In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Situationism and Virtue Theory

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Marquee Psychological Studies and Papers
  • Arguments for Philosophical Situationism
  • Revisionary Views
  • Situationism and Virtue Epistemology
  • Situationism and Applied Virtue Theory

Philosophy Situationism and Virtue Theory
Mark Alfano, Abrol Fairweather
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 September 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0236


Virtues are dispositions to see, think, desire, deliberate, or act well, with different philosophers emphasizing different permutations of these activities. Virtue has been an object of philosophical concern for thousands of years whereas situationism—the psychological theory according to which a great deal of human perception, thought, motivation, deliberation, and behavior are explained not by character or personality dispositions but by seemingly trivial and normatively irrelevant situational influences—was a development of the 20th century. Some philosophers, especially John Doris and Gilbert Harman but also Mark Alfano and Peter Vranas, have argued that there is a tension between these two independently attractive positions. Normative ethics seems incomplete or even indefensible if it refers only to the rightness or wrongness of actions and the goodness or badness of states; we care not only about these punctate phenomena but also about laudable, longitudinal dispositions like honesty, courage, compassion, open-mindedness, and curiosity. However, according to these philosophers, decades-worth of psychological research provides robust support for situationism. Given the plausible assumption that a credible moral ideal is one that most people can aspire to and perhaps even attain, virtue theory and situationism appear to be on a collision course. The dispute between virtue ethicists and situationists unfolded over the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century. It continues today: Some disputants have attempted to find a middle way, and the empirical adequacy of virtue epistemology has also been called into question.

General Overviews

There are few general overviews of this debate, as almost everyone who engages in it is quite partisan. Probably the only true overview is Appiah 2008 although the introduction to Upton 2009 (cited under Anthologies) also reviews some of the main lines of evidence and argument.

  • Appiah, Kwame Anthony. Experiments in Ethics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.

    In the first of his Flexner Lectures, collected in this volume, Appiah explains the situationist challenge to virtue ethics in a compelling but even-handed fashion. As he sees it, there might be a choice between normative appeal and empirical adequacy.

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