Recent debates in ethics and moral psychology have attempted to call into question the foundations of virtue theory by using empirical research from the social sciences. The situationists claim that virtue theory is empirically inadequate because although people’s behavior can be consistent in similar situations, it is often not consistent across different types of situations. Ross and Nisbett state that we cannot accurately predict how a particular person will respond in novel situations using information about that person’s dispositions or past behavior (Ross & Nisbett, 1991). They believe this suggests that there is no such thing as robust character traits and that, instead, behavior is influenced more by the situation than by individual differences (Doris, 1998). Not only do these situational factors affect our behavior, but they also claim that we are often unaware of the extent to which these factors influence us. This tendency to overlook the influence of situational factors is one component of the fundamental attribution error, what Ross and Nisbett define as “people’s inflated belief in the importance of personality traits and dispositions, together with their failure to recognize the importance of situational factors in affecting behavior” (Ross & Nisbett, 1991, p. 4).
If the situationist findings are accurate, this may create an epistemic worry for Aristotle’s account of virtue. Namely, if we are as unaware of our cognitive operations as the situationist claims, then how can a person know if she is virtuous? How can she know that she is performing the right action for the right reason? The situationist studies suggest that people are not as accurate as they think when it comes to attributions of their actions or characters. They have found that people tend (1) to see their actions as more virtuous than they are (Batson et al., 1999); (2) to be unaware of many relevant causal factors associated with their actions (Batson et al., 1987, Nisbett & Ross, 1980); and (3) to see themselves as more virtuous than others (Epley & Dunning, 2000, Nisbett & Ross, 1980).
One available response for the virtue ethicist is that a virtuous action might feel different for the virtuous agent than for the non-virtuous agent. In her recent paper “The Phenomenology of Virtue” Julia Annas takes up this challenge of distinguishing the virtuous agent’s phenomenology from that of the non-virtuous agent. Annas remarks, “I take it that we think that there is not only an objective difference between the good person and the person who isn’t good, there is also something different ‘on the inside’; there is such a thing as what it is like to be a good person” (Annas, forthcoming, p. 1). One of the main differences Annas sees between the virtuous and the non-virtuous agents’ phenomenology is that the virtuous agent experiences a sense of flow, or harmony. The virtuous person does not have to act against her inclinations because her inclinations are to do the virtuous thing. “In the virtuous, virtuous activity can be thought of as an example of ‘flow’ because it is an unforced expression of the person’s reasoning and feelings, in harmony with the rest of her character and structured system of goals” (Annas forthcoming, p. 14).
The difficulty with this picture is that it seems that an agent who does the right thing for the right reason can have a similar phenomenal experience as an agent who merely thinks she is doing the right thing for the right reason but who, in actuality, simply is unaware of the real acting force behind her actions. In order to have a similar phenomenal experience, the agent who merely thinks she is doing the right thing, let’s call her “the oblivious agent,” would have to perceive herself as having a similar sort of experience as the virtuous agent.
According to Annas, “In the virtuous, virtuous activity can be thought of as an example of ‘flow’ because it is an unforced expression of the person’s reasoning and feelings, in harmony with the rest of her character and structured system of goals” (Annas ,forthcoming, p. 14). The virtuous activity is experienced as “intrinsically worthwhile and enjoyable, regardless of its further goals” (Annas, forthcoming, p. 14). It seems that the oblivious agent can also perceive a similar experience because it could be the case that there are various situational or intrapersonal factors such that cause the agent to want to perform the virtuous action. Thus, she would not have to fight against her inclinations because her inclinations in this particular situation are to do the right thing. She may not actually be doing the right thing for the right reason, but if she is unaware of the real reason she is performing the action, then she might perceive herself as doing the right thing for the right reason.
However, while I think it is certainly possible for an oblivious agent to perceive a similar phenomenal experience, I do not think it is likely that this will occur frequently enough to undercut our ability to distinguish virtuous agents from non-virtuous agents. For while it may be possible, it is highly unlikely that a person’s situational factors will regularly be such that they cause a person always to do the right thing even though she is not really a virtuous agent. The oblivious person may get lucky by sometimes finding herself in situations in which it is easy to do the right thing and she may be able to have remote phenomenal experience similar to the virtuous agent, but she will not have these experiences often enough to qualify as a virtuous agent. The virtuous agent, on the other hand, will consistently act virtuously. It is this consistency over time that will allow us to distinguish the virtuous from the non-virtuous.
The situationist might respond that their results show that individuals do not have consistency over time. However, I do not think the situationist results have shown this. In her recent article on situationism and virtue, Rachana Kamtekar notes that “character traits conceived of and debunked by situationist social psychological studies have very little to do with character as it is conceived of in traditional virtue ethics” (Kamtekar, 2004, p. 460). The kind of traits the situationists refer to are “independently functioning dispositions to behave in stereotypical ways, dispositions that are isolated from how people reason” (Kamtekar, 2004, p. 460). The kind of character that Aristotle refers to, on the other hand, is “holistic and inclusive of how we reason” (Kamtekar, 2004, p. 460). Another reason why the situationists have not shown that an individual can consistently act virtuously is that the majority of their studies are between-subject studies, not within-subject studies. Their experiments usually involve manipulating the external factors to see how this affects subjects’ behavior. Most do not actually track the behavior of individuals across situations. “Most of [the situationist studies] observe any given individual only on one occasion. But what can be reasonably concluded about the consistency of people’s behavior on the basis of a single observation?” (Kamtekar, 2004, p. 466) Thus, I do not think the situationists have given us reason to believe that there are not individuals who are consistent over time. At most, the situationists have shown us that it may be difficult to act virtuously in some situations. They have only shown us that there are many people who are influenced by arbitrary factors; they have not shown that there are no subjects who are not influenced by arbitrary factors. However, Aristotle admits that it is difficult to be virtuous, and as long as the situationists can only show that it is difficult and not impossible or highly unlikely for one to become virtuous, then Aristotle’s account will not be undermined. For Aristotle says, “So too anyone can get angry, or give and spend money—these are easy; but doing them in relation to the right person, in the right amount, at the right time, with the right aim in view, and in the right way—that is not something anyone can do, nor is it easy. This is why excellence in these things is rare, praiseworthy and noble” (NE 1109a).