A Ku Indeed!

Situationalism and Confucius

Posted in Analects, Chinese Philosophy, Ethics, virtue ethics by Chris on July 22, 2008

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.

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11 Responses

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  1. Bill Haines said, on July 23, 2008 at 5:31 am

    Another fascinating post, Chris!

    You point to a very interesting sort of question to ask Confucians (e.g. Confucius) about psychology: “If our psychology is such that there are indeed character traits or moral habits indexed to roles or relations, so that I behave in way B1 in relation R1, B2 in R2, etc., then how systematic or coherent does the mapping tend to be? And if much, then what are the operative psychological principles or patterns?”

    For example, one might look to see whether and how the Confucian (explicitly or implicitly) classifies kinds of relation (e.g. by degree of subordination) and kinds of behavior (e.g. by degree of deferentiality), so that she is in a position to think e.g. (1) “Anyone who is not deferential when she is one kind of subordinate will tend also not to be deferential when she is any other kind of subordinate” or, say, (2) “There are three kinds of people. The first kind exemplifies psychological pattern (1), …”.

    If the Confucian thinks human psychology is pretty systematic in the way it matches an individual’s dispositions to her relations, then the Confucian might be able to have names for virtues “across the board,” such as Proper Deferentiality, even if the precise kinds and degrees of deference (or the reverse) appropriate to different kinds of relation are very different.

  2. Chris said, on July 23, 2008 at 4:14 pm

    Bill,

    Interesting points. I think we do have an passage that corresponds to your (1) in LY 1.2, perhaps. There, it is expected that deferentiality in filial contexts should extend out to deferentiality in other relations, at least the citizen-ruler relation. It seems that there is an implied reversal case, namely that a failure to do the former not surprisingly leads to failures of the latter. So, although the type of deferential conduct will differ (on the basis of different ritualistic languages in which to express being deferential) in the two contexts (perhaps even seeming to conflict), a thread at least holds them together (the “B” relatum in your wording, B1, B2, etc) and allows for the “across the board” virtue names that you suggest.

    Now one question is, I suspect, this: does “B” refer to an abstract, generic or nascent disposition that might be called a “robust” character trait in the sense that the situationist attacks? My intuition (and that’s all it is at this point) is “no” — that our perhaps urge to think that all the B’s are properly classified *as* B’s means that B has its own distinct characterological reality is not, at least, an obvious next step. Perhaps in the early Confucian tradition “all things are particular” (to summon up Berkeley and applying it to dispositions where particularlity is role-indexing), and our successful attempts at classification shouldn’t lead us in a different direction.

    My second question is different: *if* the above is something that we should at least entertain about the early texts, where does that leave the Confucian vis-a-vis this debate with respect to situationism? Would a situationist say “aha — that’s just exactly what we’ve been saying!” or, could a virtue ethicist reply and suggest that real, robust, character traits would simply have to be given a different interpretation under the assumption of a relational self (as opposed to an atomistic one)?

  3. Bill Haines said, on July 23, 2008 at 4:55 pm

    I agree completely with your general point about 1.2, though maybe not about every detail of what you say.

    I haven’t been able to understand your second paragraph fully, especially the second sentence. I meant my ‘B’ simply as an abbreviation for ‘behavior’, and meant my ‘B1’, ‘B2’, etc. simply to stand for different kinds of behavior, without any implications about similarity or system.

    Do you think the Confucian tradition by and large doesn’t believe in a systematic psychology of character?

    I think your third paragraph raises good questions about the borders of recent technical terms. I don’t have opinions about those questions myself.

    Here’s one kind of view someone might have: “There are two kinds of people, whom we can call Smiths and Joneses. A Smith tends to have a degree of deference that is always the same multiplier of the proper degree for the relation in question. Thus if a Smith is twice as deferential to parents as she should be, she will be twice as deferential to all superiors as she should be, and twice as arrogant to inferiors as she should be (assuming that arrogance is negative deference). A Jones tends to have a degree of deference that is always the same fixed amount greater or less than the proper degree. Thus if a Jones is two units more deferential to parents than she should be, she’ll be two units less arrogant to inferiors than she should be, and she’ll be slightly deferential to certain younger sisters and junior colleagues (as a Smith never would be unless she were deferential to all subordinates).

    In that case, one could speak of two kinds of virtue. In Smiths, the virtue is to have a multiplier of 1. In Joneses, the virtue is to have an addend of 0. Or are such things not character traits?

  4. Chris said, on July 23, 2008 at 5:33 pm

    Ugh! I just typed out a long reply and lost it! AAH!

    In despair, let me concentrate quickly on clarifying the second paragraph.

    Let’s say that Bill is deferential-as-a-son (D1) and deferential-as-a-citizen (D2). Does this imply that there is a character trait D (general deferentiality or something of that sort) that is intependent of D1 and D2? I’m suggesting that perhaps there isn’t. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a non-arbitrary way in which we’ve grouped D1 and D2 as deferential conduct, but I’m wondering whether we can hold to that and still think that when “deferentiality” exists, it is always indexed to something like D1 or D2. A perhaps bad analogy: colors. There are lots of determinate reds, and we call them all “red” but there is no actual generic redness, even if the way in which we’ve grouped all the determinates does indeed have a non-arbitrary basis.

