Hutton on Situationism
I’m re-reading Eric Hutton’s “Character, Situationism, and Early Confucian Thought” (Phil Studies, 2006) and starting to wonder…am I a situationist about Confucianism? I’m starting to wonder if I have begun to walk down this dark path. (Also, note that Alexus just put up today an excellent post on possible situationism in the Analects).
I’ve noted before that I have a difficult time getting my head around exactly what “situationism” really means. The difference between “character” and “situationism” seems very fuzzy to me. As a result, I have no right definitions to work with. So I’ll use Hutton’s. He says that non-situationism is committed to the existence of “robust” character traits. Alright, what are those? He says (pg. 38):
For example, if there is a robust trait of compassion, then people with that trait can be confidently expected to display compassionate behavior across a wide variety of situations where compassion is an appropriate response, even in situations where acting compassionately may not be easy.
Or to give an even more specific description, a person with a “robust” trait of compassion will display compassion toward her family members at home, her co-workers at the office, and even strangers on the street, sometimes at considerable cost to herself.
If the second pass is a way of elaborating on the first pass, then it looks as if having a “robust” character trait is a matter of being free of “compartmentalization.” A person might say, for instance, “yeah, it’s true, I am courageous at work, but boy I’m a wimp at home.” In such a case, the person would lack what Doris calls “cross-situational consistency” and as a result, insofar as Hutton seems to put it, would lack the “robust” trait of courage.
Doris’ preferred way of talking about character traits is to localize them. So, as Hutton puts it, Doris prefers things like “battlefield courage” or “wild animals physical courage” where such local traits could be possessed independently of each other. Hutton disagrees strongly that this is the case in early Confucianism — if there are character traits in the philosophy, they are robust, not local.
Hutton’s evidence focuses on ren as the central robust trait in the Analects. For one, he looks at LY 4.5, which suggests:
If the gentleman abandons ren, how can he merit the name? The gentleman does not go against ren for the amount of time required to finish a meal. Even in times of urgency or distress, he necessarily accords with it.
Hutton immediately after argues that one “should be ren at all times and in all circumstances,” arguing that this means that the junzi possesses ren in a stable and consistent way, and as such possesses the virtue in a robust way.
I’m just not convinced by Hutton’s claims here (he further argues examples in the Mencius and Xunzi, but I’ll stick to Confcius). I’d like to briefly put forth two claims.
A. Virtues are developed and cultivated in role-specific environments.
My intuitions here about this lead me to beleive that if virtues are developed and cultivated in role-specific environments, we should expect to see localized virtues of varying “strengths” in a person’s life. Confucius’ claim that the cultivation of virtue requires the right environments should support this — he’s really just saying that a person needs to be in just the right kinds of relationships. It is unlikely that our moral education (taken across the board, from person to person we encounter in different roles) is equally “staffed” by equally qualified exemplars and teachers. My mother may do a fairly bad job of cultivating the development of courage in me (she may even actively stifle it), whereas my teachers in high school may do an exemplary job. As a result, one might expect just the kind of “compartmentalization” that Hutton suggests is characteristic of local virtues. I may be in one situation (school) and act courageously, and then enter another (home) where I am entirely cowardly. Confucius’ stance on moral education requiring the right environments, taken together which his position on role-specific aspects of one’s identity, seem to naturally lead to this very plausible result.
In fact, in LY 4.6, Confucius asks:
Is there a person who can, for the single space of a day, simply devote his efforts to Goodness? I have never met anyone whose strength was sufficient for the task. Perhaps such a person exists, but I have yet to meet him.
There are different ways of reading this passage, but one way says this: a person, in a single day, finds themselves in a variety of different situations calling for a variety of different role-specific performances. It would be truly amazing if all of those different relationships were just right, such that we would expect the person to be in a good position to be “good” across the board.
B. Ren can very well be taken as a holistic virtue.
Hutton’s use of LY 4.5 leaves me unconvinced that Confucius is suggesting that we have a “startup” robust virtue of ren, and that the junzi has it because it is exemplified in all areas of that person’s life. There are alternatives to this view that might be consistent with Doris’ claims.
1. It could be that the junzi’s life is integrated in a way that the compartmentalized person’s is not. This doesn’t mean that the junzi has a robust trait of ren “underneath” all of the situations he/she is in, but rather that in each role specific to that person’s life, he/she is ren. So, the junzi is ren-as-teacher, ren-as-son, ren-as-father, and so on. At the end of the day, if this is right, the junzi’s behavior will appear to be a robust trait in the way that Hutton suggests, but this is really just the fact that the junzi’s local traits are all unified and consistent. If that’s what robustness comes out to be, I’m not sure Doris would object, would he?
2. Another possibility — highly speculative and possibly non-sensical — is that local unification of role-specific traits results in an emergent trait. So if a person is ren in all local areas, then the person is ren in a way that goes beyond merely unifying independent local “parts”. Perhaps an analogue here is with the unified “global” trait of ren in the Analects. Is “being ren” merely the presence of all of the other specific virtues in a given person, or is it something extra that comes into existence when those virtues all come together?
(2) is a harder and more obscure thesis to argue for, so to be honest I’m happy to work with (1) for the moment.