Power, Situation, and Character: A Confucian-Inspired Response to Indirect Situationist Critiques

Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 21 (2):341-358 (2018)
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Indirect situationist critiques of virtue ethics grant that virtue exists and is possible to acquire, but contend that given the low probability of success in acquiring it, a person genuinely interested in behaving as morally as possible would do better to rely on situationist strategies - or, in other words, strategies of environmental or ecological engineering or control. In this paper, I develop a partial answer to this critique drawn from work in early Confucian ethics and in contemporary philosophy and psychology. From early Confucian ethics, I lean on the concept of li, or ritual. Ritual represents both a set of situational manipulations that are especially effective at directly producing moral behavior and at indirectly cultivating virtue over time, and also a virtue that consists of facility with and expertise in these situational manipulations. Appealing to the particular example of social power, I then argue that one is justified in attempting to acquire virtue if one knows that one will frequently encounter circumstances in which purely situationist strategies lose effectiveness, if these circumstances also carry moral urgency: the risk of great harm or opportunity for great benefit to others is high, and if utilizing the potent combination of situationist strategies and virtue envisioned by the early Confucians as ritual is possible.



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Seth Robertson
Harvard University

Citations of this work

Proposing an Islamic virtue ethics beyond the situationist debates.Muhammad Velji - forthcoming - Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy.
Situationism and the problem of moral improvement.Matthew C. Taylor - 2019 - Philosophical Explorations 22 (3):312-327.

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References found in this work

The Theory of Moral Sentiments.Adam Smith - 1759 - Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications. Edited by Elizabeth Schmidt Radcliffe, Richard McCarty, Fritz Allhoff & Anand Vaidya.
On Virtue Ethics.Rosalind Hursthouse - 1999 - Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lack of Character: Personality and Moral Behavior.John M. Doris - 2002 - New York: Cambridge University Press.

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