Is There Anything Such as Moral Character? Discussion with Situationist Critique of Virtue Ethics

NCN (National Science Center, Poland) 2011/01/B/HS1/00522 (2011-15)

The title of the research project “Is there anything like moral character?” might be surprising. One might ask why at all ask such a question. Does not everyone have character, which allows us to describe them? Virtue ethicists share this intuition and claim that the most important thing in our lives is to perfect our moral character by acquiring ethical virtues such as benevolence, honesty, courage, or justice.

However, situationists – ethicists who were inspired by the research results in social psychology – have questioned the existence of what we call moral character. They claim that admitting the existence of character and its features is a result of attribution error because in fact people are indeterminate in moral terms, “neither good nor bad, not even something in between.” Situationists argue that it is the situation in which people happen to be placed which determines the way of their behavior.

The aim of my project was to debate the situationistic criticism of virtue ethics. I have demonstrated that the experimental and correlative research, on which the situationists base their claims, do not allow one to question the existence of moral character and its features. I have also presented a few empirically based psychological theories which confirm the basic presumptions of virtue ethics, for example cognitive-affective personality system proposed by Walter Mischel; double-processual theory of mind by Daniel Kahneman; the theory od will as self-control by Roy Baumeister. I have also pointed at the analogy between ethical virtues and expert skills, such as musical virtuosity, skilled surgeon, computer programmer, etc. These skills may also be understood as relatively wide cognitive-affective dispositions, partly automatized but not reducible to simple habits, and requiring constant perfecting.

My research has shown that Aristotle’s intuitions, whose ethics is an inspiration to contemporary virtue ethicists, is in accordance with the latest research results in psychology. These results also point at the existence of numerous automatic processes which take over the control over human behavior when the resources of conscious will or attention are exhausted. Therefore there is a real need of instalment of such mechanisms, which take over the control when taking conscious decisions becomes difficult or impossible because of for example high level of stress.

The discussion with situationism shows that the ethicists cannot anymore work in isolation from empirical research, they need to open their theories to the results in other disciplines which also focus on human beings. Ethicists who form moral norms and ideals must be aware of physiological and psychological possibilities and limitations of humans so as not to require of them something which humans, because of their limitations, would not be able to accomplish.