moral cultivation is a practice, any practice, by which one attempts to direct the course of moral development either of oneself or others. The aim of this practice is the attainment of moral wisdom, or the closest approximation to that ideal that human beings can attain. In the ancient Greek tradition of philosophy, as well as in the Chinese tradition, the name often given to one who has attained moral wisdom is "the sage." Writers in the ancient Greek tradition, with which I shall be concerned here, attempt to show that the life of the sage is one that we all have reason to strive to attain, because that life is, of all lives possible for human beings, uniquely, or especially, or most nearly happy. The cultivation of moral wisdom is thus part and parcel of the pursuit of happiness (eudaimonia).

The question I wish to discuss in this essay is whether the study of moral philosophy is sufficient for the attainment of moral wisdom. I shall argue that it is not. This may seem an unsurprising conclusion, hardly worth arguing for. Yet in contemporary higher education we approach the teaching of ethics as if the study of moral philosophy were, if not sufficient for the acquisition of moral wisdom, at least the only tool available to us. Even some of the ancient Greek moral philosophers, who I shall argue showed both by their theory and practice that they knew better than this, made very strong claims on behalf of the study of moral philosophy. Socrates, at least as Plato portrays him, seems to regard the acquisition of theoretical knowledge of the nature of the virtues as both necessary and sufficient for the possession of virtue.

The main argument of this paper will be that this view is incorrect. Even the specifically cognitive aspect of moral development requires more than the acquisition of theoretical principles of moral philosophy. It requires as well the development of the ability to discern the moral features of specific situations and the related ability to discern the appropriate course of action to take to address those features. The development of these abilities, which are essential to moral wisdom, is an indispensable part of moral cultivation.

Chapter of

Moral Cultivation


Brad Wilburn


Copyright © 2007 Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Reproduced by permission of Rowman & Littlefield. All rights reserved. Please contact the publisher for permission to copy, distribute or reprint.


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