    Perhaps Mencius works as a counter-example (I’m not sure). If ren (say) is a sprout, then it *looks* as if it exists as at least a nascent robust trait that exists pre-relationally. So in this sense, you’d have a “D” that exists before you structure it with relationship rituals and social patterns to get “ren as son” and so on.

    Hopefully that helps. Of course, I could always be off my rocker here! 🙂

  5. Chris said, on July 23, 2008 at 8:45 pm

    Quick note – I was reading Wassmann’s article (subject of last post) and he concludes with a quote from Waley that seem apropos:

    “…we see at once that there was no conception of a human morality, of abstract virtues incumbent of all men irrespective of their social station; but only an insistence that people of a certain class should fulfill certain rites and maintain certain attitudes..”

  6. Bill Haines said, on July 24, 2008 at 5:23 am

    If your question is this: “Isn’t it possible to believe in various local “virtues” for the various roles and relations, different “virtues” for each, with no system uniting them? – and hence possible in principle that Confucians did believe this?” – then my answer is “Yes, good point!”

    Mencius looks like an example of someone who thinks there’s systematic unity in virtue but less systematic unity in human psychology generally. That is, he seems to think that although under good conditions my feelings about oxen I see and about people I see will line up in a certain way, under bad (but common) conditions they won’t.

  7. Chris said, on July 24, 2008 at 5:35 am

    Bill,

    First paragraph: yes, that’s my point (glad I’m not off my rocker!). By “there is no system uniting them”, though, I don’t want to make it appear as if all the “D1 and D2” local virtues are arbitrarily unified, but rather that the non-arbitrary way in which they are all “Ds” (cases of deference, courage, piety, or whatever) isn’t reliant upon a pre-role-relational virtue that “underlies” them all in some sense.

    By the way — are you coming to the talk tonight? I’m scheduled to go to the dinner with Hutton, and I believe Manyul is too, but I’m not sure about Alexus. I’m not sure if you know Steve or Eric, and whether you’ve arranged to go out to dinner as well. Surely, in any case, the four of us will be getting some beers at some point later in the evening.

  8. Bill Haines said, on July 24, 2008 at 6:07 am

    I’m coming, yes! Finally we’ll meet. I’m hoping Alexus will be there. (I owe him at least a beer because I called him ‘Alex’ recently on his blog.)

    Your latest clarification is helpful. For example, one kind of systematic relation among the role-virtues might be simply that each is the virtue best suited to maximize net pleasure in that role. That’s system, but it’s not psychological system.

    I wonder whether you think there’s reason to think early Confucians tended to disbelieve in psychological system among the virtues or among an individual’s character traits more generally.

  9. Manyul Im said, on July 24, 2008 at 7:52 am

    Hey Bill, Chris:

    Bill says: “I wonder whether you think there’s reason to think early Confucians tended to disbelieve in psychological system among the virtues or among an individual’s character traits more generally.”

    There seems to be some evidence, mostly in Mencius, but I’m sure there are other non-philosophy texts in which this is evident, for a “division of labor” among various parts of the body for what we might call desires and beliefs. The division seems in some ways modeled on the failing/failed Zhou dynasty–again, this is Mencius I’m talking about. Mostly I’m thinking of the relationship that Mencius thinks exists between the heart-mind and the other sources of (aesthetic) judgment and desires: the eyes, ears, mouth, and limbs(!). Mencius 6A7, 15, and 7B24 all seem relevant to my hypothesis here. In 6A15, there seems to be the suggestion that the heart-mind has to lead the band of merry desire sources toward what it knows to be best–hence the analogy to the Zhou: the emperor leads the dukes, but he dukes can overcome the emperor; it takes some doing to keep the normative order between him and them in good working order. That says something, I think, about the potential for either ordered or chaotic psychological systematicity; probably, psychological “unity” is a better term here since we’re talking about situationist ideas.

    I’ve never been sure exactly how global psychological unity has anything to do with “the unity of the virtues.” I can imagine there being a systematic and unified psyche but the virtues not being unified because of the disparate (fragmented?) nature of the virtues, not so much because of the nature of the psyche.

    Sorry if this is not what either of you had meant at all…back to measuring my life with coffee spoons. I’ll see you guys this afternoon, barring a deluge.

  10. Bill Haines said, on August 2, 2008 at 12:21 pm

    Manyul, that is not what I meant, exactly. The picture of order you paint seems to allow that reason can decide on some program, and the rest of the person (arms, fingers, ragged claws, patients on a table) will fall into line as easy tools, or not, but will be as receptive to one sort of command as to another, allowing for any number of decisions and revisions. The topics of deliberation will be independent each of each (what fruit to eat, what trousers to wear, where to take a walk, how to part one’s hair).

    The picture I wanted to paint was rather one wherein one has habits, and the possible sets of habits or good habits one might have are constrained by certain relations that our habits in one department of life must or at least tend to bear to certain habits in other departments of life, because of the mechanism of our psychology.

  11. Situationalism said, on April 6, 2014 at 12:06 pm

    […] [S]ituationalism 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. (source) […]


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