Monday, September 17, 2007

Situationism, Virtues, and Control

The situationist critique of virtue ethics runs as follows. Recent social psychology has shown that the factors governing human behavior are largely situational rather than characterological. If Robin behaves generously and Sanjay behaves greedily in some particular case, that's more likely to be due to differences in their situation than to differences in their personality. (Maybe Robin has more money, or is in a better mood, or had a different prior interaction with the recipient of her generosity.) For simplicity, we might imagine a radical situationism according to which everyone behaves identically in identical situations, and situation-transcending character or "personal virtue" has no explanatory force at all. We might condemn Osama bin Laden or Paris Hilton (taking examples of different moral gravity!), but any of us, put in the same situation as they (not necessarily from birth, but in some reasonably restricted time-frame), would behave just the same way. Virtue ethics, which stresses the cultivation of personal virtues, would then appear to be based on a psychological impossibility.

Radical situationism is, of course, too extreme. But even if stable cross-situational character plays some role in our behavior, if that role is limited and much more derives from situation than from character, a moral psychology focusing on personal virtue may seem to miss the psychological reality. (John Doris and Gilbert Harman have advanced views of roughly this sort.)

Friends of virtue ethics have tended either to attack situationist psychology -- and, indeed, the empirical issues aren't entirely settled -- or have suggested that even if most people are blown by the winds of situation, the moral ideal can and should be a matter of rising above that sort of weakness of character (as advocated, I'd suggest, by Mengzi in his view of the "unmoved heart" [2A2]).

But I prefer the following response: Suppose even a very radical situationism is true. Suppose, to be concrete, Maria and Mary behave very differently but only due to differences in situation. Maria is a church-going kindergarten teacher who consistently behaves kindly and generously, while Mary is a hard-partying corporate defense attorney who likes to defraud both clients and plaintiffs of all she can; yet, were their situations reversed within weeks each would behave like the other. (Let's set aside the prickly question of whether church-going actually has any positive impact on behavior!)

We can still say this: Maria consistently behaves generously, Mary greedily. But can we truly call Maria "generous" and Mary "greedy" if their behavior is so contingent on situation? Well, supposing the situation is stable, I don't see why not! And moreover, Maria works to keep her situation stable: She chooses to go to church and to be a kindergarten teacher. Maybe she even knows that were she to start hanging around a different crowd or pursue a different career that would poison her character and for that very reason avoids it!

Because she exerts such control, we can hold Maria responsible and praiseworthy for her generosity (and Mary blameworthy for her greed). And the point generalizes. We can acknowledge the situational, even the radical situational, contingency of our character traits without abandoning the moral value of thinking terms of such traits and aiming to achieve such traits ourselves. We need only have enough control over our situation to ground stability and responsibility.

(I take this view to be in the spirit of Maria Merritt, though I'm not sure the point about control comes out quite as sharply as I would like in the written work of hers I've seen.)


Anonymous said...


There is a worthwhile alternative to both the situational and characterological perspectives-- which you appear to be cautiously if indirectly exploring in your own recent discussions and papers on first-person internal experiences.

This alternative is to increase focus on the consciousness of one's own inner state.

In the last 5 years an authority on the human emotions, Paul Ekman,
has beome increasingly fascinated with this option. In his somewhat recent book "Emotions Revealed" Ekman states at one point that "... it may be become aware of what is happening in one's head immediately after automatic appraisal but before emotional behavior has begun. If one could achieve such impulse awarenes one could decide whether to allow the impulse to be realized."

Such a practice is perhaps the foundation of "control."

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting thought, Jim. I'm not sure it's exactly an *alternative* to situationism vs. dispositionalism, in the sense of being a competitor to both -- since situational or dispositional factors will presumably govern your tendency to reflect in this way -- but I do think it's an interesting possibility.

I've been thinking for a while about what kind of role reflection might have in moral deliberation. This kind of emotional reflection may hold more promise than more strictly rational, philosophical reflection....

Anonymous said...


Interesting post. Many of the experiments cited by the situationists (I am most familiar with Doris's book and not much of what has been published since) are ones where some ostensibly virtuous response to a spontaneous moral crisis or situation is expected, but not performed. Examples are the Milgram experiments and the Princeton Seminary experiment. These are cases where trait stability is not assessed. Rather, it seems immediate, or at least relatively quick, responses are being tested. Failure to live up to the hypothetical virtuous ideal is taken to support the claim that the environmental factors play a bigger role than personality. So, I wonder if your Mary/Maria example is presupposing that people can have the type of stability to which you refer. As evidence that people do not have stable traits, I believe Doris cites experiments by Mischel, et al and Nisbett, et al. I am not sure that you are not presupposing a certain stability that Doris does not think exist. Furthermore, I wonder what you think about the spontaneous moral situations of which Doris made much use.

By the way, I think there is definitely something to the control factor that you emphasize. I am not sure how to frame it within the situationist debate, but there's something puzzling there.

Steve McFarlane

Anonymous said...

