Re–evaluating the situationist challenge to virtue epistemology

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The situationist challenge to virtue theory initially arose with respect to virtue ethics. In broad terms, virtue ethicists treat the character traits of the agent – specifically, her moral virtues – as fundamental to their ethical theory. The morally good person is the morally virtuous person, where this means an agent possessing the moral virtues and who thus acts appropriately across a range of different situations where morally relevant action is called for. So, for example, the good person will characteristically respond to seeing a person in need by helping them, where their good actions arise out of their recognition that the person is in need and that they ought to help them. In this way, virtue ethicists make essential appeal to stable character traits (i.e. virtues) in setting out their view. It is precisely this element of the proposal that situationists object to, in that they claim that findings from recent studies in empirical psychology demonstrate that agents do not in general possess such character traits, and instead mostly act in response to particular features of the situation in hand. Here, for example, is Gilbert Harman’s summary of the situationist thesis:. We very confidently attribute character traits to other people in order to explain their behaviour. But our attributions tend to be wildly incorrect and, in fact, there is no evidence that people differ in their character traits. They differ in their situations and in their perceptions of their situations. They differ in their goals, strategies, neuroses, optimism, etc. But character traits do not explain what differences there are. The studies which putatively support this claim are extensive. They demonstrate that how a subject responds to a situation is in fact highly sensitive to features of the situation (or perceived features of the situation), including features of the situation of which they may be consciously unaware. Such influencing situational factors include such things as ambient odors and sounds, weather conditions, and the presence of bystanders, to list just three. Situationists therefore claim that what explains a subject’s actions is not their character (where this involves stable character traits of a virtue-theoretic kind), or not normally their character anyway, but rather how they are responding to the particular situation in hand.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationNaturalizing epistemic virtue
EditorsAbrol Fairweather, Owen Flanagan
Place of PublicationNew York
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages12
ISBN (Electronic)9781139236348
ISBN (Print)9781107028579
Publication statusPublished - 2014
Externally publishedYes


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