March 17, 2008
By Steve Clarke
The second chapter of Experiments in Ethics (E in E) is entitled ‘The Case against Character’, and it focuses on a recent critique of virtue ethics due to Gilbert Harman, John Doris and some other philosophers. The inspiration for their attack on virtue ethics is a body of experimental work produced by ‘situationists’, members of an influential school of thought in social psychology.
One much discussed study in the situationist cannon is Darley and Batson’s ‘Good Samaritan’ study. Darley and Batson conducted a study of helping behaviour in which students at the Princeton Theological Seminary were asked to make individual presentations on the parable of the Good Samaritan. In order to get to the place where their presentations were scheduled the seminarians had to pass a research confederate of Darley and Batson. The confederate was slumped in a doorway looking distinctly in need of help. Unrushed seminarians helped the confederate 63% of the time. However, when seminarians were told beforehand that they were running slightly late for their presentation the helping rate dropped to an astonishingly low 10%. A variation in the situation, which appears insignificant, correlated with a dramatic change in behaviour amongst research subjects, and this appears inexplicable on the basis of appeals to character traits, short of positing the existence of some very unusual character traits in the majority of the population.
Appiah follows Doris in construing the situationist challenge to virtue ethics as an attack on the presupposition of globalism, which is a core conception of character that Appiah attributes to the majority of virtue ethicists, including Aristotle (E in E p.38). Globalism, according to Doris (2002, p. 22) – and Appiah follows Doris here – involves the postulation of character traits, with a high degree of cross-situational consistency, stability across time and ‘evaluative integration’. Evaluative integration occurs when the presence of certain traits probabilifies the presence of other traits. A strong form of evaluative integration is the ideal upheld in the ‘unity of the virtues thesis’. The claim that character traits typically exhibit cross-situational consistency is the component of globalism most directly challenged by situationists. Plainly the disposition to help others lacks cross-situational consistency, or at least it is not consistent across variations between hurried and unhurried situations.
Appiah accepts that if the situationist case is as evidentially well-founded as its proponents claim that it is, then globalism needs to be rejected. However, he argues that variants of virtue ethics can survive the demise of globalism, or at least he argues that virtue still matter in a world in which situationist lessons are learned. Even if we cannot hope to develop highly consistent character traits and even if we cannot hope to obtain a highly integrated character, the effort of attempting to behave in ways that exemplify virtues is one that is worth making. It makes out lives go better if we are a bit more virtuous, if we help others a bit more when we are in a hurry than we would if we were unconcerned about attempting to acquire the virtues, or so Appiah argues.
I am inclined to agree with Appiah’s conclusion in this chapter, however it seems to me that he has failed to address the situationist challenge in its strong form. Situationists, or at least hard-line situationists, such as Doris and Harman, do not simply claim that globalism is wrong and that cross-situationally consistent character traits are rare, they also offer situationist explanations of human behaviour which compete with character trait based explanations of human behaviour. They claim that explanations that appeal to aspects of the situations that people find themselves in generally provide us with much better explanations of behaviour than appeals to character traits. If they are right, then trying to be a bit more virtuous than we currently are won’t help change our behaviour outside of the context of narrowly construed situations. Trying to be more honest to our work colleagues won’t make us more honest in our dealings with strangers in public or with our family at home; at best it will make us more likely to be more honest in our dealings with our work colleagues in future.
Because they construe the character traits that humans possess as mostly lacking in cross-situational consistency, hard-line situationists, such as Harman, recommend that we cease worrying about trying to become more virtuous people and that we focus our efforts on building institutions that put us in situations where we will be prompted to behave in better ways, and that we avoid situations that will prompt us to behave in worse ways.
Appiah’s suggestion that we seek a middle way between virtue ethicists and situationists is sensible advice, but he has not argued for it properly and this is perhaps because he has not appreciated the extent of the situationist challenge.
Some further evidence for the conclusion that Appiah has not appreciated the extent of the situationist challenge appears at (E in E p. 45). According to him:
A situationist might well say that, as a prudential matter, we should, in fact, praise someone who does what is right or good – what a virtuous person would do – whether or not she did it out of a virtuous disposition. After all, psychological theory also suggests that praise, which is a form of reward, is likely to reinforce the behaviour.
Now it is possible that concessive situationists would be willing go along with Appiah here, but hard-line ones will not. They will insist that there is no effective way of reinforcing behaviour that is effective across variations in situation. Praise unhurried seminarians all you like, when they exhibit helping behaviour, but you will not be able to change their behaviour when they are in the situation of being in a hurry. While Appiah may be able to find an accommodation between some versions of virtue ethics and some versions of situationism, it is not realistic to think that any version of virtue ethics that involves attempting to change our character traits can find an accommodation with variants of situationism that basically advise us to give up attributing character traits to people. Unfortunately, it is exactly these variants of situationism that Appiah is seeking to accommodate. A better way for him to deal with hard-line situationists would be to follow Sabini & Silver (2005) and others in disputing the evidential basis for hard-line situationism.