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can be an obtuse lot. A line of research can be happily conducted in another
field and it might take thirty or so years before philosophers take note of it.
Such is the case with situationist social psychology. For at least fifty years
social psychologists have been conducting experiments that seem to show, among
other things, that people tend to be motivated less by internal dispositional
structures (traits of character) and more by aspects of the situations in which
they find themselves. For example, it was noted that subjects are more likely
to help a person pick up a dropped armload of papers if they've just found a
dime in a phone booth than if they haven't, thus supposedly demonstrating the
phenomenon of "mood effect".
with a 1999 paper by Gilbert Harman, philosophers began to see the relevance of
this research for ethics. The general idea is that if behavior is to be
explained mostly by situational factors, moral philosophers should not waste
effort on thinking about character and its cultivation. If the research is
correct, there simply is no such thing as character, and thus no need for a
branch of moral philosophy like virtue ethics, the bread and butter of which is
the discourse of character and virtues. Thus, situationism represents what has
been called a "deflationary" challenge to virtue ethics. Driving the
newfound interest in situationism has been a move towards a more empirically-informed
approach to ethics.
This is the
intellectual context of John Doris' Lack of Character: Personality and Moral
Behavior. Where Harman perhaps overstated his case, almost flatly asserting
that there is no such thing as character, Doris for the most part presents a
more considered and nuanced argument. For example, rather than bluntly claim that
character traits don't exist, he makes the weaker claim that though there may
be such traits, they are too narrow to underwrite the claims of virtue
ethicists. By "narrow" he means something like the following: rather
than speak of a broad trait like "honesty", we should instead speak
of more narrow traits like "honest about returning excess change" and
"honest on tax returns". Traits do not translate well across
situations, even when the situations seem relevantly similar. The idea that a
trait-term can capture a whole constellation of related behaviors is one that Doris would like to challenge. In reality, he claims, character is highly fragmented.
Doris, situationism has another important implication: if we wish to encourage
desirable behavior in agents, we should look to creating the kind of society
that fosters situations with the sorts of features that will induce such
behavior, rather than wasting time and effort on inculcating "good
character" in people, and then blaming them when they don't live up to our
ideals. If this claim is correct, it is timely advice indeed when one considers
the large resources many jurisdictions seem willing to deploy these days in
programs of so-called "character education" in schools.
reader is then left with the troublesome question of what the limits shall be
to such social engineering. What sort of society will we end up with if we act
on the assumption that citizens are essentially objects devoid of autonomy,
ultimately pushed and pulled -- sometimes against their wishes -- by the nature
of the situations in which they find themselves? Situationists may reply that
this begs the question, because if they are correct, there is no real autonomy
to be violated. Instead, there is simply a prejudice to be overcome, namely the
prejudice that we are masters of our own characterological destinies.
speculation about the socio-political implications of situationism can be
nipped in the bud if situationists like Doris can be challenged on their own
terms, that is, by engaging in the sort of empirically-informed debate they
urge us to, while coming to different conclusions about that empirical
research. How might such an engagement proceed? We might begin with the "dime
in the phone booth" experiment mentioned above. This has been taken to
disconfirm the wide distribution of the prosocial trait of compassion among the
general population. First, note that there is an invalid inference here from
the seeming rarity of a trait to its non-existence. Many of the virtues
that are most prized are prized, at least in part, because they are
rare. Virtue ethicists make no claims about the commonness of virtue, so the
skepticism seems is misplaced.
Second, it has
been objected that this exercise tells us little about traits of character. The
very insignificance of finding a dime, which Doris and others trade on,
and the resultant fear that we are controlled by factors outside our awareness,
is too weak to underwrite the inference that a subject will also, say, fail to
intervene in a mugging on the same basis of a found dime. In short, a dropped
armload of papers may be a different order of event from a mugging. To put it
simply, dropping papers is exactly the kind if incident that will tend to "slip
beneath the radar". It is not an important manifestation of a trait.
about something like the notorious Milgram obedience experiments? (To jog the
reader's memory, the Milgram experiments were "the experiments where they
shocked people".) Surely they must be relevant to the trait of compassion?
But it is more complicated than that. For one thing, often lost in the
situationists' discussion of these experiments is the palpable emotional distress
that the subjects experienced. For the most part, they did not blithely and
unfeelingly shock their victims. And in different permutations of the
experimental conditions, subjects often found subtle and ingenious ways of
undermining the authority of the experimenter. These were behaviors that did
not register in the oversimplified dichotomy of "obedient" and "disobedient".
As a consequence the experiment takes on the appearance of a forced choice: if
the subject explicitly and vocally breaks with authority she is disobedient;
all others are obedient. Missing from this scheme is a very wide spectrum of
reactions that should probably be characterized as falling somewhere in
sticking with the example of the Milgram experiments, we might rightly question
their relevance to the debate. They were designed to study obedience,
not compassion. As such, are they being misused by situationists like Doris? Why should it be assumed that a single trait (compassion) underlies disobedience
in the Milgram context? Isn't it often -- even usually -- the case that
behavior is the result of much more complex dispositional and motivational
structures? These questions and others go largely unanswered in Doris' book.
On the other
hand, though aimed at a scholarly audience, Lack of Character is
engagingly written, and is a rare and worthy attempt to bring moral philosophy
and empirical psychology into greater familiarity with each other. Despite
disagreeing with almost all its major arguments, I have read the book several
times with profit.
2006 James Pratt
Pratt is a PhD candidate in Philosophy at York University in Toronto, Canada. His area of research is in moral psychology. He is also completing on a book on the
philosophy of Lord Shaftesbury (1671-1713).