The Situationist

Virtue Ethics and the Situationist Challenge

Posted by Thomas Nadelhoffer on August 23, 2010

We commonly describe people’s behavior in terms of character traits such as honest, courageous, generous, and the like.  Furthermore, we praise and reward those who display virtuous character traits and we look down upon those who exemplify vices such as dishonesty, cowardice, and stinginess.   That virtue ethics captures this aspect of our everyday moral practices—i.e., our tendency to describe human behavior in terms of dispositional traits that give rise to virtues and vices—is purportedly one of its chief selling points.  On Aristotle’s intuitively plausible view, for instance, being properly habituated, morally speaking, makes it more likely that one will engage in the right behavior, under the right circumstances, and for the right reasons.  Moreover, not only does having the virtues make it maximally likely that one will engage in virtuous activity, but Aristotle also suggests that once an agent acquires the proper character traits, these dispositions are “firm and unchangeable” (NE, 1105b1).  So, while the virtues are not themselves sufficient for moral behavior, truly virtuous individuals will usually do what’s right even under the most difficult circumstances (NE, 1105a88-10).  If, on the other hand, virtuous character traits were not robust and stable predictors of moral behavior as Aristotle and others suggest, it is unclear why inculcating the virtues would better equip one to reliably navigate the complex moral world we inhabit.

However, as intuitive and attractive as the characterological approach to moral psychology may initially appear, some philosophers have recently suggested that the virtue theorist’s commitment to robust and stable character traits opens her view up to possible empirical refutation (Harman 1999; 2000; Doris 1998; 2002).  On this skeptical view, the gathering data concerning the etiological role played by situational stimuli paints a different picture of moral agency than the one adopted by Plato, Aristotle, and their contemporary followers.  Rather than a world being navigated by moral agents armed with robust and stable habituated dispositions to act, what we find is a world whereby situational forces play a much larger role in moral agency than philosophers have traditionally assumed.

For present purposes, let’s call this the Situationist Challenge.  To get a feel for the sorts of empirical pressures that allegedly face virtue theorists, consider the surprising results from the “helping for a dime” studies reported in Isen & Levin (1972).  Subjects were random pedestrians in San Francisco, CA and Philadelphia, PA who stopped to use a public payphone.  Whereas some subjects found a dime that had been planted in the phone booth by researchers, other subjects did not find a dime.  When subjects left the phone booth, a female confederate of the researchers dropped an armful of papers and researchers recorded whether or not the individuals leaving the phone booth stopped to help.  The results were shocking: the subjects who found the dimes were 22 times more likely to help a woman who “dropped” her papers than the subjects who did not find the dime.  Let that sink in for a moment.  The slight elevation in emotion caused by randomly finding a dime on top of pay phone made a significant difference on subjects’ moral behavior—something presumably all participants would deny if asked.  Perhaps the most surprising feature of these results isn’t that something so morally insignificant—namely, finding a dime in a phone booth—had such a pronounced effect on people’s moral behavior, rather it’s that these results appear to be representative of moral behavior rather than anomalous.

Unsurprisingly, virtue theorists have not taken the Situationist Challenge lightly.  Perhaps the most common rejoinder to characterological skepticism is to suggest that the situationist literature is entirely consistent with traditional accounts of virtue ethics.  Indeed, we are told that the only reason virtue ethics appears to be under empirical attack is that the skeptics have purportedly either misread or misrepresented the ancient virtue theorists.    In making their case on this front, virtue theorists often appeal to the purported rarity of truly virtuous individuals.  Merritt (2000) summarizes this so-called “argument from rarity” (Doris 1998, p. ) in the following manner:

Now many sympathizers with virtue ethics will want to say, “So what?” The experimental evidence shows only that most people aren’t genuinely virtuous. (And haven’t we always known this anyway, without needing experimental psychology to reveal it?)  That doesn’t mean there’s a problem with the normative ideal of virtue ethics.  It just means that being genuinely virtuous is a rare and difficult achievement” These people have a point. (p. 367-68)

For instance, as Kamtekar (2004) points out, Plato openly admits that non-virtuous people are “impulsive and unstable” (Lysis 214d) and that they “shift back and forth” (Gorgias 481e).  Moreover, Kamtekar reminds us that Plato also acknowledges that “guaranteeing the behavior of ordinary people (i.e., people who lack philosophical wisdom) consistently conforms to virtue ethics requires manipulating their situations—not only the environment in which people are brought up but also the situations in which they are called upon to act as adults” (2004, p.483).  According to Kamtekar, Merritt, and others, if this reading of the ancient virtue theorists is correct, then not only is the literature on situationism consistent with the moral theories of Plato and Aristotle, but the gathering data are precisely what these theorists would predict. Finding a dime only makes it more likely that those lacking in virtue will help.  The truly virtuous would have helped regardless of whether or not they found a dime.  The same could arguably be said about all of the aforementioned situationist studies.  What you find in each case is evidence that for many (if not most) people, situational forces can sometimes trump dispositional traits when it comes to moral behavior.   However, this is purportedly a far cry from a refutation of virtue ethics.  Instead, it is a reminder of just how genuinely hard it is to be a virtuous agent.

