Continuing with Dave Pizarro on articles by Stanley Milgram, Philip Zimbardo, and John Doris about situationism, which entails that people’s level of morality will vary by situation, as opposed to virtue ethics, which posits that how people will act in a novel situation will be determined by the quality of their character.
We get into Doris’s article, “Persons, Situations, and Virtue Ethics” (1998), where he argues against the traditional idea that we have virtues like “honesty.” Instead, these traits are more situation-specific, so even someone who doesn’t cheat on his or her taxes or spouse might well still steal candy. Doris sites a 1975 study by Levin and Isen where people who found a (planted) dime in a phone booth were much more likely to then help someone who dropped some papers as the subject was leaving the booth. Does this really show that helpfulness isn’t a stable virtue in people, or is something else going on here and in Milgram’s experiment? Does situationism excuse bad behavior? Would any one of us do just what most the citizens of Germany did during the Nazi regime if we were in that situation? Can we maybe train ourselves to better resist social pressure, not just in specific situations we’ve rehearsed in advance, but across the board?
End song: “Doing the Wrong Thing” by Kaki King, as heard on Nakedly Examined Music #54.