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Skepticism about Character

Edited by Mark Alfano (Delft University of Technology, Australian Catholic University)
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Summary Skepticism about character draws on research in the social sciences (especially social psychology in the situationist paradigm) to argue that both folk psychological and neo-Aristotelian conceptions of character as a robust disposition to act on reasons is empirically inadequate.  In John Doris's formulation, traditional character-based ethical views tend to be globalist in that they are committed to cross-situational consistency of character, temporal stability of traits, and evaluative integration of virtues within individuals.  Psychological research suggests, however, that while traits are stable, they tend to have low cross-situational consistency.  This means that someone who is stably disposed not to lie to his friends may nevertheless be quite prone to stealing from his relatives or cheating on his wife.  Talk of broadly individuated virtues such as honesty might therefore seem empirically inadequate.  Virtue ethicists have replied in a variety of ways.  The three primary responses are (the dodge) virtue ethics is primarily a normative theory, so we should be untroubled if most people are not virtuous; (the retreat) the commitments of virtue ethics can be weakened in such a way that it becomes empirically adequate; and (the counterattack) the evidence from social psychology does not in fact challenge the virtue ethical conception of character.
Key works John Doris's original paper on this topic is Doris 1998, which was quickly superseded by Doris 2002.  Almost at the same time, Gilbert Harman developed his own variant of skepticism about character in Harman 1999, 2000, 2003, and 2009.  Advocates of the dodge include Badhwar 2009 and Kupperman 2009.  Advocates of the retreat include Hurka 2006, Merritt 2000, and Miller 2009.  Advocates of the counterattack include Kamtekar 2004, Russell 2009, and Sreenivasan 2002.  Other related research, such as Sarkissian 2010 and Alfano 2013, has attempted to move past the question of empirical adequacy by focusing on ways in which situations can be modified or framed to promote moral conduct.
Introductions Alfano 2013, Appiah 2008
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  1. Mark Alfano (forthcoming). Epistemic Situationism: An Extended Prolepsis. In Mark Alfano & Abrol Fairweather (eds.), Epistemic Situationism. Oxford University Press
    This paper is an extended prolepsis in favor of epistemic situationism, the thesis that epistemic virtues are not sufficiently widely distributed for a virtue-theoretic constraint on knowledge to apply without leading to skepticism. It deals with four objections to epistemic situation: 1) that virtuous dispositions are not required for knowledge, 2) that the Big Five or Big Six personality model proves that intellectual virtues are a reasonable ideal, 3) that the cognitive-affective personality system framework proves that intellectual virtues are a (...)
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  2. Mark Alfano (forthcoming). Can People Be Virtuous? In Current Controversies in Virtue Theory. Routledge
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  3. Mark Alfano (2016). Friendship and the Structure of Trust. In Alberto Masala & Jonathan Webber (eds.), From Personality to Virtue. Oxford 186-206.
    In this paper, I describe some of what I take to be the more interesting features of friendship, then explore the extent to which other virtues can be reconstructed as sharing those features. I use trustworthiness as my example throughout, but I think that other virtues such as generosity & gratitude, pride & respect, and the producer’s & consumer’s sense of humor can also be analyzed with this model. The aim of the paper is not to demonstrate that all moral (...)
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  4. Mark Alfano (ed.) (2015). Current Controversies in Virtue Theory. Routledge.
    Virtue is among the most venerable concepts in philosophy, and has recently seen a major revival. However, new challenges to conceptions of virtue have also arisen. In Current Controversies in Virtue Theory , five pairs of cutting-edge philosophers square off over central topics in virtue theory: the nature of virtue, the connection between virtue and flourishing, the connection between moral and epistemic virtues, the way in which virtues are acquired, and the possibility of attaining virtue. Mark Alfano guides his readers (...)
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  5. Mark Alfano (2015). Ramsifying Virtue Theory. In Current Controversies in Virtue Theory. Routledge 123-35.
