Skepticism about Character

Edited by Mark Alfano (Delft University of Technology, Australian Catholic University)
About this topic
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Key works John Doris's original paper on this topic is Doris 1998, which was quickly superseded by Doris 2002.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
Related categories

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  1. A Plague on Both Your Houses: Virtue Theory After Situationism and Repligate.Mark Alfano - forthcoming - Teoria.
    Virtues are dispositions that make their bearers admirable. Dispositions can be studied scientifically by systematically varying whether their alleged bearers are in (or take themselves to be in) the dispositions' eliciting conditions. In recent decades, empirically-minded philosophers looked to social and personality psychology to study the extent to which ordinary humans embody dispositions traditionally considered admirable in the Aristotelian tradition. This led some to conclude that virtues are not attainable ideals, and that we should focus our ethical reflection and efforts (...)
  2. Epistemic Situationism: An Extended Prolepsis.Mark Alfano - forthcoming - 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 (...)
  3. Can People Be Virtuous?Mark Alfano - forthcoming - In Current Controversies in Virtue Theory. Routledge.
  4. Friendship and the Structure of Trust.Mark Alfano - 2016 - In Alberto Masala & Jonathan Webber (eds.), From Personality to Virtue. Oxford University Press. pp. 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 (...)
  5. Current Controversies in Virtue Theory.Mark Alfano (ed.) - 2015 - 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 through (...)
  6. Ramsifying Virtue Theory.Mark Alfano - 2015 - In Current Controversies in Virtue Theory. Routledge. pp. 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 (...)
  7. What Are the Bearers of Virtues?Mark Alfano - 2014 - In Hagop Sarkissian & Jennifer Wright (eds.), Advances in Moral Psychology. Continuum. pp. 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. (...)
  8. Character as Moral Fiction.Mark Alfano - 2013 - 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 (...)
  9. Identifying and Defending the Hard Core of Virtue Ethics.Mark Alfano - 2013 - 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 (...)
  10. Expanding The Situationist Challenge To Responsibilist Virtue Epistemology.Mark Alfano - 2012 - 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 (...)
  11. Explaining Away Intuitions About Traits: Why Virtue Ethics Seems Plausible (Even If It Isn't).Mark Alfano - 2011 - 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 (...)
  12. Epistemic Situationism.Mark Alfano & Abrol Fairweather (eds.) - 2017 - 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 (...)
  13. Situationism and Virtue Theory.Mark Alfano & Abrol Fairweather - 2013 - 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 (...)
  14. Experimental Moral Philosophy.Mark Alfano & Don Loeb - 2014 - 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.
  15. The Nature of Psychological 'Traits.'.Anne Anastasi - 1948 - Psychological Review 55 (3):127-138.
  16. Review: Comments on John Doris's "Lack of Character". [REVIEW]Julia Annas - 2005 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 71 (3):636-642.
  17. Comments on John Doris's Lack of Character. [REVIEW]Julia Annas - 2005 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 71 (3):636–642.
  18. Virtue Ethics and Social Psychology.Julia Annas - 2003 - A Priori 2:20-34.
  19. Reply to Commentators.Julia Annas - 1995 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 55 (4):929 - 937.
    Response to Nancy Snow In Nancy’s impressive book she shows, through a thorough study of the philosophical debate about the position called ‘situationism’ and the psychological literature that supposedly based it, that there was a serious misconception right from the start among philosophers about the kind of disposition or trait which psychologists were concerned with. The kind of disposition the philosophers were rejecting was one taken to be expressed over a number of situations characterized from the outside, independently of the (...)
  20. Experiments in Ethics.Anthony Appiah - 2008 - 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'.
  21. Do Personality Traits Apply to Social Behaviour?Michael Argyle & Brian R. Little - 1972 - Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 2 (1):1-33.
  22. Reconciling Situational Social Psychology with Virtue Ethics.Surendra Arjoon - 2008 - 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 (...)
  23. Kwame Anthony Appiah, Experiments in Ethics Reviewed By.Darrell Arnold - 2010 - Philosophy in Review 30 (1):1-3.
  24. Review: Comments on "Lack of Character" by John Doris. [REVIEW]Nomy Arpaly & John Doris - 2005 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 71 (3):643-647.
  25. My Character: Enhancing Future Mindedness in Young People: A Feasibility Study.J. Arthur, T. Harrison, K. Kristjánsson, I. Davidson, D. Hayes & J. Higgins - unknown
    The aim of the My Character project was to develop a better understanding of how interventions designed to develop character might enhance moral formation and futuremindedness in young people. Futuremindedness can be defined as an individual’s capacity to set goals and make plans to achieve them. Establishing goals requires considerable moral reflection, and the achievement of worthwhile aims requires character traits such as courage and the capacity to delay gratification. The research team developed two new educational interventions – a website (...)
  26. Character Education in UK Schools: Research Report.James Arthur, Kristján Kristjánsson, David Walker, Wouter Sanderse & Chantel Jones - unknown
    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 (...)
  27. A Response to Harman: Virtue Ethics and Character Traits.Nafsika Athanassoulis - 2000 - Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 100 (2):215–221.
