another stab at situationism

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)

Adam again:

“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.


  • OK, so there’s less disagreement than I had thought.

    My next question: what do you mean by “morally unimportant factors”? What exactly makes something “morally unimportant”?

    Also, I’m definitely not a proponent of the robust character traits you describe. Character is something that to me should be considered at the operational level; that is, the level at which individuals actually have to make decisions and judgments about other individuals.

    The set of situations that individuals will view other individuals in is obviously a small subset of possible situations those individuals could ever be in; they only need to know about the character traits that will effect their behavior in that small subset. Within that subset, it’s pretty clear that there are variations in character traits.

    When it comes to taking a systematically situationist approach to analyzing human behavior, I think economics definitely takes the cake :D

  • what do you mean by “morally unimportant factors”? What exactly makes something “morally unimportant”?

    Well, this is complicated. I can best explain using an example. The Milgram experiments were run a bunch of times, with variations. Let’s just suppose that, by putting the experimenter in a white labcoat and having him hold a clipboard, the percentage of fully complying subjects increases from 50% to 60%. Both commonsensically and on most normative moral theories, what an experimenter is wearing is of little to no moral importance. That is, changing his appearance in this way does not have an impact on how one ought to act. You could try to argue that this change *is* of moral importance, but that would be a tough sell. The situationist makes trouble for moral philosophy by showing that it is this sort of difference, and not one of character, that has causal efficacy here.

    I kind of agree that people only need to know how others will act in a small subset of cases. Sometimes, it would be useful to know how people would act in novel situations. In light of the situationist studies, people ought to be at least minimally aware that in extreme and/or novel circumstances, their predictions based on character may be inaccurate. Maybe alot of people know this already, but maybe not. Before I knew about the Milgram experiments, I would have said that there is NO WAY my husband would shock all the way through. But now, I would have to say that the odds are probably 67% that he would.

    I do really appreciate your linking the situationist stuff to economics. I will have to think about that more.

  • This is a lot of fun :)

    OK, so now I understand what you meant by “morally unimportant”. I’m not going to bicker over the language because I think it does capture an important concept.

    I’m glad you found the idea of economics as situationist interesting. Think of it this way; you said: Sometimes, it would be useful to know how people would act in novel situations.

    Economics tries to do just that. Instead of thinking of specific people in their specific circumstances, it asks how almost everyone would behave given the same set of incentives. You and I can talk about what we would do if we were president or if we were made dictator-for-life, but how would we actually behave if we were in that situation with the incentives that came along with it?

    In any case, I think I get this situationism thing now :) I don’t think it’s all there is to it, but as I am getting my MA in econ, I do see the value of it!

  • I’m still a little puzzled as to why you claim that situationism creates any problem whatever for virtue ethics. If virtue ethicists hold that people ought to be governed by robust character traits consistent with human flourishing, and situationists hold that most people are not governed by robust character traits, then why not simply draw the conclusion, compatible with both views, that most people have plenty of room for moral improvement?

  • Thanks for bringing that up, Eli. The position you sketch is actually one of the ways in which virtue ethicists do reply to situationists in the literature.

    Armchair ethics is falling out of favor, and “empirically informed ethics” is gaining momentum, and with fairly good reason. Since normative ethics is about how humans should act, it makes sense that it ought to take into account what humans are like. The simple is/ought distinction doesn’t get you far in the area of moral psychology.

    To take an extreme example: if humans were immortal, moral norms regarding harming others would be drastically different. Or, for instance, one common objection to utilitarianism is that it is too demanding. This essentially is to say that, given the way people are, utilitarianism is asking too much of them emotionally, cognitively, financially, etc. The having of robust virtues may be too demanding of a moral ideal in this way.

    Virtue ethicists sometimes go even further in insulating their theories from empirical considerations, stressing that virtues consist not only in patterns of behavior but also in patterns of thought and emotion. Since the latter are not subject to empirical study, virtue ethics is consistent with the situationist findings. But this makes virtue ethics look even less falsifiable and less useful than other ethical theories.

    See also

    Besides, allowing virtue ethics to give way to situationism (at least partially) has practical benefits. Ethicists (and teachers,coaches,parents, etc.) who focus too much on internal character traits run the risk of giving often ineffective moral advice along the lines of: just do the right thing, show more self control, don’t give in to peer pressure. Acknowledging the power of situations helps us not only to understand moral failings but to prevent them. Institutions can be better structured so as to avoid putting people in situations they are unlikely to be able to manage (this is a very sticky issue politically, though, and is perhaps related to the libertarian paternalism stuff). More importantly, individuals can learn ways to resist situational pressures they are likely to encounter ( ) This is an ongoing area of interest of mine, in relation to my work in the field of moral/character education.

  • I’m still not persuaded, for two reasons.