Of course, this is not the only line of response open to the virtue ethicists.[1] Rather than falling back on the rarity of virtue—which is not a move without its dialectical and theoretical costs—virtue theorists could also opt for any of the following strategies:

  1. The Empirical Counter-Challenge:  One could directly dispute the data from situational psychology rather than try to show that the data are compatible with the characterological moral psychology of virtue ethics.[2]
  2. The Immunization Thesis:  One could accept the data on situationism at face value and suggest that we can use these data to immunize or shield ourselves from the etiological encroachment of morally irrelevant situational variables—i.e., armed with a better understanding of the threat of situationism, we will be better equipped to allow our dispositions to find expression in our action.[3]
  3. The Mischaracterization Response:  Rather than focusing on the supposed rarity of truly virtuous agents and behavior, virtue theorists could focus instead on trying to show that characterological skeptics have misunderstood or misstated other importance aspects of virtue theory.[4]
  4. The Revisionist Response:  The virtue theorists could accept that the data on situationism puts serious pressure on classical versions of virtue ethics.  So, rather than defending the Platonic or Aristotelian views from the challenge, these virtue theorists could offer revisionist or rival versions of virtue ethics that are purportedly better equipped to deal with the situationist challenge.[5]

Regardless of which of these strategies the virtue theorist adopts, it is clear that the empirical data on the dispositional and situational roots of behavior have forced virtue theorists to carefully reexamine both the views of the ancients as well as the contemporary views rooted in these earlier views.  While the data themselves do not (and presumably cannot) undermine virtue ethics full stop, they do represent an empirically-tractable challenge that virtue theorists must take seriously.


Annas, J. 2005. “Comments on John Doris’ Lack of Character.”  Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 73: 636-47.

Doris, J. 1998. Persons, situations, and virtue ethics.  Nous, 32:4: 504-530.

Doris, J. M. 2002. Lack of Character: Personality and Moral Behavior. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Harman, G. 1999. “Moral Philosophy Meets Social Psychology: Virtue Ethics and the Fundamental Attribution Error.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 99: 315-331.

Harman, G. 2000. “The Nonexistence of Character Traits,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 100: 223-2 26

Kamtekar, R. 2004. Situationism and virtue ethics on the content of our character.  Ethics, 114: 458-491.

Merritt, M. 2000.  Virtue ethics and situationist personality psychology.  Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 3: 365-383.

Miller, C. 2003. “Social Psychology and Virtue Ethics.” The Journal of Ethics 7: 365-92.

Sabini, J. & Silver, M. 2005. Lack of character? Situationism critiqued. Ethics 115: 535-562.

Solomon, R. 2003. “Victims of Circumstances? A Defense of Virtue Ethics in Business.” Business Ethics Quarterly 13: 43-62.

Sreenivasan, G. 2002. Errors about Errors: Virtue Theory and Trait Attribution. Mind 111 (January): 47-68.

[1] For other recent attempts to defend virtue ethics against the situationist challenge, see Annas (2005); Miller (2003); Sabini & Silver (2005); Solomon (2003); Sreenivasan (2002).

[2] See, e.g., Kamtekar (2004).  The two most common issues raised about the studies on situationism are: (a) several of the studies have very small sample sizes; and (b) the studies don’t observe people’s behaviors across situations.

[3] See, e.g., Merritt (2000): “Situationist psychology does show that certain kinds of seemingly irrelevant situational factors may derail a person’s usual expressions of ethical concern…but that’s less likely to happen if we are aware of such situational factors and their usual influences on behavior” (p. 372).

[4] See, e.g., Kamtekar (2004): “I argue that the character traits conceived of and debunked by Situationist social psychological studies have very little to do with character as it is conceived of in traditional virtue ethics” (p. 460).

[5] See, e.g., Merritt (2000): “What is important for Hume’s purposes is that one’s possession of the virtues, which he characterizes as socially or personally beneficial qualities of mind, should be relatively stable over time somehow or other, not that it should be stable through taking a special, self-sufficiently sustainable psychological form.  A Humean approach leaves us plenty of room to say that if an otherwise admirable  structure of motivation were stable in a person only because it was in large part socially sustained, it would be no less a genuine virtue for that” (p. 378).

* * *

To sample some related Situationist posts, see “Thomas Nadelhoffer on Neuroscience, Philosophy, and Law,” “The Situation of ‘Being Forced’,” “Bargh and Baumeister and the Free Will Debate,” Video Introduction to Experimental PhilosophyMoral Psychology Primer,” “Jon Hanson on Situationism and Dispositionism,” The Science of Morality,” ‘Situation’ Trumps ‘Disposition’ – Part I,” ““Situation” Trumps “Disposition”- Part II,” andQuick Introduction to Experimental (Situationist?) Philosophy.”


3 Responses to “Virtue Ethics and the Situationist Challenge”

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