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.