The situationist critique of virtue ethics
Traditional philosophical theories of virtue define a “virtue” as a species of character trait. Many contemporary philosophical theories of virtue follow suit, though not all do. Adopting this traditional definition exposes a theory of virtue to what has come to be known as the “situationist” critique of virtue ethics. To explain this critique, and to keep track of the ensuing debate, it helps to distinguish philosophical situationism from psychological situationism (compare Snow 2010). Psychological situationists are not philosophers and they make no philosophical claims. Rather, they belong to a particular experimental tradition within social psychology, a tradition that is opposed to traditional personality theory or “personology” (for an accessible introduction, see Ross and Nisbett 1991). Since they are the original situationists, I shall henceforth refer to psychological situationists as “situationists” tout court. Philosophical situationists - principally, Gilbert Harman (1999, 2000) and John Doris (1998, 2002) - reject theories of virtue that employ the traditional philosophical definition of ‘virtue.’ Specifically, they claim that such theories are “empirically inadequate” and their argument for this claim centrally appeals to the experimental results of situationism. It is their argument that constitutes the “situationist critique.”.
- The Cambridge Companion to Virtue Ethics
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