Mischel disavows a trait-based approach, but his skepticism concerns a particular approach to traits , not individual dispositional differences more generally. Then the question of whether or not traits exist is emphatically not the issue dividing more and less skeptical approaches to character. Contemporary research programs in personality and social psychology freely deploy both personal and situational variables e. The issue worth discussing is not whether individual dispositional differences exist, but how these differences should be characterized , and how or whether these individual differences, when appropriately characterized, should inform ethical thought.
An important feature of early forays into character skepticism was that skeptics tended to focus on behavioral implications of traits rather than the psychological antecedents of behavior Doris These virtue ethicists maintain that the behavioral variation provoking character skepticism evinces not unreliability, but rationally appropriate sensitivity to differing situations Adams ; Kamtekar For example, in the Good Samaritan Study, the hurried passersby was on the way to an appointment where they had agreed to give a presentation; perhaps these people made a rational determination—perhaps even an ethically defensible determination—to weigh the demands of punctuality and professionalism over ethical requirement to check on the welfare of a stranger in apparent distress.
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These are cases of ethically irrelevant influences Sec. It is certainly appropriate for virtue ethicists to emphasize practical rationality in their accounts of character. This is a central theme in the tradition going back to Aristotle himself, who is probably the most oft-cited canonical philosopher in contemporary virtue ethics.
But while the rationality response may initially accommodate some of the troubling behavioral evidence, it encounters further empirical difficulty. There is an extensive empirical literature problematizing familiar conceptions of rationality: psychologists have endlessly documented a dispiriting range of reasoning errors Baron , ; Gilovich et al. Research supporting this discouraging assessment of human rationality is controversial, and not all psychologists think things are so bleak Gigerenzer ; Gigerenzer et al.
Nevertheless, if virtue ethics is to have an empirically credible moral psychology, it needs to account for the empirical challenges to practical reasoning: how can the relevant excellence in practical reasoning be developed?
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Faced with the challenge to practical rationality, virtue ethicists may respond that their theories concern excellent reasoning, not the ordinary reasoning studied in psychology. Practical wisdom, and the ethical virtue it supports, are expected to be rare , and not widely instantiated. If this account is supposed to be part of an empirically contentful moral psychology, rather than unverified speculation, we require a detailed and empirically substantiated account of how the virtuous few get that way—remember that an emphasis on moral development is central to the virtue ethics tradition.
This point is underscored by the fact that for some of the troubling evidence, as in the Stanford Prison Study, the worry is not so much that people fail standards of virtue, but that they fail standards of minimal decency. Surely an approach to ethics that celebrates moral development, even one that acknowledges or rather, insists that most people will not attain its ideal, might be expected to have an account of how people can become minimally decent.
Recently, proponents of virtue ethics have been increasingly proposing a suggestive solution to this problem: virtue is a skill acquired through effortful practice, so virtue is a kind of expertise Annas ; Bloomfield , , ; Jacobson ; Russell ; Snow ; Sosa ; Stichter , ; for reservations, see Doris, in preparation.
The virtuous are expert at morality and—given the Aristotelian association of virtue and happiness—expert at life. But there have, historically, been lots of moral skeptics. While practice matters in attaining expertise, other factors, such as talent, also matter Hambrick et al. And some of the required endowments may be quite unequally distributed across populations: practice cannot make a jockey into an NFL lineman, or an NFL lineman into a jockey. What are the natural endowments required for moral expertise, and how widely are they distributed in the population?
If they are rare, like the skill of a chess master or the strength of an NFL lineman, virtue will also be rare. Some virtue ethicists believe virtue should be widely attainable, and they will resist this result Adams —, and arguably Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics b15— But even virtue ethicists who embrace the rarity of virtue require an account of what the necessary natural endowments are, and if they wish to also have an account of how the less well-endowed may achieve at least minimal decency, they should have something to say about how moral development will proceed across a population with widely varying endowments.
This, quite obviously, is a tall order, and the research needed to systematically address these issue is in comparative infancy. People often behave in ways that benefit others, and they sometimes do this knowing that it will be costly, unpleasant or dangerous. Are their motives really altruistic, or is their behavior ultimately motivated by self-interest? Famously, Hobbes gave this answer:. No man giveth but with intention of good to himself, because gift is voluntary; and of all voluntary acts, the object is to every man his own good; of which, if men see they shall be frustrated, there will be no beginning of benevolence or trust, nor consequently of mutual help.
Mill and Nietzsche. Dissenting voices, though perhaps fewer in number, have been no less eminent. Butler, Hume, Rousseau and Adam Smith have all argued that, sometimes at least, human motivation is genuinely altruistic. Though the issue that divides egoistic and altruistic accounts of human motivation is largely empirical, it is easy to see why philosophers have thought that the competing answers will have important consequences for moral theory.
It is easy to find philosophers suggesting that altruism is required for morality or that egoism is incompatible with morality—and easier still to find philosophers who claim that other philosophers think this. Here are a few examples culled from a standard reference work that happened to be close at hand. Moral behavior is, at the most general level, altruistic behavior, motivated by the desire to promote not only our own welfare but the welfare of others.
