Thursday, January 23, 2014

Situationist Critiques of Virtue Ethics

In her NDPR review of Mark Alfano's new book, Neera Badhwar begins as follows:
Mark Alfano's book adds to the growing literature on empirical challenges to Aristotelian notions of virtue and other character traits. In its most recent avatar, this literature argues that our innate cognitive biases and other flaws make the central moral and intellectual Aristotelian virtues, as usually understood, impossible for the vast majority.
My reason for this post is: But isn't that what Aristotle thought, too? (Isn't that what many virtue theorists think?)

Response: "But if ought implies can and these studies (or the situationists' readings of them) are correct, then it makes no sense to say, to most people, that they ought to be virtuous. Virtue ethics as a normative ethical theory (for general consumption) is thus unworkable."

But I've never thought that was the right way to make sense of virtue ethics. An ideal is to be aimed toward, if never met perfectly. Some ideals are always ever in the distance. We don't need to be able to travel to the North Star in order to navigate the world by referring to it.


  1. It's also not a plausible way to understand "ought implies can" (at least as Kant understood it). If the relevant sense of "can phi" is something like "can be motivated to phi", then it's compatible with "I ought to phi" that something about my psychological setup means that if I try to phi I will fail (because of cognitive bias or Freudian neuroses or demonic possession or whatever): all that is needed is that I can fail at phi-ing, that phi-ing is something I am able to (badly) undertake. Kant himself didn't think we could obey the moral law successfully in this life; that's why immortality is one of the postulates of practical reason, to provide room for improvement towards the unreachable goal of "being able to complete what the moral law demands I do".

  2. Yes, I agree. (The "response" is just one I imagined might be offered, so I hope it's at least a fair target.) The OIC principle is one that I sometimes find, like many, to be in some sense obvious, but which at other times I find quite suspect. But the obvious sense and the suspect sense may well be two very different ways of reading OIC. Wayne Martin has a wonderful paper on this issue (the OIC principle, not situationism) entitled "Ought But Cannot" that I highly recommend.

  3. I’m a bit worried about the assimilation of Kant into Aristotle, or vice versa.

    But before that, there is something deep here about the confusion of the anti-Aristotelian literature you mention. I’m not sure I can quite put my finger on it. It involves also the tendency of that literature you mention towards the scientific-like and the quantifiable. I want to say that this completely misses the grammar of what it means to have a character, and virtues and vices—perhaps even not just in the Aristotelian sense. We do not measure levels of generosity, or patience, by quantifying them numerically (that’s a grammatical remark).

    If this is right, I tend towards saying that the ought-can relationship is really a family of relationships. And my hunch is that neither for Aristotle nor for Kant ought implies can in a way that resembles the way the literature you mention expects, or takes for granted. But might there still be a difference between Kant and Aristotle in this regard? (That’s my hunch.)

    I need to read that Wayne Martin paper you mention.

  4. Reshef -- (sorry to be so slow to respond) -- the quantification business might be part of the problem. Some consequentialist/behaviorist views of character would claim that we should measure character by counting the frequency (and consistency) of acts of the relevant type. Of course that leaves out the "inner"--intention, reasons, etc. (Cf. Murdoch.) I'm not sure however to what extent the situationists adopt that sort of view of character. I think the key observation that drives situationist critiques of character is that most people tend to be influenced greatly by their environment and that these things seem at times to provide a better account of why people do or fail to do virtuous acts than any stable character trait. But if we started out, with Aristotle, with the thought that true virtue is rare and difficult, then none of this would be a surprise. Maybe the question is whether virtue is necessarily or only contingently rare--if the latter, then there's no "ought implies can" problem, but if the former, then there might be. For then the claim that everyone should aspire to virtue would be like suggesting that everyone should aspire to play in the NBA. But virtue (at least the moral virtues), unlike professional sports, is not obviously a competitive enterprise in which the institution is continually filtering and selecting only the best of the best and all of the rest are ipso facto. e.g., "not NBA material."

  5. Thanks Matt,

    I’m not sure I understand: The situationist seems to have available to them a seemingly powerful argument against the existence of character. I mean, they can claim that what determines a person’s behavior is not (internal) character, but (external) situation. I think I’ve heard some of them go that way, but I’m not very familiar with that literature. But if this is the case—if they have an argument against the existence of character—would it not be redundant for them to argue against the possibility of virtue?

    Is there/can there be a positive situationist view of character?

  6. Some may go that way (maybe G. Harman? I'm not sure.) I heard John Doris give a talk last April, at which he vehemently emphasized that he does believe there are character traits. They're just often permeable, malleable and not the (full) explanation of some of the things we do. So there are a few different views that get filed under the banner of "situationism," I think.

    I just saw a review of one of Christian Miller's books about character on NDPR--it's probably a good place to start, since it appears that he devotes a lot of attention to the empirical literature dealing with moral psychology. (The review calls Miller's thesis depressing, but it's basically the idea I floated above in the original post...and it's being depressing wouldn't make it wrong...)

  7. It is one kind of depression to discover that you can’t be virtuous. It is another to discover that you don’t even have a character!

  8. That comment made me laugh, Reshef. But point taken. But 'can't' seems too strong, unless we know whether some people are completely incapable of moving from a mixed character to a virtuous one.