    First, the argument appealing to “what humans are like” is largely a semantic game. You can think of unexpected deviations in behavior as existing outside of character, or you can think of consistency as a dimension of character. It is not at all as if humans were immortal and saddled with an ethics suited to mortal humans.

    Second, although philosophers like to dress up and play scientist, using words like “empirical” and “falsifiable” (and for all I know there may be merit in the approach), it seems to me that here (with the “too demanding” line of reasoning) they are doing something profoundly unscientific. They are, at the outset, ruling out any moral theory that results in most people being seriously morally deficient. There is no basis for this, unless one is a relativist or a nihilist, in which case the science metaphor is even more inappropriate. (This has bothered me ever since I was at a talk at which a philosopher you have heard of used “everyone is immoral” as the lynchpin in his reductio ad absurdum argument).

    I agree that moral advice should not be so simplistic, but I have never put much stock in the moral prescriptions of virtue ethics, which I take to be the weakest point of the theory.

  • 1. There is nothing semantically tricky about the claim that ethical theories ought to take into account “what people are like.” It’s just a placeholder for our best beliefs about our species, as given by other at least semi-scientific fields such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, and – yes – economics!

    2. I didn’t previously mean to imply that ethics is an actual or hard science (although I do happen to think it bears more of a resemblance to the sciences than people tend to assume, and I think studying the philosophy of science supports that finding, but that is an issue for another day). I use sciencey language merely to reflect the minimal assumption that some ethical theories are better than others, and that there are criteria on which to judge this. The criteria commonly include, but are not limited to, conformity to common ethical intuitions, logical validity and soundness of a theory’s justifications, and consistency amongst its verdicts. Reflective equilibrium must be reached amongst these criteria, and different philosophers value them differently. This process does not require ruling out any theory on which most or all people turn out to be moral failures (although some individual ethicists may take that approach). It just means that a theory which meets the criteria of not being too permissive is likely to fare poorly on other criteria (e.g., conformity to the most basic and shared of moral intuitions).

    Actually, neither nihilism nor relativism appears to have this alleged consequence, either. While “nihilism” describes a broad family of views, nihilists are most likely to think that people are neither moral nor immoral (because morality is not real, measurable, or objective). Individual relativism is likely to result in everyone or nearly everyone being highly moral, not immoral, because the standards for morality are purely personal. And cultural relativism, by definition, entails that most people act morally, because the standard for moral behavior is set according to whatever happens to be the group’s norm.

    3. In any case, you need not attempt to reject the field of moral psychology altogether in order to make a decent case that at least some plausible form of virtue ethics is not threatened by the empirical/situationist considerations (prominent virtue ethicist Julia Annas does just that, so you are in good company).

  • Thanks for your reply, but I’m afraid that my last comment was so unclear that I’ve been thoroughly misunderstood. I will try to restate everything as clearly as possible. Feel free not to respond further if you’ve had enough of this discussion; no offense will be taken.

    1. I agree that there is nothing semantically tricky about the broad claim that ethical theories ought to take into account what people are like. What I do think is semantically tricky is the *particular way* in which it is claimed that virtue ethics does not take the findings of situationism into account. Someone who wishes to dispute virtue ethics can phrase the findings of situationism in the following manner: “Empirically, people do not have stable characters of the type hypothesized by virtue ethicists.” However, someone wishing to reconcile virtue ethics with situationism can phrase the findings as follows: “Empirically, people do not have the level of consistency in their characters that virtue ethicists say they ought to have.” The content of these two formulations is not very different, and neither is contradicted by the actual experimental findings. Reliance on the former to posit problems for virtue ethics ignores the possibility of interpreting the facts as done in the latter. The claim, therefore, that situationism causes problems for virtue ethics is based on a semantic trick.

    2. My objection is not to the use of scientific language or technique per se in philosophy, but rather the misapplication or inconsistent application of it. Take the moral hypothesis “People ought to have robust virtues.” What is needed to scientifically reject it? The finding that having robust virtues is “too demanding” is not sufficient, at least not without a host of other premises. (I see that you agree on this narrow point, and begin to sketch out what the other premises might be.)

    An individual relativist might reject the hypothesis on the basis of being “too demanding,” but this is not scientific since her particular moral beliefs are not consistent with hypothesis-testing. So too with nihilists (or noncognitivists, say). The use of scientific language or technique in ethics presupposes (or ought to presuppose) a moral framework in which hypotheses represent broad truth claims. “People are seriously morally deficient” seems to me to be a perfectly acceptable broad truth claim that is not easy to scientifically refute, that is, to refute without an appeal to relativism, nihilism, noncognitivism, etc.

    3. I have no problem with the field of moral psychology, do not wish to “reject” it, and indeed applaud much of the work being done in it. Nevertheless, one must be careful not to overstate or misapply its findings. My much narrower claim is that situationist arguments purporting to refute virtue ethics are based on such overstatements and misapplications.

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

Leave a Reply