Reasonable Dispositions: A Response To The Situationist Critique Of Virtue Ethics
In The Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle presents a theory of ethics as the development of character, specifically the cultivation of particular character traits lying on the mean between two vices which he calls the virtues. Since the revival of virtue ethics in the mid-20th century, the virtues have often been interpreted as stable, broad-based dispositions to act in virtue appropriate fashion in response to eliciting conditions. In more recent years virtue ethics has come under a sustained attack known as the ‘situationist critique’, which argues that experiments in social psychology show no evidence of broad-based dispositions in the general population. If there are no broad-based dispositions, there are no virtues – virtue ethics is therefore empirically inadequate. My analysis of the evidence the situationists present in favour of their critique will show that it fails to unambiguously support the conclusion that virtue ethics is empirically inadequate. An investigation into the causes of the ethical failings identified in those experiments allowed me to propose remedies that are perfectly consonant with Aristotelian virtue ethics, requiring dedicated and disciplined reflection on past actions with an ongoing commitment to bringing our thoughts and emotions into harmony with our values. In the process I show that the situationists’ evidence supports the “cognitive-affective” theory of virtue over the broad-based dispositional theory, that this cognitive-affective theory is also supported by a careful reading of Aristotle, and therefore that the situationist critique simply helps to replace an inadequate virtue theory with a more robust one.