Hi Eric, this issue of free will, moral responsibility, and the potential threat of social psychology (esp. situationism) was a main topic of my dissertation and a more recent book chapter (it's also discussed in Doris' book and a chapter by Dana Nelkin). The way I frame it is this:

1) Suppose that free and responsible action requires that one acts on reasons that one is either aware of or that one would accept as legitimate reasons for action were one aware of them.
2) Research in social psychology suggests that one is quite often unaware of significant influences on one's action and that those influences are often ones the agent would reject as legitimate reasons for action (e.g., we do not think being in a hurry or around more people are good reasons not to help those in need).
3) So, this research suggests that we act freely and responsibly much less often than we think.

Notice that I put this in terms of "degrees of freedom." It's highly unlikely this research will show that we *never* act on our own considered reasons. But it may show we do so much less than we think.

My conclusion is that the research is inconclusive so far because it has not really explored actions following conscious deliberation about what to do (including the "downstream" effects on automatic action of such prior deliberation--e.g., about what sort of job one thinks will best "situate" one to act in good ways, as you suggest). And knowledge of the situational influences the psychologists study can also help us understand our own actions and increase our reflective control over them.

Nonetheless, I think this research (which also includes the work by Tim Wilson and others showing that we have poor introspective access to our reasons) poses an interesting and challenging threat to freedom and responsibility, one much more salient than the abstract potential threat of universal determinism.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for those really interesting and informative comments, Steve and Eddy!

Steve: I think the Princeton Seminary case (and the phone booth case) undermines my point more than the Milgram (or Stanford Prison Experiment) cases. Here's why: We have generally a considerable amount of control over whether we end up in Milgram or SPE type situations, whereas the Seminary and phone booth situations are less under our control, more everyday things.

So I'd suggest that someone whose kindness (say) would evaporate in Milgram/SPE situations is not, by virtue of that fact, lacking in dispositional kindness -- on the assumption that she has the tendency to avoid situations of that sort. However, someone whose kindness would evaporate in telephone booth / seminary type situations is not broadly, dispositionally kind. There's still a lot of truth in the situationist critique! The avenue of response I offer in this post, however, is one that (from what I've seen) hasn't been sufficiently explored.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

That's an interesting argument, Eddy, but I don't think I want to accept premise 1. Say I choose the rightmost pair of socks because of something about their position and I wouldn't, if asked, think that's a good reason to choose a pair of socks. Still I'm responsible for my choice, no?

Or consider the real estate case: People are quite often ignorant (I hear) of the real factors governing their home choices, and the verbal criteria they give to real estate agents are generally misleading. They might not endorse the final reasons governing their choices (Caucasian neighborhood, say, or clean presentation) but I'm inclined to think they nonetheless choose freely and are morally responsible for their choice.

This isn't I think a matter of metaphysics, but rather a matter of policy -- although actually I think that's all "metaphysics" really is, anyway -- policies about how most usefully to deploy our terms and concepts. We need to be able to blame and hold people responsible for unconscious racism, for example, as well as conscious racism -- though maybe not quite as much!

Anibal Monasterio Astobiza said...

Touching on the legalist and action theory dimension of this post, recent trends in criminal responsibility depict a concept of autonomy in which is the agent´s character that draw the boundaries in order to consider someone responsible for her acts.

I refer to Victor Trados conception showed in his book (Criminal Responsibility p. 23) when he said, "an agent is responsible for an action only insofar as that action reflects in the appropiate way on the agent qua agent", in other words, an agent is responsible if the action in question is a result of his character, and the agent´s liability or potential punishment apply to him, is leveraged almost all the time in acordance to his character.

So, when we want to consider someone responsible, we need to appeal to his virtues, his modes of being, sculpting his character, that strenghts his will and command his behaviour independent of the enviroment.

I know that sometimes good things happen to bad people and viceversa, and luck and control seems the Scylla and Caribides in action theory broadly construed.

But for society to be harmonize, a "person-in competence" approach either at the level of his cognitive processes, or using Timothy Bayne´s phrase "consuming systems" (perception, memory consolidation, belief formation...) and access to them (here, like Eric i´m a little bit skeptical for the case of conscious acces to perception and related phenomenology!)and the way the agent is able to modify his enviroment (casting doubts about purely situational factors explaning behaviour); is a must, i think.

Justin Tiwald said...


Very cool! I've been flirting with a view like this, although I haven't done it as much justice as you do.

At the very least I think that we'd have to include situational control among the set of dispositions that a virtuous person should have, and we should allow that it plays a more important role than many virtue ethicists do--including (gulp) many of the Chinese thinkers (although I find elements of this in Xunzi and especially Zhuangzi).

There are some interesting issues concerning the very idea of a "situation" in this. What are the salient features of being in the situation of, say, a person in a high-powered profession? Is it possible for two people of different character to be in the same career and surrounded by the same friends but yet somehow in different situations? Lot's of potential here…

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

That's an interesting issue, Anibal, though I confess I'm inclined to disagree, if it implies that people are less responsible for actions simply by virtue of those actions being "out of character". It might be unusual and out of character for me to (for example) steal someone's wallet; but if I do it anyway I'm just as responsible and blameworthy as a habitual wallet-stealer. But maybe that's not what you mean to suggest?

