Skepticism about Character Traits

Journal of Ethics 13 (2/3):235 - 242 (2009)
Abstract
The first part of this article discusses recent skepticism about character traits. The second describes various forms of virtue ethics as reactions to such skepticism. The philosopher J.-P. Sartre argued in the 1940s that character traits are pretenses, a view that the sociologist E. Goffman elaborated in the 1950s. Since then social psychologists have shown that attributions of character traits tend to be inaccurate through the ignoring of situational factors. (Personality psychology has tended to concentrate on people's conceptions of personality and character rather than on the accuracy of these conceptions). Similarly, the political theorist R. Hardin has argued for situational explanations of bloody social disputes in the former Yugoslavia and in Africa, rather than explanations in terms of ethnic hatred for example. A version of virtue ethics might identify virtues as characteristics of acts rather than character traits, as traits consisting in actual regularities in behavior, or as robust dispositions that would manifest themselves also in counterfactual situations
Keywords Acts  Dispositions  E. Goffman  R. Hardin  J.-P. Sartre
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Gilbert Harman (1983). Human Flourishing, Ethics, and Liberty. Philosophy and Public Affairs 12 (4):307-322.

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