skepticism about moral character

The other day, my buddy Adam over at Sophistpundit wrote about Character. I was not surprised that, being an economist and some kind of Humean virtue ethicist, he thinks that morality mostly concerns what kind of people we are, and that actions are signals to other people, providing information about what we’re like.

Adam claims that people object to his point of view on the basis that it is “unforgiving,” apparently in that it encourages us to judge badly of people when they act badly. I actually agree with Adam that his position is not unforgiving, at least not in any objectionable sense, because if it’s true that bad actions indicate bad character, then there is nothing wrong with making the inference, and nothing wrong with acting on it by, for instance, dissociating from such persons.

However, I do object to Adam’s point of view not on the basis of its being unforgiving, but because it is grounded in a folk psychological theory about moral character that is very likely to be false. So I’m going to take this opportunity to explain a little bit about situationism and a big reason to be skeptical about moral character, something I’ve been studying for quite a while.

Situationists are a diverse bunch of psychologists and philosophers who argue that the way people act has more to do with the situations in which they find themselves (and less to do with their characters) than psychologists, philosophers, and regular people have historically assumed. This can range from thinking there is literally no such thing as a moral character, to thinking that character exists but in a much different form, to thinking that our moral characters are usually pretty stable except in a few oddball situations.

I am most interested in the kind of situationism espoused by John Doris in his excellent book Lack of Character. Doris argues against Aristotelian virtue ethics, which holds that virtues are “robust,” in that they regulate behavior both across time and across relevantly similar situations. There is reason to doubt that people have robust character traits (virtuous or vicious) on account of evidence such as the Stanford prison experiment and the Milgram obedience experiments.  In these experiments, subjects who displayed absolutely no measurable psychological abnormalities were induced by experimental environments into behaving in violent and even sadistic ways.

This gives us some reason to believe that actions are not in fact reliable indicators of character. In at least some cases, people behave in ways that do not reflect the character traits they seem otherwise to have. Then, the difficult task becomes figuring out whether this skepticism about moral character infects all inferences from actions (good or bad) to character assessments, or whether only some kinds of situations have this power (and, if so, which ones).

I don’t mean to come off as overly critical of Adam or the folk – I myself espouse some version of virtue ethics. But this is a real problem. I have been reading and thinking hard about it for over two years now and just don’t know what to make of it. Now that I’ve given an intro to skepticism about moral character here on TFIR, I will be more inclined to discuss it further in the future, which will maybe help me to come to some kind of defensible position on the matter.

PS – If you’re looking for something academic-lite-ish to read on situationism, I highly recommend pioneering situationist Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. Zimbardo provides a fascinating retelling of his famous Stanford prison experiment, which still haunts him, and also discusses his experience testifying for the defense of a man accused of abusing detainees at Abu Ghraib. In closing, he provides some helpful tips for resisting being influenced by situations which pressure us to behave immorally. A must-read.


  • Hi Pam.

    I just have a question about the situationism stuff. You’ll have to bear with me, though. This is stuff I haven’t really had the opportunity to think about it since my first semester at GSU. But I still find it really interesting.

    As you suggest in your blog post, the folk psychological conception of character traits seems to regard them as “robust” in the sense that they regulate behavior in a reliably consistent way, across a range of relevant circumstances. But as I recall from the little bit that we read in Eddy’s seminar (just a couple of papers, including one by Doris), it seems like most of the studies that have been said to support situationism involve the observation of subjects in only a very limited range of circumstances. (One that I remember involved observing whether or not people’s willingness to help a person who’d just dropped a bunch of papers varied on the basis of their having found (or not found) a dime in the coin return slot of a pay phone.) Much of the data seems to consist of mere snapshots of individuals in circumstances that are sometimes quite evocative (e.g., the prison experiment), sometimes only momentary (e.g., the coin slot case), etc.

    So I guess my question is this: are there studies that actually involve the observation of a person’s behavior across a wide range of relevant circumstances? I mean, suppose that everyone who really knows Fred considers him to be a reliably compassionate person. But two psychologists who were hiding behind a ficus tree, watching as Fred walked past a poor soul who’d just dropped a bunch of papers, insist that he clearly could not have so robust a character trait. Surely, the people who really know Fred are in a better position than any psychologist hiding behind a ficus tree (or worse, any philosopher sitting in an armchair) to judge the robustness of Fred’s putative traits, right?

  • Oh yeah? Well your philosophy is based on folk psychological theory! :p /fiveyearoldretort

    I have to begin by going after the two experiments that you cite. I always find attempts to interpret the prison and obedience experiment frustrating because:

    1. Their samples were tiny
    2. Their samples were nonrandom

    Just to name my two hard and fast critiques of those widely cited experiments. Also, having “absolutely no measurable psychological abnormalities” doesn’t tell you much, because psychological abnormalities aren’t something you can measure like weight or height. We hardly know anything about psychological normalities much less deviations.

    But to get to the substance of your post.

    In many ways I think economics often assumes an implicitly situationist view of humanity. Economists think that there are very specific ways that people respond to particular situations and the incentives created by those situations, but for the most part even informal analysis often treats humans as mostly the same except for their circumstances.

    The difference between what a congressman does and what a businessman does is explained mostly by the incentives they face; that is the heart of economics.

    However, I think most people agree that this analysis, while powerful, leaves out a lot more than it accounts for. The differences between Mother Teresa and your average Joe may be fewer than the differences between either of them and a chimp, but I think that it’s not difficult to make the argument that significant differences do exist.

    Let me put this another way. After knowing me for many years you may judge me to be someone you can trust to look after your house while you’re away without having to worry about me stealing anything. In other words, you judge me to have a fairly trustworthy character.

    Then one day I’m put into a situation where I can steal a lot of money, from someone I will never have contact with again, and I can be very confident that no one will ever know. How I respond to that situation will tell you something about my character, but it is a different something from what you learned that lead you to trust me with your house.

    Rather, the fact that you can trust not to steal from you doesn’t mean that you know me well enough to say that I would never steal from anyone under any circumstances. If I didn’t steal in the extreme example outlined above, that would tell you that I had a character that was more robust than usual to that sort of temptation. But even then, it could be that even though I wouldn’t steal under those circumstances alone, I might do it if I was poorer, and someone I loved (or I myself) needed to have an expensive medical procedure.

    What I’m saying is that people do, in fact, behave differently under different circumstances. That does not mean that character doesn’t exist; it is in fact how they react to those specific circumstances that tells you more about the kind of person that they are.

    If a general character does not exist, then I don’t see how morality can. But I’m willing to have it explained to me :)

  • Let me make a much simpler point than that rambling first comment.

    Some actions are flukes, or in the situation. Not everything indicates a more general pattern, and even if it does, it’s not always obvious what it is indicating. But I think it’s not a controversial point to make that as you get to know someone over a very long period of time, there are aspects of their character that you become very familiar with. Which aspects in particular depends upon the situations you’ve been able to seem them in, especially what situations you’ve seen them in repeatedly.

    That’s all I mean. I don’t think you can distill everything about a person from a specific action. If you look at my example about the competence of the two technicians, I think that the same actions can in fact be interpreted in entirely opposite ways, depending on the prior history of the person who takes it.

  • […] January 2, 2010 Here is my very late reply to Jim on skepticism about moral character. […]

  • […] 3, 2010 I think maybe I explained situationism rather poorly back here in skepticism about moral character. Some things Adam says over at Sophistpundit about The Nature of Character provide a good […]

  • […] 11, 2010 Ok, one last bit for now on the situationism stuff (continued from here, here, and […]

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