Situationalism and Confucius
I’ll admit it — I have a hard time getting my head around situationalism with respect to its attempt to attack the notion of character as it plays out in virtue ethics. Sometimes I have a hard time grasping what it is that they (the situationalists) are precisely arguing for, whereas at other times I guess I just don’t see what the big deal is. My worst confusion, though, is understanding how it all plays out for the Confucian. On this latest question, as I’ll discuss below, I have pretty much no idea what to say. Frustration set in.
The basic claim is this: situationalism suggests that our behavior is often a function of situational variables more so than it is a function of internal stable dispositions. So, basically, a character-oriented person might suggest that a person being generous would mean that the person is reliably generous, regardless of the situations you place that person in. As such, by this way of construing character, situations play little role in determining behavior — character does. The situationalist argues that changing variables in situations can make a generous person (say) act in a non-generous way, so that at the very least we start to see that there is a great deal of inconsistency across situations. As a result, we then are led to believe that situations drive behavior, not character traits. The result: the claim that there are no stable “global” character traits. No one is “generous” in a way that would suggest that the person has a pre-situational stable disposition that “plays out” across the different situations that the person finds himself in.
Of course, since virtue ethics seems to suggest that we focus our attentions on character, if it turned out that character traits themselves were fictional, virtue theory would be in a pretty big jam.
So: let’s turn to Confucius. Does he think that there are “global” character traits? I don’t know, but partly this is because I’m not sure precisely what a global character trait would be. Does this mean that a person has a character trait that attaches to a pre-role-relational self? If that’s the definition, I’d say “no” to the question, because I don’t think that Confucius thinks we have such a self for global character traits to “stick” to.
If not that, then what? Some are attracted to the notion of “role identity” or “relational identity.” According to this way of understanding the self, the self is a kind of nexus built up our of the various roles and relations that it stands it to specific others. So, I’m not a ‘self’ that exists first and then am a son. Instead, “being a son” (and other similar relations) constitutes the ground-floor “stuff” out of which the self is constituted. Take away the relations, and nothing further exists to call “me.”
If this is so, I assume that we should expect that character traits (if they exist) will be indexed to relations. So, it would be odd to say that X is a courageous person; instead, we should say that X is a courageous father. If anything, to say that X is a courageous person as a whole would be a comment about the integration of all of the different relations, namely, that courage could be truly predicated of all of the different relations that the specific person belonged to.
A few issues that might come up here, if this is right.
First, if courage (or any other character trait) is indexed to relations, then the ways in which they are understood must be indexed to the rituals that govern the relationships in question. So, “courage as a dad” doesn’t entail the same behavior as “courage as a soldier.” It might turn out, in fact, that behavior X is courage in one and not in another, depending on one’s role.
Second: if this is how character works for the Confucian, you might easily wind up with cross-situational inconsistency of the very kind that the situationalist points to. The subject might do X in one situation and ~X in another. As a result, the subject will look inconsistent, as if there are no stable robust character traits. As a result, one might suggest that the stable disposition just doesn’t exist.
But is that right? I’m not sure how to read this. One different way to look at it would suggest that the subject does indeed have robust traits. But they are indexed. So, “as a father” the person might exhibit very consistent courageous behavior. They might also have a robust trait “as a solider” even if it turns out that the behavior is very different. Another way to look at it might suggest that a person can have a robust character trait in relation X, but in relation Y lack that trait. So, it could be that a person is very courageous when dealing with his fellow soldiers, but when dealing with his mother becomes a spineless coward. Similarly, I might be inclined to say that the person has a stable character trait “as a soldier” even if the trait is not stable across other relations.
In either way of looking at it, though, I wonder: is this consistent with virtue ethics? Or is this situationalism to claim that a person’s “character traits” (or whatever they are) are indexed to relational roles?
I’m honestly not sure how to answer this question at all. It could be that these questions are fairly academic, and situationalism (or virtue ethics) can accommodate them easily. Either way, at this point I wouldn’t know.