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National Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: To What Extent Has Aristotle’s Conception of a Virtuous Character Remained Relevant in the Face of Situationist Criticism?

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This article received an honourable mention in the undergraduate category of the 2024 National Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical EthicsWritten by Gabriel McWilliams.

The concept of a virtuous character is a foundational tenet of the broader virtue ethics doctrine. It has, though, been subject to noteworthy objection. One such objection arises from the theory of situationism, which – broadly speaking – repudiates the notion of consistent moral characters and frameworks in favour of a view that emphasises the contextual specifics of moral situations as the determining factor(s) in both moral action and outcome. This essay will explore Aristotle’s conception of a virtuous character followed by situationist criticisms of this concept, significant counter-criticism offered by modern virtue ethicists and, finally, the limitations this counter-criticism places on the concept of a virtuous character. This essay expects to conclude that, yes, the Aristotelian concept is weakened, but, in actual fact, not as a direct result of the objections offered by situationism.

Initially, one must re-familiarise oneself with how Aristotle defines a ‘virtuous character’ Firstly, Aristotle presents the concept of virtue as a trait possessed by objects and characters alike. Second: telos – a given object or character’s ultimate end. Next, Aristotle defines character as a collection of dispositions and habits; the sum of one’s virtues and vices; a developed, developable cluster of inclinations to act in distinct ways in certain circumstances. Fourthly, expanding the notion of telos, Aristotle remarks on his telos which he suggests is eudaimonia and is summarised in the Nichomachean Ethics as “living and doing well”; the most excellent form of the human telos: growing and developing one’s capacities, living healthily and flourishing (Aristotle, 1095a 15–22). This, Aristotle uses as a reference point. A means of measuring how virtuous a character is by evaluating the moral decisions one makes against the ultimate end of virtue – eudaimonia – and a way of measuring moral progression starting from simple dispositions to act; ending with habitual, virtuous moral actions. Therefore, for Aristotle, a virtuous character necessarily exercises virtues in acting towards a flourishing state of eudaimonia (it’s (one’s) telos ) and does so as a result of a progression from instinctual action towards well-cultivated, virtuous, moral habits and traits.

These views have, however, faced criticism. One of the most pressing of which can be attributed to the school of thought known as situationism. The particular critique this essay will focus on is Harman’s. Which, as Miller remarks in his own 2017 analysis of character and situationism, clearly establishes the view that the ‘central commitment’ of Aristotelian virtue ethics to some form of consistent, stable, global and developable ‘virtuous character’ allows for virtue ethics to be controverted by the empirical findings of psychological experiments, and subsequent critical analysis, which show that the notion of such a character is erroneous (Harman, 1999) (Miller, C. B., 2017, Section 1.1).

One such experiment is Milgram’s study Obedience to Authority in which participants were instructed to administer increasingly painful electric shocks as punishment for ineptitude displayed by, whom the subjects believed to be, a co-participant. The co-participant (in reality, a collaborator of the experimenter) was obviously in agony, yet a majority of the participants continued to inflict greater pain until the maximum degree (Milgram. 1963, p371-78).

For Harman, the outright volume of participants willing to subject another to – what appeared to be, to the participants at least – excruciating pain is remarkable. First, he expresses the view that one intuitive and “extremely tempting” response to the study might be “to attribute the subject’s performance to a character defect in the subject rather than to details of the situation” (Harman, 1999, p322). However, as Harman himself goes on to conclude, this is a problematic assumption. One that seems to contradict the fact that more than two-thirds of the participants acted in this, supposedly defective, manner and, moreover, the account of character or trait-based actions offered by virtue ethics and – from a simpler, more intuitive, perspective: expected, conventional, moral behaviours. Harman asks rhetorically: “can we really attribute a 2 to 1 majority response to a character defect?” (Harman, 1999, p322). Patently he thinks not. Thus, in turn, the question is asked: if not character (defects), then what is the cause of such alarming behaviours? For Harman, the answer begins in the inability of participants to make sense of the punishment they are inflicting and the cruelty of their actions. Informed by Ross and Nesbitt, Harman ultimately agrees that there was simply no way for participants to have arrived at a ‘stable definition’ of the situation they found themselves in (Ross & Nesbitt, 1991. p56-8). This explanation overcomes the implausibility of a defective moral population through its explanation of the behaviours observed in Obedience to Authority with reference not to character or virtue, but situation alone (Harman, 1999).

At this point, Milgram’s study and Harman’s analysis of it have illuminated issues in the Aristotelian ethical account which support a strong critical position for the situationist. One which, in combination with similar studies and analyses, is used to support a universal situationist denial of the concept of a virtuous character. They do so quite simply by deemphasising the explanatory role of internal dispositions in favour of situational factors. In Obedience to Authority , this is particularly evident in the manner in which participants, first, protested harming their co-participant (a declaration of moral character perhaps) and yet continued to do so when influenced by the situation and instructed by the authority of the experiment (the experimenter) that they must. The crux of the situationist criticism offered here is that whilst inflicting punishment to such an extent may well have been an action that contradicted the moral character and behaviours that one might believe they possess or expect of oneself or others; crucially, it is not an action that seems to contradict the majority response of the study. In other words, in Milgram’s study, cruelty was consistent – astonishingly so! Thereby, there must be an alternative explanation for this consistency that must exclude character traits and also, as a result, the concept of a ‘virtuous character’. This explanation, for the situationist, is, of course, situational and contextual factors.

