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Lack of CharacterReview - Lack of Character
Personality and Moral Behavior
by John M. Doris
Cambridge University Press, 2002
Review by James Pratt
Sep 26th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 39)

Philosophers 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".

Beginning 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.

According to 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.

However, the 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.

Luckily, 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.

But what 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 between.

More fundamentally, 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

 

James 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).


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