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 opportunity for me to clear things up for him as well as anyone else I may have unwittingly confused. So let me address a few things he writes, and do let me know if anything remains unclear.
Adam writes, about the concept of “character”:
“All I’m talking about is any regularity of behavior across particular circumstances. Anything where, after getting to know someone, one person may be able to guess with reasonable accuracy at how the other person will behave within certain circumstances.”
“Any regularity” is actually difficult to define. Even personality psychologists (e.g. Mischel) are often happy with what seem like weak relationships between the character traits they study and the outward behaviors of subjects. But that’s not too important for now. The rest of Adam’s quote above is actually consistent with even rather radical forms of situationism.
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)
“So if situationism, at one extreme, argues that people’s behavior is determined entirely by what the circumstance is, to me that sounds tantamount to saying that everyone has the same, identical character. That is, we all behave the exact same way when our circumstances are the same, and any difference in behavior just reflects a difference in situation.”
Situationists also do not, and need not, claim that a person’s behaviors are totally determined by situations, or that at bottom we all have the same traits or character. Most of them just make some claim to the effect that, in some interesting subset of cases, whatever traits people may have are overriden, or prove impotent. In these cases, behavior tends towards a norm, for reasons that are unclear and worthy of further study.
For instance, in some iterations of the Milgram experiment, it appeared that subjects would shock the confederate all the way to a high and allegedly dangerous intensity approximately 2/3 of the time. If people were really all the same character-wise in any important sense, then this significant split in their behavior would presumably not occur. Just from a naturalistic point of view, there has got to be some reason why any given participant acted the way he did – but it might be a reason we do not take to be of moral relevance or to be something for which we are morally responsible (silly made up example: the ratio of one chemical to another in the brain at that moment in time). What situationists seem to want to press is that if character traits cannot explain these and other surprising situationist experimental results, then some morally unimportant factors (of the situation and/or of the person) have great causal power in at least some even high-stakes moral situations.
Then, new moral problems emerge. In what situations do character traits play an important role? In which are they of little behavioral influence? In the latter, what ought we to think about moral responsibility? And so on. There is a good deal of literature on these and other related issues.
Adam’s opinion here, then, is consistent with situationism:
“My personal belief is that biology sets the bounds on the sort of character we can become, and when combined with experience and the decisions we make throughout our life, we end up with who we are at a given moment. There are parts of ourselves that are more flexible and others that become more rigid with time.”
Neither he nor the situationists must “buy the idea that the situation here and now is the only or even the primary thing that determines what choices we make,” in general at least.