  28. A Response to Harman: Virtue Ethics and Character Traits: Discusions.Nafsika Athanassoulis - 2000 - Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 100 (2):215-221.
  29. A Response to Harman: Virtue Ethics and Character Traits.Nafsika Athanassoulis - 2000 - Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 100 (2):215-221.
  30. Personality and Will.Francis Aveling - 1931 - Philosophy 6 (24):515-517.
  31. Thinking Twice About Virtue and Vice.Guy Axtell - manuscript
    [FREE PUBLISHED VERSION AT LINK BELOW]. 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 (...)
  32. Agency Ascriptions in Ethics and Epistemology: Or, Navigating Intersections, Narrow and Broad.Guy Axtell - 2010 - Metaphilosophy 41 (1-2):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 (...)
  33. The Milgram Experiments, Learned Helplessness, and Character Traits.Neera K. Badhwar - 2009 - The 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 (...)
  34. Mixed Traits and Dispositions: Critical Discussion of Christian Miller, ‘Moral Character: An Empirical Theory’ and ‘Character and Moral Psychology’.Tom Bates - 2015 - Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 18 (2):421-424.
    “Moral Character: An Empirical Theory” and “Character and Moral Psychology” represent part of the research output of the Templeton-funded Character Project, which was headed by Christian Miller. In ‘Moral Character’, Miller develops his “mixed trait” account of character. The first two parts consist in conceptual background and the empirical grounding for his account . In part three Miller develops and describes his account, before showing the extent of its application in part four . In ‘Character and Moral Psychology”, he gives (...)
  35. Virtue, Vice, and Situationism.Tom Bates & Pauline Kleingeld - 2018 - In Nancy E. Snow (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Virtue. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 524-545.
    On the basis of psychological research, a group of philosophers known as 'situationists' argue that the evidence belies the existence of broad and stable (or 'global') character traits. They argue that this condemns as psychologically unrealistic those traditions in moral theory in which global virtues are upheld as ideals. After a survey of the debate to date, this article argues that the thesis of situationism is ill-supported by the available evidence. Situationists overlook the explanatory potential of a large class of (...)
  36. Virtue, Situationism, and the Cognitive Value of Art.Jacob Berger & Mark Alfano - 2016 - The Monist 99 (2):144-158.
    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, (...)
  37. Evil Behaviour and Character: Virtue Ethics Versus Social Psychology.Sandrine Berges - 2002 - 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, (...)
  38. Social Psychology, Moral Character, and Moral Fallibility.Lorraine Besser-jones - 2008 - 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 (...)
  39. Review of John M. Doris, Lack of Character: Personality and Moral Behavior[REVIEW]Lawrence Blum - 2003 - Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews 2003 (8).
  40. Dilemmas for the Rarity Thesis in Virtue Ethics and Virtue Epistemology.J. S. Blumenthal-Barby - forthcoming - 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 (...)
  41. Review of Naturalizing Epistemic Virtue. [REVIEW]Cameron Boult - 2017 - Journal of Moral Philosophy 14 (5):604-607.
  42. Situationism, Responsibility, and Fair Opportunity.David O. Brink - 2013 - 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 (...)
  43. Situationism, Responsibility, and Fair Opportunity.David O. Brink - 2013 - 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 (...)
  44. Aristotelian Virtue Ethics and the Normativity Challenge.Étienne Brown - 2016 - Dialogue 55 (1):131-150.
    Aristotelian virtue theorists are currently engaged in a discussion with philosophers who use psychological findings to question some of their main assumptions. In this article, I present and argue against one of these psychological challenges—Jesse Prinz’s Normativity Challenge—which rests on the claim that findings in cultural psychology contradict the Aristotelian thesis that the normativity of virtues derives from nature. First, I demonstrate that the Normativity Challenge is based on three problematic assumptions about contemporary Aristotelianism. Second, I argue that it presupposes (...)
  45. Review: Lack of Character, John Doris. [REVIEW]Sylvia Burrow - 2003 - Metapsychology Online Review 7 (11).
  46. Situationist Social Psychology and J. S. Mill's Conception of Character.Robert F. Card - 2010 - 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 (...)
  47. A Situationist Lesson for Character Education: Re‐Conceptualising the Inculcation of Virtues by Converting Local Virtues to More Global Ones.Yi‐Lin Chen - 2015 - 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 (...)
  48. The Implications of Ego Depletion for the Ethics and Politics of Manipulation.Michael Cholbi - 2014 - In C. Coons M. E. Weber (ed.), Manipulation:Theory and Practice. Oxford University Press. pp. 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 (...)
  49. Iskra Fileva : Questions of Character. [REVIEW]Emil Hallgren Christiansen - 2017 - Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 20 (5):1087-1089.
  50. The Meaning of Situationism.Michelle Ciurria - 2015 - Teaching Ethics 15 (1):137-150.
    This paper is about the meaning of situationism. Philosophers have drawn various conclusions about situationism, some more favourable than others. Moreover, there is a difference between public reception of situationism, which has been very enthusiastic, and scholarly reception, which has been more cynical. In this paper, I outline what I take to be four key implications of situationism, based on careful scrutiny of the literature. Some situationist accounts, it turns out, are inconsistent with others, or incongruous with the logic of (...)
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