The Situationist

The Person-Situation Debate in Philosophy

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 23, 2010

Situationist Contributor John Jost recently co-authored a brief comment, titled “Virtue ethics and the social psychology of character: Philosophical lessons from the person–situation debate,” which will be of interest to many of our readers.  Here are the opening paragraphs.

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A venerable tradition of ethical theory drawing on Aristotle’s Ethics still flourishes alongside consequentialist (utilitarian) and deontological (Kantian) alternatives. The Aristotelian notion is that if humans develop in themselves and inculcate in others certain settled dispositions to reason and act in characteristic ways—bravely, honestly, generously—they will behave in ways that secure and preserve eudaimonia (happiness or well-being) for themselves and others (Burnyeat, 1980; Hursthouse, 1999; Sherman, 1997). Virtue theorists are therefore committed to the existence of significant moral personality traits that not only summarize good (vs. bad) behavior but also explain the actions of the virtuous (and vicious) agents.

A powerful empirical challenge to virtue theories developed out of Mischel’s (1968) critique of personality traits and social psychological research emphasizing the ‘‘power of the situation” (Ross & Nisbett, 1991). These lessons were applied, perhaps overzealously, to moral philosophy by Flanagan (1991), Harman (1999), Doris (2002), and Appiah (2008). Harman (1999) claimed: ‘‘We need to convince people to look at situational factors and to stop trying to explain things in terms of character traits. . . [and] to abandon all talk of virtue and character, not to find a way to save it by reinterpreting it” (p. 1). This position, which might be termed eliminative situationalism, stimulated useful philosophical debate, but it is too dismissive of the role of personality (or character) in producing ethically responsible behavior.

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You can download a pdf of the entire essay here.  To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see Your Brain and Morality,”Bargh and Baumeister and the Free Will Debate – Part II,” Person X Situation X System Dynamics,” “Situation” Trumps “Disposition” – Part I & Part II,” andThe Need for a Situationist Morality.”

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