snapshots of moral character

Here is my very late reply to Jim on skepticism about moral character.

The short answer: No, in all my moderately extensive reading on this subject, I have not found any “studies that actually involve the observation of a person’s behavior across a wide range of relevant circumstances,” as opposed to studies which deal with only a kind of “snapshot” of a person’s behavior.

The longer answer: I think only the virtue ethicists, and not the situationists, think such a study would vindicate the idea of robust character traits. Here’s why (very generally speaking, from my reasonably informed point of view on the subject).

The virtue ethicists (like Aristotle) have accounts on which it could be the case that a person does have a rather robust character trait, but that in extreme situations this trait is, in a sense, prone to being overriden (e.g., in Milgram scenarios containing an authoritative experimenter, or whatever). The existence of compassion in a person who acts cruelly in the snapshot captured by the Milgram experiment could be vindicated by a long-term study of some kind showing compassion manifested most of the time in compassion-relevant situations.

It seems to me that the situationists have a different interpretation of the force of the Milgram experiments and similar evidence. At least some of them appear to think that, if character traits have any real role in determining behavior at all (as virtue ethicists hold), that they would prevent at least the totally egregious moral transgressions witnessed in the Milgram and Stanford Prison experiments. And, if the data is indeed sufficient for disproving the kinds of traits that virtue ethicists postulate, then it’s understandable that the situationists would have limited interest in other patterns of behavior. (John Doris does think that there are narrow, as opposed to robust, character traits, such as academic honesty as distinct from personal relationship honesty. These could probably be verified by empirical observation. Also, notice that the situationists’ explanation here – if it is at all how I explain it – would not pertain to the dime in the phone booth-type experiments, which do not involve egregious moral transgressions).

As for this part of Jim’s comment:

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?

What the situationists tend to say about this is the following: Because people who know each other well see each other in the same types of situations over and over, it is unsurprising that Fred’s friends have formed apparently accurate conceptions of what his moral character is like. But when people who work with Fred see him at home, or people who go to school with Fred see him in a restaurant, it is rather likely that he will act in a way that is incompatible with the traits they thought Fred had (and this is even more likely to be the case when Fred is put in an extreme situation, such as a war or an emergency). This evidence is compatible with both the interpretation that there are no character traits (Gilbert Harman) and that there are narrowly defined and not robust character traits (John Doris).

In my opinion, it is not very useful at that point to debate whether people have “character traits” at all or not, because everyone seems to have a different definition for what a “character trait” is. Instead, we should try to figure out what kind of virtue ethics, if any, remains consistent with the empirical evidence, and work backwards to what the empirically adequate notion of virtues or character traits might be. See Maria Merritt, Virtue Ethics and Situationist Personality Psychology for a good starting point. I am still thinking it over myself.

4 Comments

  • […] Here’s what I failed to emphasize previously: Situationists do not, and need not, deny that people may be able to predict with reasonable accuracy how some other people will behave some of the time. That’s because they may hold the following: People do have character traits, but they range over a limited set of circumstances. Since we usually see people in the same situations, they appear to have traits that we assume range over all possible situations – but that inference is bad. Moral theories (such as traditional Aristotelian virtue ethics) which posit the existence or possibility of robust traits that do range over all situations are therefore on the rocks of empirical adequacy. (I discussed this a little here: snapshots of moral character) […]

  • Thanks for the reply. Most of it is well-taken. I just have a couple comments.

    “At least some of them appear to think that, if character traits have any real role in determining behavior at all (as virtue ethicists hold), that they would prevent at least the totally egregious moral transgressions witnessed in the Milgram and Stanford Prison experiments.”

    See, I would think just the opposite. The more removed an experimenter gets from everyday life, the less inclined I am to think that the results of his/her experiments will actually bear upon discussions of things like character traits to any real degree. By my lights, the conclusion to be drawn from something like the prison experiment is this: “When we really screw with people’s heads, even the nicest person can act like a real asshole.” But this seems to me to fall well short of undermining the belief that, in the common course of our everyday lives, people exhibit traits of character that play some role in the determination of their decisions, actions, etc.

    As you suggest, no virtue ethicist will deny that we are manipulable beings. So I would think it should come as a surprise to no one that we behave in out-of-the-ordinary ways when placed in circumstances to which we are largely unaccustomed, and that are psychologically very moving. What would truly be strange, though, would be if it only takes something like the presence or absence a dime in a coin-return slot to do the manipulating.

    “But when people who work with Fred see him at home, or people who go to school with Fred see him in a restaurant, it is rather likely that he will act in a way that is incompatible with the traits they thought Fred had …”

    Is that really the case? I mean, initially, I’m inclined to doubt that Fred (or any other person with normal brain function and the like) would really exhibit a significantly different set of character traits around his co-workers than he does around his family. And as far as I can tell, the only way to actually confirm something like this would have to involve studying Fred’s behavior across a wide-enough range of relevant circumstances (at home, at work, in a restaurant with family, in a restaurant with co-workers, etc., etc., etc.). But as you said, there just aren’t (m)any studies of this nature taking place.

    The more interested I get in virtue ethics, the more interested I’m sure I’ll become in these issues. But for now, I’m still relatively unfamiliar with the literature, so it all still feels to me like a bunch of relatively hasty conclusions.

  • I really wish I had something more interesting to say in reply to this, but basically you’re hitting some of the issues on which the major players in the literature disagree. On both points of mine you cited, I was trying to make the situationist case, but it turns out (like most provocative theories) to be easier to defend in the big picture than on finer points. Mostly, I have a difficult time teasing out where the real disagreement is here, and where people are just talking past each other (particularly about “virtues” and “traits,” for which there are many usages).

    I hope to study the implications of this stuff on moral/character education. Fortunately, for these purposes, I can probably ignore the details of the debate. I’m worried about situationists’ arguments and suggestions that character education is necessarily fruitless and/or that we should primarily focus on changing what kinds of situations to which people are subjected instead of what kind of character people/kids develop. The educational theory literature has not picked up on these philosophical developments, so maybe I can break some ground there.

    If you do ever have the time and inclination to get into the literature, just let me know, and I can send you the reading list I used for my independent study on situationism.

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

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