    In his contribution, Mark Alfano lays out a new (to virtue theory) naturalistic way of determining what the virtues are, what it would take for them to be realized, and what it would take for them to be at least possible. This method is derived in large part from David Lewis’s development of Frank Ramsey’s method of implicit definition. The basic idea is to define a set of terms not individually but in tandem. This is accomplished by assembling all and (...)
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  6. Mark Alfano (2014). What Are the Bearers of Virtues? In Hagop Sarkissian & Jennifer Wright (eds.), Advances in Moral Psychology. Continuum 73-90.
    It’s natural to assume that the bearers of virtues are individual agents, which would make virtues monadic dispositional properties. I argue instead that the most attractive theory of virtue treats a virtue as a triadic relation among the agent, the social milieu, and the asocial environment. A given person may or may not be disposed to behave in virtuous ways depending on how her social milieu speaks to and of her, what they expect of her, and how they monitor her. (...)
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  7. Mark Alfano (2013). Character as Moral Fiction. Cambridge University Press.
    Everyone wants to be virtuous, but recent psychological investigations suggest that this may not be possible. Mark Alfano challenges this theory and asks, not whether character is empirically adequate, but what characters human beings could have and develop. Although psychology suggests that most people do not have robust character traits such as courage, honesty and open-mindedness, Alfano argues that we have reason to attribute these virtues to people because such attributions function as self-fulfilling prophecies – children become more studious if (...)
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  8. Mark Alfano (2013). Identifying and Defending the Hard Core of Virtue Ethics. Journal of Philosophical Research 38:233-260.
    Virtue ethics has been challenged on empirical grounds by philosophical interpreters of situationist social psychology. Challenges are necessarily challenges to something or other, so it’s only possible to understand the situationist challenge to virtue ethics if we have an antecedent grasp on virtue ethics itself. To this end, I first identify the non-negotiable “hard core” of virtue ethics with the conjunction of nine claims, arguing that virtue ethics does make substantive empirical assumptions about human conduct. Next, I rearticulate the situationist (...)
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  9. Mark Alfano (2013). Virtues, Intelligences, and Situations. [REVIEW] Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 16:671-673.
  10. Mark Alfano (2012). Expanding The Situationist Challenge To Responsibilist Virtue Epistemology. Philosophical Quarterly 62 (247):223-249.
    The last few decades have witnessed the birth and growth of both virtue epistemology and the situationist challenge to virtue ethics. It seems only natural that eventually we would see the situationist challenge to virtue epistemology. This article articulates one aspect of that new challenge by spelling out an argument against the responsibilist brand of virtue epistemology. The trouble can be framed as an inconsistent triad: many people know quite a bit; knowledge is true belief acquired and retained through the (...)
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  11. Mark Alfano (2011). Explaining Away Intuitions About Traits: Why Virtue Ethics Seems Plausible (Even If It Isn't). Review of Philosophy and Psychology 2 (1):121-136.
    This article addresses the question whether we can know on the basis of folk intuitions that we have character traits. I answer in the negative, arguing that on any of the primary theories of knowledge, our intuitions about traits do not amount to knowledge. For instance, because we would attribute traits to one another regardless of whether we actually possessed such metaphysically robust dispositions, Nozickian sensitivity theory disqualifies our intuitions about traits from being knowledge. Yet we do think we know (...)
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  12. Mark Alfano & Abrol Fairweather (eds.) (forthcoming). Epistemic Situationism. Oxford University Press.
    Table of Contents -/- Introduction: Epistemic Situationism by Abrol Fairweather -/- 1. Is Every Epistemology A Virtue Epistemology? by Lauren Olin -/- 2. Epistemic Situationism: An extended prolepsis by Mark Alfano -/- 3. Virtue Epistemology in the Zombie Apocalypse: Hungry Judges, Heavy Clipboards and Grou Polarization by Berit Brogaard -/- 4. Situationism and Responsibilist Virtue Epistemology by James Montmarquet -/- 5. Virtue Theory Against Situationism by Ernest Sosa -/- 6. Intellectual Virtue Now and Again by Chris Lepock -/- 7.Responsibilism Out (...)
