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Key works John Doris's original paper on this topic is Doris 1998, which was quickly superseded by Doris 2002.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
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  1. added 2018-11-03
    Realistic Virtues and How to Study Them: Introducing the STRIVE-4 Model.Bradford Cokelet & Blaine J. Fowers - forthcoming - Journal of Moral Education:1-20.
    This article argues that ordinary virtue trait attributions presuppose the existence of realistic traits that fall short of, for example, Aristotelian ideals and that debate about the existence of virtue traits should be reoriented in the light of this fact. After clarifying and motivating that basic thesis, we discuss what the existing psychological research shows about the existence of realistic traits and how future psychological research could be designed to show more. Our first conclusion is that current psychological research (weakly) (...)
  2. added 2018-08-20
    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 (...)
  3. added 2018-07-22
    Some Complexities of Categorizing Character Traits.Christian Miller - forthcoming - In Elisa Grimi (ed.), Virtue Ethics: Retrospect and Prospect.
    With the explosion of interest in virtue and virtue ethics, one set of issues that has been comparatively neglected is how to categorize moral character traits. This paper distinguishes three approaches – what I call the Stoic, personality psychology, and Aristotelian – and critically assesses each of them. The Stoic approaches denies that virtues come in degrees. There is perfect virtue or nothing at all. The personality psychology approach denies that virtues have thresholds. So everyone has all the virtues to (...)
  4. added 2018-07-22
    Virtue and Positive Psychology: Some Concerns About the VIA Classification of Character Traits.Christian Miller - forthcoming - Journal of Positive Psychology.
    Written from the perspective of a philosopher, this paper raises a number of potential concerns with how the VIA classifies and the VIA-IS measures character traits. With respect to the 24 character strengths, concerns are raised about missing strengths, the lack of vices, conflicting character strengths, the unclear connection between character strengths and virtues, and the misclassification of some character strengths under certain virtues. With respect to the 6 virtues, concerns are raised about conflicting virtues, the absence of practical wisdom, (...)
  5. added 2018-04-05
    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 (...)
  6. added 2018-03-05
    How Little We Know About Character.Christian B. Miller - 2018 - The Philosophers' Magazine 80:58-63.
    These are early days in the philosophical study of character. We know very little about what most peoples’ character looks like. Important virtues are surprisingly neglected. There are almost no strategies advanced by philosophers today for improving character. We have a long way to go.
  7. added 2018-02-17
    Virtuous Act, Virtuous Dispositions.Thomas Hurka - 2006 - Analysis 66 (1):69-76.
    Everyday moral thought uses the concepts of virtue and vice at two different levels. At what I will call a global level it applies these concepts to persons or to stable character traits or dispositions. Thus we may say that a person is brave or has a standing trait of generosity or malice. But we also apply these concepts more locally, to specific acts or mental states such as occurrent desires or feelings. Thus we may say that a particular act (...)
  8. added 2018-02-16
    Scepticism About Virtue and the Five-Factor Model of Personality.Panos Paris - 2017 - Utilitas 29 (4):423-452.
    Considerable progress in personality and social psychology has been largely ignored by philosophers, many of whom still remain sceptical concerning whether the conception of character presupposed by virtue theory is descriptively adequate. Here, I employ the five-factor model of personality, currently the consensus view in personality psychology, to respond to a strong reading of the situationist challenge, whereby most people lack dispositions that are both cross-situationally consistent and temporally stable. I show that situationists rely on a false dichotomy between character (...)
  9. added 2018-02-08
    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 (...)
  10. added 2018-02-02
    Kwame Anthony Appiah, Experiments in Ethics Reviewed By.Darrell Arnold - 2010 - Philosophy in Review 30 (1):1-3.
  11. added 2017-11-19
    Iskra Fileva : Questions of Character. [REVIEW]Emil Hallgren Christiansen - 2017 - Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 20 (5):1087-1089.
  12. added 2017-05-31
    Character and Moral Psychology.Christian Miller - 2014 - Oxford University Press.
    This book first reviews Miller's theory of Mixed Traits, as developed in his 2013 book Moral Character: An Empirical Theory. It then engages extensively with situations, the CAPS model in social psychology, and the Big Five Model in personality psychology. It ends by taking up implications for his view in meta-ethics (a modified error theory) and normative ethics (a challenge for virtue ethics).
  13. added 2017-05-30
    Character and Situationism: New Directions.Christian Miller - 2017 - Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 20 (3):459-471.
    The early work by Gilbert Harman and John Doris on character and situationism has fostered a vast literature over the past 15 years. Yet despite all this work, there are many important issues which remain largely unexplored. The goal of this paper is to briefly outline eight promising research directions: neglected moral virtues, neglected non-moral virtues, virtue assessment and measurement, replication, non-Aristotelian virtue ethics, positive accounts of character trait possession, prescriptive situationism, and virtue cultivation.