And thanks for your comment, too, Justin. (I was just chatting with Robin Wang at Loyola Marymount yesterday about the lack of Chinese philosophy in the U.S., by the way, and your name came up.) Yes, I wish I saw more of this in the ancient Chinese tradition, too, but they seem to be thin on it. (I do have my own quirky reading of the Farmer of Song parable in Mengzi 2A2, though, that sees "pulling on the sprouts" as putting oneself in situations in which your heart will be moved and your virtue collapse.)

Have you read Eric Hutton's very interesting essay on situationism and Xunzi? He sees Xunzi as advocating a kind of societal control of situation by sages rather than a personal control of situation by individual agents.

I agree that "situation" is a tricky concept. I think that it leaves a lot of wiggle room and that there's actually considerable confusion in some of the psychological literature as a result of too cavalier an understanding of what a "situation" is, especially in critiques of situationism....

Anibal Monasterio Astobiza said...

That´s exactly what i meant to suggest Eric, you did an accurate interpetation.

Certainly, this is the first impression that i had when i read Victor Tadros´book.

We cannot base responsibility in any account derived from character because character does not preclude good-formed charater people to behave badly and out of character, even only one time in their lifes, and not for that we are not allow to blame them.

I have no more arguments to support this view of agent behaviour and responsibility, though i would like to defend it, because in what i strongly believe is that a person-in-competence approach in moral psychology is the best way to save responsibility form those that deny free will, and subsequently, responsibility.

I think situational uncertainty threathens internal control in persons, and then, all related concepts (free will, responsibility...)

It would be nice to know what think Tadros about it or others theorists supporting this view.

Justin Tiwald said...


Ah ha, I thought this might have some connection to your reading of the Farmer of Song passage! Eric H's essay sounds very interesting. I keep meaning to read it and will do so. And I'm proud to be associated with the state of Chinese philosophy in the U.S., no matter what that state may be.

This has been quite a helpful discussion (comments included)…

Anonymous said...

Hi Eric,

I am not sure I understand the suggestion fully, but have a worry about what I think you are suggesting.

Consider the following case:

Rashid is of medium build, height, and intelligence.

He lives in civility-ville, Utopia. His neighbors and government reward and honor good acts and look down on or punish bad acts (even acts of cowardice).

Rashid happens upon a mugging in progress. He feels fear, but believes it would be good to intervene and, feeling (on some level) the pull of the carrot and stick, does so.

(Case 1) He moves to war torn Tarantinoville, where his neighbors and government admire or honor vicious acts and look down on altruistic acts.

He happens upon a mugging in progress. He feels fear, and believes it would be good to intervene, but with no carrot or stick backing his "belief", slinks away. The mugger stabs his victim and escapes.

(Case 2) He stays in Utopia-ville and, thanks to the incentives his situation offers, continues to be continent when fear tempts him to stray from the straight and narrow.

POINT: In talking about case 2, I would refrain from saying that Rashid is brave or courageous (in a value entailing sense). More boldly, I would resist this even if he chooses to stay in Utopia-ville in order to keep from being incontinent.

Off hand I would even say that if his tendency to overcome fear and do the right thing is contingent on situational factors like the rewards and punishments (including reactive attitudes) that his neighbors and government met out, then he does not act bravely or courageously.

Perhaps I could drive the point home if I added a new case where he acts like a coward in response to minor threats once he moves to Tarantinoville.

What do you think?


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks -- fun discussion!

Anibal, it sounds like we just have different intuitions about blame in such cases. I don't know how to resolve basic clashes of intuitions, if that's what it comes down to. But I don't feel that if I (uncharacteristically) steal your wallet I deserve any less blame for that particular action than if someone else steals the wallet in an act that's in character. I should confess, though, that I think Matt Talbert, a smart guy and recent UCR Ph.D. who wrote his dissertation on this topic (and so thought and read about it much more extensively than I) is on your side.

Ah, you sussed me out, Justin. Thanks for the kind remark.

Finally, Brad: I see the pull of the intuitions in the case you describe -- you do a good job bringing them out -- but they don't seem to me irresistable. Consider this response. IF Gandhi had been immersed for long enough in Stalin's Moscow in 1937, he would have done some horrible things; and IF the most honest guy you know had been immersed in Counterfactual Evil Society, he would have lied like a rug. Do these weird counterfactuals make it the case that Gandhi was not really virtuous, that your friend is not really honest? What matters in character is the actual (or likely) range of situations in our lives, not what we would hypothetically do in other situations -- especially if we can control our situation to a substantial degree. Who knows how he would have behaved in Nazi Germany? Who knows what I would do if I signed up as a Guantanamo prison guard, given that I have no inclination whatsoever to do so. Do we really need to settle such matters to know about someone's character?