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  13. Mark Alfano & Abrol Fairweather, Situationism and Virtue Theory. Oxford Bibliographies in Philosophy.
    Virtues are dispositions to see, think, desire, deliberate, or act well, with different philosophers emphasizing different permutations of these activities. Virtue has been an object of philosophical concern for thousands of years whereas situationism—the psychological theory according to which a great deal of human perception, thought, motivation, deliberation, and behavior are explained not by character or personality dispositions but by seemingly trivial and normatively irrelevant situational influences—was a development of the 20th century. Some philosophers, especially John Doris and Gilbert Harman (...)
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  14. Mark Alfano & Don Loeb (2014). Experimental Moral Philosophy. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:1-32.
    Experimental moral philosophy began to emerge as a methodology in the last decade of the twentieth century, a branch of the larger experimental philosophy (X-Phi, XΦ) approach. From the beginning, it has been embroiled in controversy on a number of fronts. Some doubt that it is philosophy at all. Others acknowledge that it is philosophy but think that it has produced modest results at best and confusion at worst. Still others think it represents an important advance.
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  15. Miguel Alzola (2008). Character and Environment: The Status of Virtues in Organizations. [REVIEW] Journal of Business Ethics 78 (3):343 - 357.
    Using evidence from experimental psychology, some social psychologists, moral philosophers and organizational scholars claim that character traits do not exist and, hence, that the philosophical tradition of virtue ethics is empirically inadequate and should dispose of the notion of character to accommodate the empirical evidence. In this paper, I systematically address the debate between dispositionalists and situationists about the existence, status and properties of character traits and their manifestations in human behavior, with the ultimate goal of responding to the question (...)
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  16. Julia Annas (2005). Review: Comments on John Doris's "Lack of Character". [REVIEW] Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 71 (3):636-642.
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  17. Julia Annas (2005). Comments on John Doris's Lack of Character. [REVIEW] Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 71 (3):636–642.
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  18. Julia Annas (2003). Virtue Ethics and Social Psychology. A Priori 2:20-34.
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  19. Anthony Appiah (2008). Experiments in Ethics. Harvard University Press.
    Appiah explores how the new empirical moral psychology relates to philosophical ethics. He elaborates a vision of naturalism that resists both temptations and traces an intellectual genealogy of the burgeoning discipline of 'experimental philosophy'.
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  20. Surendra Arjoon (2008). Reconciling Situational Social Psychology with Virtue Ethics. International Journal of Management Reviews 10 (3):221-243.
    For the past four decades, debate has occurred in respect of situational social psychology and virtue ethics. This paper attempts to reconcile this debate. Situationists propose a fragmentation theory of character (each person has a whole range of dispositions, each of which has a restricted situational application) and do not subscribe to a regularity theory of character (behaviour is regulated by long-term dispositions). In order to support this view, they cite a number of experiments. It is proposed that the substantive (...)
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  21. Nomy Arpaly & John Doris (2005). Review: Comments on "Lack of Character" by John Doris. [REVIEW] Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 71 (3):643-647.
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  22. James Arthur, Kristján Kristjánsson, David Walker, Wouter Sanderse & Chantel Jones, Character Education in UK Schools: Research Report.
    The research project described in this report represents one of the most extensive studies of character education ever undertaken, including over 10,000 students and 255 teachers in schools across England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. Research techniques consisted of a mixture of surveys, moral dilemmas and semi-structured interviews. This report explores: - The current situation in character education, both in the UK and internationally - How developed British students are with respect to moral character and the extent to which they (...)
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  23. Nafsika Athanassoulis (2000). A Response to Harman: Virtue Ethics and Character Traits. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 100 (2):215–221.
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  24. Guy Axtell, Thinking Twice About Virtue and Vice.