  14. added 2017-05-15
    Replies: Evidence and Sensibility. [REVIEW]John M. Doris - 2005 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 71 (3):656–677.
  15. added 2017-05-10
    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 (...)
  16. added 2017-05-10
    A Response to Harman: Virtue Ethics and Character Traits: Discusions.Nafsika Athanassoulis - 2000 - Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 100 (2):215-221.
  17. added 2017-05-10
    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 (...)
  18. added 2017-05-10
    Do Personality Traits Apply to Social Behaviour?Michael Argyle & Brian R. Little - 1972 - Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 2 (1):1-33.
  19. added 2017-05-10
    The Nature of Psychological 'Traits.'.Anne Anastasi - 1948 - Psychological Review 55 (3):127-138.
  20. added 2017-05-10
    Personality and Will.Francis Aveling - 1931 - Philosophy 6 (24):515-517.
  21. added 2017-03-27
    A Limited Skeptical Threat. [REVIEW]Joshua May - 2018 - Behavioral and Brain Sciences 41:35-6.
    Doris argues that our choices are heavily influenced by forces that we wouldn’t count as genuine reasons. This unsettling conclusion is motivated by a debunking argument so wide-ranging that it isn’t foisted upon us by the sciences. Doris sometimes seems to lower his ambitions when offering instead a skeptical hypothesis argument, but that conflicts with his aims in the book.
  22. added 2017-02-16
    Judging Human Character.H. L. Hollingworth - 1923 - Journal of Philosophy 20 (14):384-385.
  23. added 2017-02-16
    The Essentials of Character.Edward O. Sisson - 1912 - Philosophical Review 21 (6):717-718.
  24. added 2017-02-15
    Moral Character: An Empirical Theory By Christian B. MillerCharacter and Moral Psychology By Christian B. Miller.Nancy E. Schauber - 2015 - Analysis 75 (1):172-175.
  25. added 2017-02-14
    Review: Mark Alfano, Character as Moral Fiction. [REVIEW]Review by: Candace L. Upton - 2014 - Ethics 124 (3):598-602,.
  26. added 2017-02-14
    Sophia Vasalou, Moral Agents and Their Deserts: The Character of Mu'tazilite Ethics.Jamie Schillinger - 2009 - Philosophy in Review 29 (5):380.
  27. added 2017-02-14
    The in di s Pen s Ability of Character.J. J. Kuppcrman - 2001 - Philosophy 76:239-250.
  28. added 2017-02-12
    “May You Live in Interesting Times”: Moral Philosophy and Empirical Psychology.Nancy E. Snow - 2013 - Journal of Moral Philosophy 10 (3):339-353.
    The Moral Psychology Handbook is a contribution to a relatively new genre of philosophical writing, the “handbook.” In the first section, I comment on an expectation about handbooks, namely that handbooks contain works representative of a field, and raise concerns about The Moral Psychology Handbook in this regard. In the rest of the article I comment in detail on two Handbook articles, “Moral Motivation” by Timothy Schroeder, Adina Roskies, and Shaun Nichols, and “Character” by Maria W. Merritt, John M. Doris, (...)
  29. added 2017-02-10
    In Defence of Aristotle on Character: Toward a Synthesis of Recent Psychology, Neuroscience and the Thought of Michael Polanyi.Paul Lewis - 2012 - Journal of Moral Education 41 (2):155-170.
    In the United States, various forms of character education have become popular in both elementary and professional education. They are often criticised, however, for their reliance on Aristotle, who is said to be problematic at several points. In response to these criticisms, I argue that Aristotle?s ancient account of character and its formation remains viable in light of work over the last decade in psychology and the neurosciences. However, some lacunae remain that can at least be partially filled with insights (...)
  30. added 2017-01-29
    Doris Olin, Paradox. [REVIEW]John Cook - 2005 - Philosophy in Review 25:422-424.
  31. added 2017-01-27
    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 (...)
  32. added 2017-01-26
    Lack of Character. Personality and Moral Behavior.Tim Smits - 2002 - Ethical Perspectives 13 (3):559-561.
  33. added 2017-01-22
    Review: Précis of "Lack of Character". [REVIEW]John M. Doris - 2005 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 71 (3):632 - 635.
  34. added 2017-01-21
    Lack of Character: Personality and Moral Behavior. [REVIEW]P. B. M. Vranas - 2004 - Philosophical Review 113 (2):284-288.
  35. added 2017-01-19
    Lack of Character: Personality and Moral Behavior. [REVIEW]Candace Upton - 2005 - Journal of Value Inquiry 39 (3-4):507-512.
