Do We Really Have Any Character Traits?

On the existence of character.

Posted Apr 13, 2012

Philosophers as far back as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle have been interested in character. Aristotle, for example, claimed that our best chance at being deeply fulfilled as human beings is to acquire and practice the intellectual and moral virtues. We need practical wisdom, honesty, courage, generosity, and other virtues to flourish. This assumes that humans do in fact embody virtues; but this view has come under challenge in recent years.

The situationist challenge in its strongest form holds that "despite appearances, there is no empirical support for the existence of character may even be the case that there is no such thing as character, no ordinary character traits of the sort people think there are, none of the usual moral virtues and vices."1 Experiments have been done which are then used to support such claims. The circumstances which an individiual person is in are better predictors of how that person will act in a given situation, and not the alleged virtues he or she is thought to possess. For example, in one experiment a person drops a folder of papers right outside a phone booth in a shopping area, in front of a subject leaving the phone booth. In 14 of 16 cases, when the experimenters placed a dime in the phone booth coin return, the subject helped pick up the papers. In only 1 of 25 cases when no coin was placed there did the subject engage in helping behavior. The presence or absence of a dime correlated much more highly than any general trait of helping behavior in individuals. The upshot is that we are not helpful, but rather are somehow moved to help when something good happens to us, like finding a dime in a coin return.

There are several ways of responding to what is called the situationist challenge to virtue theory.2 One is to simply accept the claim, and view virtues and vices as mythical attributions. No one really has any character traits. A second response is to apply virtue and vice descriptions only to actions or attitudes at some given point in time, and not take them to be enduring traits of an individual person's character. Third, one could claim that the evidence fails to undermine a classical understanding of virtues as enduring traits of character. Virtue is rare, and so those who are truly morally excellent are uncommon. They are uncommon enough that they would be statistically insignificant in the studies undergirding the situationist challenge.

Fourth, there is the response favored by Robert Adams:

"there are real moral virtues that are not extremely rare and that play a part in a wide variety of human lives...this requires a conception of virtues that allows for virtues that are frail and fragmentary in various ways."

The idea, then, is that character traits exist, but we are influenced by the particular circumstances which we find ourselves in, which is not surprising given our relationship to our environment. I tend to agree with Adams here, though I think that something like the third response is also part of the story. To be honest, I'm still working through my own views about these issues, but I find the study of character from a variety of perspectives and academic disciplines to be fascinating.

Perhaps, practically speaking, James Keenan is correct when he writes: "For the honest person, the virtues are not what we acquire in life; they are what we pursue."3

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1Gilbert Harman, "Moral Philosophy Meets Moral Psychology," Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (1999), pp. 330, 316.

2Robert Adams, A Theory of Virtue (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), ch. 8.

3Paul and Virtue Ethics (Sheed and Ward, 2010), p. 4.