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Could anybody have changed Liz Truss’s mind? Not according to this ethics expert

Unthinkable: Virtue becomes more central to your nature the more you practise it, according to philosophers and psychologists

'You hear people say you get wiser as you get older. Well, not really! ... Life experience itself doesn’t make you wise,' says philosopher Massimo Pigliucci. Photograph: Getty images

However sorry UK Conservative Party members are feeling for themselves, they cannot say they didn’t know what they were getting in Liz Truss as their leader. In election hustings, she repeatedly pledged not to take independent advice on her economic plans. And, fair play, she stuck to her word — before, that is, her government’s U-turn in recent days.

Intriguingly, Truss also declared in advance of moving into 10 Downing Street that she planned not to appoint an ethics adviser to her government, thereby ending a custom going back to Tony Blair’s time in office.

Two such advisers resigned during Boris Johnson’s premiership and Truss suggested a replacement was unnecessary. “For me it’s about understanding the difference between right and wrong, and I am somebody who has always acted with integrity,” she said. “And that is what I would do as prime minister.”

There is some logic to her argument. It is not that ethics is irrelevant to the British government, but it is debatable whether it would have any influence on Truss’s decision-making. Why? Because Truss, like anyone of a certain age — she’s in her late 40s — is likely to have developed a fixed moral character impervious to the whisperings of an angel on her shoulder.


It is not impossible to teach an older person to be virtuous, “but it’s really difficult”, says the philosopher Massimo Pigliucci. Behavioural psychology shows “character tends to stabilise around early 20s,” he says, “which is not surprising because that’s when the human brain stops growing ... After your 20s, yes, you can still improve, you can still tweak things but it’s very difficult to imagine radical changes, radical improvements, especially if the person is not motivated from within.”

In a new book, How to Be Good, Pigliucci explores this question in the context of some of the most famous ethical advisers in history, including Socrates, who tutored the controversial Athenian statesman Alcibiades, and Seneca, who counselled the bloodthirsty Roman emperor Nero.

Of the former (pronouncedAl-sea-bye-a-days”), Pigliucci says: “I’m surprised nobody has made a movie about his life yet because he was that kind of character — impossibly handsome, super-rich, very brave, dashing — and yet he managed to make a mess out of his life and arguably was at least partly responsible for the defeat of Athens during the Peloponnesian War.”

Socrates and Alcibiades were rumoured to be lovers but whatever influence the philosopher had over the statesman it did not extend to career choice. “Socrates realises very early on that Alcibiades is not good material for politics and he actually tells him: You should stay away from politics because it’s people like you who make a mess out of things.”

The fact that both Socrates and Seneca failed to instil virtue in their respective pupils might make you think moral education is a waste of time — after all, if those two can’t succeed who can? But Pigliucci believes this is the wrong to conclusion to reach. Socrates saw his main educational function as one of judging character rather than improving it, and in respect of Alcibiades “Socrates got it right”.

As to whether morality can be taught, “Socrates himself was of two minds. In one of the Socratic dialogues, the Meno, he says: No, if virtue could be taught then we would see a lot of teachers of virtue and we don’t ... He also says: Look at virtuous men and they don’t seem to be able to teach virtue to their sons.

“But in another dialogue, Protagoras convinces Socrates that virtue can be taught ... but says we need to think of virtue not as a theoretical thing as though you were teaching science — biology or physics or something like that. What it is is a techne, a skill.

“Protagoras puts forward the analogy of teaching a musical instrument and I think it’s a really good analogy ... If you want to be proficient at it, it’s better if you do it when you’re young; that doesn’t mean when you’re old you cannot learn a musical instrument but you don’t get as good.

“Also, when you learn to play an instrument what you need is a little bit of theory — you need to know a little bit about musical notation or the relationship between the notes. Ideally you want a good teacher. Yes, you can learn without a teacher but a teacher can point out flaws in your technique, and make suggestions on how you can improve. But mostly what you need is practice, practice, practice.

“According to Protagoras, that’s how you learn virtue: It’s better if you’re young, you need a good teacher, you need a little bit of theory and you need a lot of practice.”

Findings from behavioural science strengthen Protagoras’s case. While it is tempting to think that “being good” is an intellectual exercise, achieved by, for example, coming up with a smart argument in moral debate, all the evidence suggests it is a habit: the more you practise virtue the more likely you are to make the right ethical decisions.

Pigliucci says three strategies in particular are shown to help improve our characters: first, surround yourself with role models; second, consciously select situations to practise virtue; and third, regularly review your ethical performance or “what the ancients call journaling”.

Regarding the second of these, he explains: “Let’s say you want to practise generosity ... One way to do it is to get into the habit, whenever you leave the house, of putting some change in your pocket and then give it to the first homeless person that you meet. Initially that will feel awkward, it will feel not natural. But the more you do it the more the habit becomes a habit; it becomes second nature.”

He adds: “One thing that doesn’t work [in terms of changing character] is nudging.” A common policy option, this entails incentivising people to behave a certain way by reframing their choices — for example, making it a greater effort to opt out of organ donation than opt in. “Nudging does work in terms of getting results — the behaviour is manipulated — but there is no inner change; you are not working on your character.”

Another thing that doesn’t work is doing nothing “but funnily a lot of people think it does — you hear people say you get wiser as you get older. Well, not really! ... Life experience itself doesn’t make you wise. You also have to actively engage with those experiences, or critically learn from them. Otherwise you just get old and cranky; you don’t actually improve”.

Massimo Pigliucci How To Be Good: What Socrates Can Teach Us About the Art of Living Well is published by Basic Books

Stoic Week

If being good sounds too much like hard work then why don’t you try to be Stoical (and arguably there is not much difference)? Next Monday sees the start of Stoic Week (October 24th-30th) in which people can trial this ancient Greek philosophy through a series of exercises and meditations.

A couple of years ago, this correspondent took the weekly course and my life satisfaction rose by 42 per cent according to a before/after survey (though I must admit it didn’t feel like that). Pigliucci, whose previous book was on Stoicism, became a fan of the philosophy having stumbled across Stoic Week in 2014, and says: “It’s still the kind of thing that works for me.” See: