Virtue, Virtue Skepticism, and the Milgram Studies

Philosophy in the Contemporary World 14 (Fall 2007):50-59 (2007)
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ABSTRACT: Virtue, the centerpiece of ancient ethics, has come under attack by virtue skeptics impressed by results of psychology experiments including Milgram's obedience studies. The virtue skeptic argues that experimental findings suggest that character structures are so fragile vis-å-vis situational factors as to be explanatorily superfluous: virtues and robust character traits are a myth, and should be replaced by situation-specific "narrow dispositions" (Gilbert Harman) or "local traits" (John Doris). This paper argues that the virtue skeptics' sweeping claims are ill-founded. First, blending Aristotelian and contemporary insights about virtue, I reach a decision about a reasonable, non-straw definition of "virtue" and of "character trait." Next, I argue that explanations give by Lee Ross and Richard Nisbett for the Milgram findings covertly invoke character traits. Reflection reveals that more robust, cross-situationally consistent traits are needed for explanation of subject behavior, and that it is reasonable to suppose that such traits were in place.



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Deborah Zeller
University of North Carolina (System)

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