We are pleased to present our next installment of PEA Soup's collaboration with Ethics, in which we host a discussion of one article from each volume of the journal. The article selected from Volume 121, Issue 2, is Edward Slingerland’s “The Situationist Critique and Early Confucian Virtue Ethics” open access copy here). We are very grateful to Rachana Kamtekar for starting our discussion; her commentary follows beneath the fold…
In ‘The situationist critique and early Confucian virtue ethics’, Edward Slingerland (henceforth ‘S.’) defends the empirical viability of virtue ethics. According to philosophical situationists like Gil Harman and John Doris, empirical psychology shows that people’s behaviour is much better predicted by features of their situations than it is by alleged features of their character: in similar situations, people tend to behave similarly; and variance in people’s behaviour is better explained by variance in their situations (or perceived situations) than by variance in their character-traits (such as whether they are honest or not, courageous or not, etc.) While people’s behaviour is highly consistent across narrowly-construed situations—so, for example, people who do not cheat on one exam will not cheat on others, although they may very well tell a lie or keep a found wallet—Harman and Doris do not count narrowly situation-specific dispositions as character traits: it is honesty, not honesty-in-exams, that is a character-trait. S. first criticizes the Doris-Harman position on empirical and conceptual grounds and then, having identified as the ‘core’ situationist complaint that virtue ethics ‘sets the bar for virtue too high’, argues that the practices prescribed by early Confucian virtue ethics, of life-long practice and regulation (of who one’s friends are, how one dresses, etc.), both ‘enhance the jump’ and ‘lower the bar’ to enable individuals to cross the hurdle of virtue. This is an intriguing perspective, but the role of this piece is to spark discussion, so I will focus on what seem to me problems with the paper—first in its diagnosis of situationism’s errors and second on its use of Confucian virtue ethics.
According to S., the only live issue in the person-situation debate is whether people have broad dispositions such as the disposition to behave aggressively, or only narrow dispositions such as the tendency to be verbally aggressive when chastised by an adult on the playground but not when approached by a peer.
Against the situationists’ finding that the correlation between one trait-relevant behaviour and another, in a relevantly similar situation, is a low 0.3, S. argues (1) that repeated trait-relevant behaviours are better predictors of behaviour in a relevantly similar situation, (2) that personality psychology’s ‘Big 5’ personality traits—openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism—show considerable stability, and (3) that the correlation between chemotherapy and positive outcomes is 0.02 or 0.03, and the difference between the batting averages of the best and worst hitters in baseball history is 0.144: these ‘low’ correlations, he says, are good reasons to undergo chemotherapy or prefer the best over the worst hitter, so why isn’t a 0.3 correlation good reason to entrust my wallet to the student who hasn’t cheated on exams?
Point (1) above is correct and was made by Epstein in the 1980’s. Points (2) and (3) do not help S.’s case. Against (2): the ‘Big 5’ stable personality traits do not seem like the ingredients of virtue (especially not if their stability is a function of genetics, as S. suggests). Against (3): whether a correlation gives us good reason to act or not depends in part on the value of the outcomes to us: given that surviving cancer or a Pro baseball victory are hugely desirable outcomes, even a low correlation between a course of action and success counts as a good reason to prefer that course of action. (However, the 0.144 difference in batting averages is a difference between a player batting at 0.344 and another batting at 0.200—so the better player is batting nearly 75% better than the worse!) But the psychologists’ concern with correlations is theoretical, viz., how predictive is behaviour A in situation S1 of behaviour A in situation S2? (And if the expectation was 1, then 0.3 is low; also, to be correct we should say, instead of ‘P is honest’, ‘P is honest 30% of the time’ or ‘P is 30% honest’). As moral agents we are not going to be satisfied with a 0.3 correlation either: if we want to be honest, or for our friends to be honest, we want honesty all the time, across situations.
Or do we? S. also makes a ‘conceptual’ (or to my mind, ‘historical’) point. The traditional virtue terms, S. says, originally had their home in a narrow context, and had a narrow scope, because they arose and functioned in highly structured societies—unlike their folk psychological counterparts today. So for example, in early Confucian writers, xin, trustworthiness, is the trait a gentleman shows in his professional behaviour towards his colleagues, superiors and inferiors—but carries no implication that the trustworthy gentleman is trustworthy in his sexual relations. This is an important and complex issue. Is it that the virtue terms have lost their moorings? On the one hand, as S. observes, even today, ‘honest’ said of a mechanic bears on the mechanic’s professional conduct but not his sexual morals. On the other hand, if a man who happens to be a mechanic is called honest, that could be challenged on the basis of his sexual morals. But this is not a modern phenomenon: Plato’s use of dikaiosunê in the Republic perennially raises the question with readers whether ‘justice’ or ‘righteousness’ or ‘morality’ is the appropriate translation. Perhaps virtue-concepts are always open to extension out of their original sphere of application.
To show that at least Confucian virtue ethics can address the worry that ‘the bar for virtue is set too high’, S. argues that virtue ethics can ‘enhance the jump’: intensive, life-long, highly regimented training such as that advocated by early Confucians would make it possible for those who engage in it to behave with greater cross-situational consistency than can those with only untutored natural dispositions (so the idea may be that the Big 5 traits yield 0.3 consistency and training can increase it). As S. recognizes, this is an empirical claim, and he calls for empirical investigation. It is worth raising the issue of whether what Confucian virtue ethics produces is what Maria Merritt has called ‘situationally sustained’ virtue: dispositions that depend for their continued existence on situational and especially social factors. S. also thinks virtue ethics can ‘enhance the jump’ because it is possible to generalize narrow virtuous dispositions. S. cites work discussed by Nancy Snow on successes with conscious control over prejudice; it’s worth noting, however, that Snow does not think virtue can be like this—and neither should S., given his opening comments on the demise of cognitive control models of ethics. (Instead, according to Snow, virtue is a habit, consisting of virtue-related goals, the representations of which are automatically activated into an appropriate behavioural response when the agent is presented with a situational trigger.)
Although I am only able to consult a translation, I question S.’s reading of Mencius’ encounter with King Hsüan of Ch’i (Mencius I.A.7) as a case of generalizing local virtues. To show King Hsüan that he in fact has the capacity to feel compassion towards his subjects, Mencius recalls that when the King saw a distressed ox off to slaughter he ordered that a sheep be substituted in its place. Mencius identifies the king’s response as compassion, adding that if the king can feel for an ox he can certainly feel for his people, just as if you can lift a heavy weight you can lift a feather, and if you can see a fine hair you can see a cartload of firewood. S. says what Mencius has done is to ‘turn the King’s quite narrow—and to Mencius’s mind, at least, ethically irrelevant—disposition to feel empathy for an animal into a broader disposition to feel empathy for suffering humans.’ But Mencius does not characterize what he is doing as broadening a narrow disposition; rather, he is pointing out that the King (who had asked about his ability to bring peace to the people) already has the capacity to be compassionate to his people—indeed, Mencius follows the analogy between the cartload and the hair by distinguishing between an inability to act and a refusal to act, suggesting that the king’s inaction is willful, perhaps involving some hypocrisy or self-deception.
A more open-ended question about Confucian virtue ethics concerns S.’s idea that attention to social role, dress, color, sound, correct names, and so on, indicates Confucian sensitivity to situational effects on our dispositions and behaviour. But is the Confucian attention to these things instrumental to producing good moral dispositions and behaviour or is it that for a Confucian, good dispositions and behaviour consist in part in behaving as one’s social role demands, dressing appropriately, etc.?