    This chapter provides an empirical defense of credit theories of knowing against Alfano’s the-ses of inferential cognitive situationism and of epistemic situationism. It also develops a Nar-row-Broad Spectrum of agency-ascriptions in reply to Olin and Doris’ ‘trade-off problem.’ In order to support the claim that credit theories can treat many cases of success through heuristic cognitive strategies as credit-conferring, the paper develops the compatibility between VE and dual-process theories (DPT) in cognitive psychology. A genuine convergence between VE and DPT is (...)
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  25. Guy Axtell (2010). Agency Ascriptions in Ethics and Epistemology: Or, Navigating Intersections, Narrow and Broad. Metaphilosophy 41 (1):73-94.
    Abstract: In this article, the logic and functions of character-trait ascriptions in ethics and epistemology is compared, and two major problems, the "generality problem" for virtue epistemologies and the "global trait problem" for virtue ethics, are shown to be far more similar in structure than is commonly acknowledged. I suggest a way to put the generality problem to work by making full and explicit use of a sliding scale--a "narrow-broad spectrum of trait ascription"-- and by accounting for the various uses (...)
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  26. Neera K. Badhwar (2009). The Milgram Experiments, Learned Helplessness, and Character Traits. Journal of Ethics 13 (2-3):257 - 289.
    The Milgram and other situationist experiments support the real-life evidence that most of us are highly akratic and heteronomous, and that Aristototelian virtue is not global. Indeed, like global theoretical knowledge, global virtue is psychologically impossible because it requires too much of finite human beings with finite powers in a finite life; virtue can only be domain-specific. But unlike local, situation-specific virtues, domain-specific virtues entail some general understanding of what matters in life, and are connected conceptually and causally to our (...)
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  27. Jacob Berger & Mark Alfano (2016). Virtue, Situationism, and the Cognitive Value of Art. The Monist 99 (2).
    Virtue-based moral cognitivism holds that at least some of the value of some art consists in conveying knowledge about the nature of virtue and vice. We explore here a challenge to this view, which extends the so-called situationist challenge to virtue ethics. Evidence from social psychology indicates that individuals’ behavior is often susceptible to trivial and normatively irrelevant situational influences. This evidence not only challenges approaches to ethics that emphasize the role of virtue but also undermines versions of moral cognitivism, (...)
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  28. Sandrine Berges (2002). Evil Behaviour and Character: Virtue Ethics Versus Social Psychology. In Diane Medlicott (ed.), Their Deeds were Evil: Understanding Atrocity, Ferocity and Extreme Crime. Rodopi
    Is there such a thing as evil character? Philosophers and social psychologists have cast doubt on the idea that evil behaviour is due to a defect in character formation, which some people have, and some have not. I will argue that their claims are misguided by putting forward the following thesis: evil character traits exist, but they are typically less stable, albeit more prevalent, than good character traits. This is because they typically do not receive the backing of formation, which, (...)
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  29. Lorraine Besser-jones (2008). Social Psychology, Moral Character, and Moral Fallibility. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 76 (2):310–332.
    In recent years, there has been considerable debate in the literature concerning the existence of moral character. One lesson we should take away from these debates is that the concept of character, and the role it plays in guiding our actions, is far more complex than most of us initially took it to be. Just as Gilbert Harman, for example, makes a serious mistake in insisting, plainly and simply, that ther is no such thing as character, defenders of character also (...)
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  30. Lawrence Blum (2003). Review of John M. Doris, Lack of Character: Personality and Moral Behavior. [REVIEW] Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews 2003 (8).
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  31. J. S. Blumenthal-Barby (forthcoming). Dilemmas for the Rarity Thesis in Virtue Ethics and Virtue Epistemology. Philosophia:1-12.
    “Situationists” such as Gilbert Harman and John Doris have accused virtue ethicists as having an “empirically inadequate” theory, arguing that much of social science research suggests that people do not have robust character traits as traditionally thought. By far, the most common response to this challenge has been what I refer to as “the rarity response” or the “rarity thesis”. Rarity responders deny that situationism poses any sort of threat to virtue ethics since there is no reason to suppose that (...)
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  32. Cameron Boult (forthcoming). Review of Naturalizing Epistemic Virtue. [REVIEW] Journal of Moral Philosophy.