This entails concerning ramifications for the Aristotelian concept of a ‘virtuous character’. It needn’t yet be abandoned though. The doctrine of virtue ethics – in the Aristotelian mould – can and does retort. However, these retorts must be examined in order to precisely determine the extent to which and the grounds upon the notion of ‘virtuous character’ can be disputed. The remainder of this essay will endeavour to do exactly that.

To begin, perhaps the most orthodox of these defensive retorts takes issue with the particular nature of character and the conception of character traits that situationism criticises. For the Aristotelian virtue ethicist, situationism misunderstands and oversimplifies what character is by defining it in isolation by studying one given behaviour. True virtuous character, for Aristotle, on the contrary, is inordinately complex. It is present in many behavioural actions, it appears differently in a variety of situations and contexts, it occurs as a result of moral contemplation and the cultivation of virtue, it guides one; it does not simply dispose one to act and, crucially, it requires practical wisdom and moral knowledge (Aristotle, NE). In ignoring this, situationism subjects itself to the claim that a virtuous character cannot be controverted if not is not understood in the first place. Homiak emboldens this position stating that as a result of its misconception, situationism’s principal objection is no real objection at all. It must instead be recognised for what it is: a false assumption that entire moral characters can be generalised from unique behaviours that stereotypically correspond with a certain type of character (Homiak, 2003, Section 5.2). This is a compelling response and is one that downgrades the crux of situationism’s universal denial of character.

The situationist, though, can offer potential counter-criticism and might do so by, firstly, accepting how situationism’s universal claim against character has been negated but then, secondly, refining particular empirical evidence that highlights a criticism situationism remains capable of making. Namely, a distinct lack across studies of cross-situational consistency. This, the situationist might say, still controverts the concept of a ‘virtuous’ Aristotelian character as an inconsistent and incoherent character could not allow for virtue to be developed across circumstances and over a period of time in the same manner that Aristotle prescribes. Kametekar, a modern virtue ethicist, however, disagrees. Whilst, initially, Kamtekar reinforces the situationist claim that the concept of a virtuous character is supervenient on cross-situational consistency she proceeds to remark that “consistency [is] relative to the individual’s own outlook on life, as shaped by her values, goals, plans, and the like. So to outside observers, someone might be acting very inconsistently, but from her own perspective the pattern of behaviour makes perfect sense” (Kamtekar, 2004, p485). This adds further conditions of complexity to the conception of character by highlighting the mental states of agents, thus affirming the notion that the situationist conception of character is simply too facile to pose a genuine concern to a concept as thoroughly developed and sophisticated as the Aristotelian ‘virtuous character’.

In defending the concept of a virtuous character in such a manner, though, a precarious position is assumed. Defining a virtuous character in terms so complex and interwoven gives rise to serious practical and epistemic concerns over the actual plausibility of the concept. My concerns are grounded in the notion that a virtuous character of such sophistication and intricacy would no doubt be both extremely rare to realise and supremely difficult to achieve. So much so, perhaps, that one could hardly be blamed for being so detached from the concept that they would struggle to, first, define it – or even construct the concept – and, subsequently, strive towards it – in a eudaimonic fashion. It is all well and good to celebrate the minutia of philosophical postulates, the coherence and competence they might reveal and the integrity they may impart; provided that those very same conditions of complexity do not consign the very concept they underpin to abstractedness and ineffability. This is a fine line, critics argue, Aristotelian’s have failed to err on the correct side of by establishing a concept so complex that is so onerous to define, to achieve, to evidence that it perhaps becomes futile to address in any meaningful way.

This leaves the Aristotelian concept in between two points of criticism. On the one hand, a virtuous character too complex becomes epistemically and practically dubious. On the other, a concept too simple reinvites criticism that makes a claim to the insignificance of character in moral situations which, as already seen, is so severe that Harman claims “it may even be the case that there is no such thing as character” (Harman, 1999, p316). This forces the Aristotelian to retain its complex edifice of character in order to maintain, in some form, the concept of a virtuous character at all. In doing so, however, the concept of a virtuous character is weakened.

Finally, Aristotle’s concept of a virtuous character is one that initially holds up well against the objections of situationism. The counter-criticisms offered by Homiak and Kamtekar, one might say, successfully maintain the claim that there is, indeed, such a thing as a virtuous character. This defence, though, invites further criticism that undermines the concept to a great extent. Consigning it, I have argued, to a concept that is conceptually viable but cannot be aspired towards in any meaningful manner. Interestingly, though, this undermining does not actually accord with wider situationist thought – at least not directly. Ergo, situationism does not demonstrate that there is no such thing as a virtuous character. As an indirect result of its criticism, however, the concept of virtuous character is severely undermined. Ultimately, on balance, I would say, not to the extent that the notion can be controverted in its entirety, but enough to cast enough doubt over the practical application of Aristotle’s account of virtue and character and the epistemic validity of the concept that it ought not to be preferred to other moral frameworks as a useful means of moral betterment or guidance.


Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics. David Ross, Lesley Brown (1980). “The Nicomachean Ethics”. Oxford University Press.

Harman, G. (1999). “Moral Philosophy Meets Social Psychology”. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, Vol. 99 (1999).

Homiak, Marcia. (2003). “Moral Character”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

Kamtekar, R. (2004). “Situationism and Virtue Ethics on the Content of Our Character”. Ethics.

Milgram, S. (1963). “Behavioural Study of Obedience”. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. Miller, C. B. (2017). “Character and Situationism: New Directions”. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, Vol. 20, no. 3, 2017, pp. 459–71.

Text Box: 6Ross, L. & Nisbett, R. E. (1991). “The person and the situation: Perspectives of social psychology”. Mcgraw-Hill Book Company.

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