  36. added 2017-01-18
    The Dialectic of the Situation: Some Notes on Situational Psychology: Discussion.Paul Meadows - 1945 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 5 (3):354-365.
  37. added 2017-01-17
    Aristotelian Moral Psychology and the Situationist Challenge.Adam M. Croom - 2015 - Polish Psychological Bulletin 46 (2):262-277.
    For some time now moral psychologists and philosophers have ganged up on Aristotelians, arguing that results from psychological studies on the role of character-based and situation-based influences on human behavior have convincingly shown that situations rather than personal characteristics determine human behavior. In the literature on moral psychology and philosophy this challenge is commonly called the “situationist challenge,” and as Prinz has previously explained, it has largely been based on results from four salient studies in social psychology, including the studies (...)
  38. added 2017-01-16
    A Response to Harman: Virtue Ethics and Character Traits.Nafsika Athanassoulis - 2000 - Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 100 (2):215-221.
  39. added 2017-01-15
    Defending Virtue Against the Situationist Challenge.Justin Matchulat - 2014 - Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 88:245-258.
    My essay addresses the situationist critique of virtue ethics. I defend a rarity of virtue response to this critique, but blunt its tip by developing an account of degrees of virtue. On this account, full virtue will indeed be a statistical rarity, but lesser degrees of virtue more common. I argue for this degreed conception of virtue both on historical and systematic grounds: historically, I show that Aristotle and especially Aquinas thought of virtue as being the sort of property that (...)
  40. added 2017-01-14
    Talking to Our Selves: Reflection, Ignorance, and Agency, by Doris, John M. [REVIEW]Neil Levy - 2016 - Australasian Journal of Philosophy 94 (3):605-608.
  41. added 2017-01-14
    Re-Conceiving Character: The Social Ontology of Humean Virtue.Glen Pettigrove - 2015 - Res Philosophica 92 (3):595-619.
  42. added 2017-01-14
    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 (...)
  43. added 2017-01-14
    Christian B. Miller, Moral Character: An Empirical Theory. Reviewed By.Daniel Putman - 2015 - Philosophy in Review 35 (4):217-219.
    Christian Miller's book makes extensive use of the data on human behavior and motivation from psychological studies in the last 50-60 years and applies that information to the analysis of character. The book begins with helping behavior and the analysis is then generalized to other character traits. Miller argues that an analysis of human character as having Mixed Character Traits is superior to the analysis of character using the traditional virtues. The review highlights the great value of combining the research (...)
  44. added 2017-01-14
    Answering the Situationist Challenge: A Defense of Virtue Ethics as Preferable to Other Ethical Theories.Michelle Ciurria - 2014 - Dialogue 53 (4):651-670.
  45. added 2016-12-12
    Virtue in Virtue Ethics.Joel J. Kupperman - 2009 - The Journal of Ethics 13 (2-3):243-255.
    This paper represents two polemics. One is against suggestions (made by Harman and others) that recent psychological research counts against any claim that there is such a thing as genuine virtue (Cf. Harman, in: Byrne, Stalnaker, Wedgwood (eds.) Fact and value, pp 117–127, 2001 ). The other is against the view that virtue ethics should be seen as competing against such theories as Kantian ethics or consequentialism, particularly in the specification of decision procedures.
  46. added 2016-12-08
    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 (...)
  47. added 2016-12-08
    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 (...)
  48. added 2016-12-08
    Disunity of Virtue.Gopal Sreenivasan - 2009 - The Journal of Ethics 13 (2-3):195-212.
    This paper argues against the unity of the virtues, while trying to salvage some of its attractive aspects. I focus on the strongest argument for the unity thesis, which begins from the premise that true virtue cannot lead its possessor morally astray. I suggest that this premise presupposes the possibility of completely insulating an agent’s set of virtues from any liability to moral error. I then distinguish three conditions that separately foreclose this possibility, concentrating on the proposition that there is (...)
  49. added 2016-12-08
    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 (...)
  50. added 2016-12-08
    The Normativity Challenge: Cultural Psychology Provides the Real Threat to Virtue Ethics.Jesse Prinz - 2009 - The Journal of Ethics 13 (2-3):117-144.
    Situationists argue that virtue ethics is empirically untenable, since traditional virtue ethicists postulate broad, efficacious character traits, and social psychology suggests that such traits do not exist. I argue that prominent philosophical replies to this challenge do not succeed. But cross-cultural research gives reason to postulate character traits, and this undermines the situationist critique. There is, however, another empirical challenge to virtue ethics that is harder to escape. Character traits are culturally informed, as are our ideals of what traits are (...)
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