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  33. David O. Brink (2014). Situationism, Responsibility, and Fair Opportunity. Social Philosophy and Policy 30 (1-2):121-149.
    The situationist literature in psychology claims that conduct is not determined by character and reflects the operation of the agent's situation or environment. For instance, due to situational factors, compassionate behavior is much less common than we might have expected from people we believe to be compassionate. This article focuses on whether situationism should revise our beliefs about moral responsibility. It assesses the implications of situationism against the backdrop of a conception of responsibility that is grounded in norms about the (...)
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  34. David O. Brink (2013). Situationism, Responsibility, and Fair Opportunity. Social Philosophy and Policy (1-2):121-149.
    The situationist literature in psychology claims that conduct is not determined by character and reflects the operation of the agent’s situation or environment. For instance, due to situational factors, compassionate behavior is much less common than we might have expected from people we believe to be compassionate. This article focuses on whether situationism should revise our beliefs about moral responsibility. It assesses situationism’s implications against the backdrop of a conception of responsibility that is grounded in norms about the fair opportunity (...)
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  35. Sylvia Burrow (2003). Review: Lack of Character, John Doris. [REVIEW] Metapsychology Online Review 7 (11).
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  36. Robert F. Card (2010). Situationist Social Psychology and J. S. Mill's Conception of Character. Utilitas 22 (4):481-493.
    The situationist challenge to global character traits claims that on the basis of findings in social psychology, we should only accept at most the existence of local or context-sensitive traits. In this article I explore a neglected area of J. S. Mill's work to outline an account of context-sensitive traits. This account of traits, coupled with a sophisticated consequentialist ethical framework, suggests an interesting view on which persons govern the circumstances of their actions (to the extent possible) in order to (...)
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  37. Yi‐Lin Chen (2015). A Situationist Lesson for Character Education: Re‐Conceptualising the Inculcation of Virtues by Converting Local Virtues to More Global Ones. Journal of Philosophy of Education 49 (3):399-417.
    Inspired by the debate about character between situationism and virtue ethics, I argue that John Doris's idea, ‘local trait’, offers a fresh insight into contemporary character education. Its positive variant, ‘local virtue’, signals an inescapable relay station of the gradual development of virtue, and serves as a promising point of departure for advanced growth. The idea of converting local virtues to more global ones is accordingly proposed to represent an empirically more realistic way of conceiving how to approach the ethical (...)
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  38. Michael Cholbi (2014). The Implications of Ego Depletion for the Ethics and Politics of Manipulation. In C. Coons M. E. Weber (ed.), Manipulation:Theory and Practice. Oxford University Press 201-220.
    A significant body of research suggests that self-control and willpower are resources that become depleted as they are exercised. Having to exert self-control and willpower draws down the reservoir of these resources and make subsequent such exercises more difficult. This “ego depletion” renders individuals more susceptible to manipulation by exerting non-rational influences on our choice and conduct. In particular, ego depletion results in later choices being less governable by our powers of self-control and willpower than earlier choices. I draw out (...)
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  39. Michelle Ciurria (2013). Situationism, Moral Responsibility and Blame. Philosophia 41 (1):179-193.
    In Moral philosophy meets social psychology, Gilbert Harman argues that social psychology can educate folk morality to prevent us from committing the ‘fundamental attribution error,’ i.e. ‘the error of ignoring situational factors and overconfidently assuming that distinctive behaviour or patterns of behaviour are due to an agent’s distinctive character traits’ (Harman, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 99, 315–331, 1999). An overview of the literature shows that while situationists unanimously agree with Harman on this point, they disagree on whether we also (...)
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  40. Bradford Cokelet (2014). Review of Christian Miller, Moral Character: An Empirical Theory. [REVIEW] Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews 2014 (2.7).
    Review of Christian Miller's "Moral Character: An Empirical Theory." I question Miller's criteria for overall judgements about the vice and vice of people's character traits, and sketch an alternative framework.