Rachels Schroeder Philosophers since Socrates worried that humans might be capable of acting only to promote their own self-interest. But if that is all we can do, then it seems morality is impossible. LaFollette a: 5. Before considering the empirical literature, we must be clear on what the debate is about. Defenders of altruism insist that, sometimes at least, people are motivated by an ultimate desire for the well-being of another person, while defenders of egoism maintain that all ultimate desires are self-interested.
This formulation invites questions about 1 what it is for a behavior to be motivated by an ultimate desire , and 2 the distinction between desires that are self-interested and desires that are for the well-being of others. Although the second question will need to be considered in any comprehensive treatment, some rough and ready examples of the distinction will suffice here. The self-interested desires to experience pleasure and to avoid pain have played an especially prominent role in the debate, since one version of egoism, often called hedonism , maintains that these are our only ultimate desires.
The first question, regarding ultimate desires, is the crucial one for our present purposes, and requires a fuller exposition; it can be usefully explicated with the help of a familiar account of practical reasoning. For example, a desire to drink an espresso and a belief that the best place to get an espresso is at the espresso bar on Main Street may cause a desire to go to the espresso bar on Main Street.
This desire can then join forces with another belief to generate a third desire, and so on. Desires produced or sustained by this process of practical reasoning are instrumental desires—the agent has them because she thinks that satisfying them will lead to something else that she desires.
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But not all desires can be instrumental desires. If we are to avoid circularity or an infinite regress there must be some desires that are not produced because the agent thinks that satisfying them will facilitate satisfying some other desire.
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A behavior is motivated by a specific ultimate desire when that desire is part of the practical reasoning process that leads to the behavior. Readers familiar with some of the popular literature on the evolution of morality that has appeared in the last few decades might suspect that recent work in evolutionary biology has resolved the debate between egoists and altruists.
For some readers—and some writers—seem to interpret evolutionary theory as showing that altruism is biologically impossible. If altruistic organisms were somehow to emerge, this literature sometimes suggests, they would lose the competition for survival and reproduction to their selfish conspecifics, and they would quickly become extinct. On this view, the appearance of altruism is simply an illusion. But as Sober and Wilson have argued with great clarity, there is no simple connection between evolutionary theory and the philosophical debate between egoism and altruism.
This is because the concept of altruism that is important in evolutionary theory is quite different from the concept of altruism invoked in the philosophical debate.
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For biologists, an organism behaves altruistically if and only if the behavior in question reduces its own fitness while increasing the fitness of one or more other organisms. Thus there can be no easy inference from biological altruism to psychological altruism.
Nor does the inference go in the opposite direction.
To make the point, Sober and Wilson Ch. Organisms with these ultimate desires would be psychological altruists, though the behavior that the desires gave rise to would typically not be evolutionarily altruistic, since by helping their offspring organisms typically are increasing their own fitness. So, contrary to the presumption that evolutionary biology has resolved the debate between egoists and altruists in favor of egoism, it appears that evolutionary theory has nothing to offer that will enable us to make progress in that debate.
The psychological literature relevant to the egoism vs. Batson, along with many other researchers, begins by borrowing an idea that has deep roots in philosophical discussions of altruism. Though the details and the terminology differ significantly from author to author, the core idea is that altruism is often the product of an emotional response to the distress of another person.
And Adam Smith [ I, I, 1. If the philosophical tradition that suggests the empathy-altruism hypothesis is on the right track, and Batson believes it is, we would predict that when people feel empathy they will desire to help those who evoke the emotion, and thus they will be more inclined to engage in helping behavior than people who do not feel empathy.
Nor does it mean that when people feel little or no empathy they will not engage in helping behavior, since the desire to help can also be produced by a variety of processes in which empathy plays no role. In order to put this claim to empirical test, it is important to have ways of inducing empathy in the laboratory, and there is a substantial body of literature suggesting how this can be done.
Relatedly, Krebs demonstrated that subjects who observe someone similar to themselves undergo painful experiences show more physiological arousal, report identifying with the target more strongly, and report feeling worse while waiting for the painful stimulus to begin than do subjects who observe the same painful experiences administered to someone who is not similar to themselves. Krebs also showed that subjects are more willing to help at some personal cost when the sufferer is similar to themselves.
Batson 82—87 interprets these findings as indicating that people are more inclined to feel empathy for those they believe to be similar to themselves, and thus that empathy can often be evoked by providing a person with evidence that she and a target person are similar.
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To make the case that empathy leads to helping behavior, Batson relies in part on work by others, including the just-cited Krebs study and a study by Dovidio et al. Subjects focused on one of two quite different problems that the young woman faced. When given an opportunity to help the young woman, subjects in whom empathy had been evoked were more likely to help than subjects in a low empathy condition, and the increase in helping was specific to the problem that had evoked the empathy.
Another important source of support for the link between empathy and helping behavior is a meta-analysis of a large body of experimental literature by Eisenberg and Miller which found positive correlations between empathy and prosocial behavior in studies using a variety of techniques to assess empathy. On the basis of these and other findings, Batson 95 argues that. It might be thought that establishing a causal link between empathy and helping behavior would be bad news for egoism. But, as Batson makes clear, the fact that empathy leads to helping behavior does not resolve the dispute between egoism and altruism, since it does not address the nature of the motivation for the helping behavior that empathy evokes.