Situationism and Virtue Theory

Oxford Bibliographies in Philosophy (2013)
Abstract
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 but also Mark Alfano and Peter Vranas, have argued that there is a tension between these two independently attractive positions. Normative ethics seems incomplete or even indefensible if it refers only to the rightness or wrongness of actions and the goodness or badness of states; we care not only about these punctate phenomena but also about laudable, longitudinal dispositions like honesty, courage, compassion, open-mindedness, and curiosity. However, according to these philosophers, decades-worth of psychological research provides robust support for situationism. Given the plausible assumption that a credible moral ideal is one that most people can aspire to and perhaps even attain, virtue theory and situationism appear to be on a collision course. The dispute between virtue ethicists and situationists unfolded over the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century. It continues today: Some disputants have attempted to find a middle way, and the empirical adequacy of virtue epistemology has also been called into question.
Keywords virtue  situationism
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