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  41. Bradford Cokelet (2013). Character. In Hugh LaFollette (ed.), The International Encyclopedia of Ethics. Wiley-Blackwell
    A general discussion of what character is and why having character, or good character, might be thought to increase an agent's well-being.
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  42. Jason D'Cruz (2015). Trust, Trustworthiness, and the Moral Consequence of Consistency. Journal of the American Philosophical Association 1 (3):467-484.
    Situationists such as John Doris, Gilbert Harman, and Maria Merritt suppose that appeal to reliable behavioral dispositions can be dispensed with without radical revision to morality as we know it. This paper challenges this supposition, arguing that abandoning hope in reliable dispositions rules out genuine trust and forces us to suspend core reactive attitudes of gratitude and resentment, esteem and indignation. By examining situationism through the lens of trust we learn something about situationism (in particular, the radically revisionary moral implications (...)
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  43. Michael DePaul (2000). Character Traits, Virtues, and Vices. The Proceedings of the Twentieth World Congress of Philosophy 9:141-157.
    Recently, Gilbert Harman has used empirical results obtained by social psychologists to argue that there are no character traits of the type presupposed by virtue ethics—no honesty or dishonesty, no courage or cowardice, in short, no virtue or vice. In this paper, I critically assess his argument as well as that of the social psychologists he appeals to. I suggest that the experimental results recounted by Harman would not much concern such classical virtue theorists as Plato—particularly the Plato of the (...)
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  44. John M. Doris (2014). Lack of Character: Personality and Moral Behavior. Cambridge University Press.
    This book is a provocative contribution to contemporary ethical theory challenging foundational conceptions of character that date back to Aristotle. John Doris draws on behavioral science, especially social psychology, to argue that we misattribute the causes of behavior to personality traits and other fixed aspects of character rather than to the situational context. More often than not it is the situation not the nature of the personality that really counts. The author elaborates the philosophical consequences of this research for a (...)
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  45. John M. Doris (2005). Précis of Lack of Character. [REVIEW] Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 71 (3):632–635.
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  46. John M. Doris (2002). Lack of Character: Personality and Moral Behavior. Cambridge University Press.
    This book is a provocative contribution to contemporary ethical theory challenging foundational conceptions of character that date back to Aristotle. John Doris draws on behavioral science, especially social psychology, to argue that we misattribute the causes of behavior to personality traits and other fixed aspects of character rather than to the situational context. More often than not it is the situation not the nature of the personality that really counts. The author elaborates the philosophical consequences of this research for a (...)
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  47. John M. Doris (2002). Lack of Character: Personality and Moral Behavior. Cambridge University Press.
    This book is a provocative contribution to contemporary ethical theory challenging foundational conceptions of character that date back to Aristotle. John Doris draws on behavioral science, especially social psychology, to argue that we misattribute the causes of behavior to personality traits and other fixed aspects of character rather than to the situational context. More often than not it is the situation not the nature of the personality that really counts. The author elaborates the philosophical consequences of this research for a (...)
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  48. John M. Doris (1998). Persons, Situations, and Virtue Ethics. Noûs 32 (4):504-530.
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  49. John M. Doris & Dominic Murphy (2007). From My Lai to Abu Ghraib: The Moral Psychology of Atrocity. Midwest Studies in Philosophy 31 (1):25–55.
    While nothing justifies atrocity, many perpetrators manifest cognitive impairments that profoundly degrade their capacity for moral judgment, and such impairments, we shall argue, preclude the attribution of moral responsibility.
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  50. Abrol Fairweather & Carlos Montemayor (2013). Inferential Abilities and Common Epistemic Goods. Naturalizing Epistemic Virtue (CUP).
    While the situationist challenge has been prominent in philosophical literature in ethics for over a decade, only recently has it been extended to virtue epistemology . Alfano argues that virtue epistemology is shown to be empirically inadequate in light of a wide range of results in social psychology, essentially succumbing to the same argument as virtue ethics. We argue that this meeting of the twain between virtue epistemology and social psychology in no way signals the end of virtue epistemology, but (...)
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