John Doris' Excellence Adventure


  • Carrie Swanson University of Iowa Department of Philosophy



Aristotle, situationism, Ancient ethics


Abstract: In his book Lack of Character (2002 Cambridge University Press) John Doris argues that both virtue ethics and common sense or folk psychology are committed to the claim that the attribution of character to persons is predictive, explanatory, and determinative of behaviour. Doris contends however that this claim is empirically false. Citing the results of experiments in the situationist research tradition in experimental social psychology, Doris argues that it is a person’s situation, and not his or her character, that determines how a person will behave in a given situation. Doris concludes that virtue ethics in particular is in need of radical revision, since the attribution of character to persons is thereby shown to be otiose at best, and empirically misleading at worst. In this essay I defend traditional virtue ethics against Doris’ situationist critique. My discussion falls into four parts. In Section 1 I set out the key claims that Doris makes about the empirical inadequacy of traditional virtue ethics. In Section 2 I describe three of the most important experiments which Doris adduces in his argument for situationism. In Section 3 I offer alternative interpretations of all three experiments, largely, but not exclusively, from an Aristotelian perspective. In Section 4 I respond to Doris’ positive account of moral character, viz., his ‘fragmentation hypothesis’ and his theory of ‘local traits’. Here I argue that Doris’ positive account is lacking in explanatory power; I suggest as well that his positive account is poorly motivated, since he has largely misunderstood the traditional concept of a moral disposition. In particular, it is crucial to Doris’ critique of virtue ethics that virtues and traits of character are cross-situationally consistent (or ‘robust’); since according to Doris, it will only be attributions of character so conceived that are shown to be empirically inadequate by the situationist experiments he discusses. Doris’ notion of a robust disposition is however alien to Aristotle and the virtue ethicists who are inspired by him. I demonstrate that the virtue ethicist conceives of a virtue as a rational disposition. A virtue is a disposition to act and feel in an appropriate way as a result of and in response to rational considerations about the good in particular circumstances. The acquisition of virtue is a difficult moral achievement because it involves the complex and interdependent development of both the intellectual and emotional capacities of a human being. It is precisely because the virtues are not robust traits in Doris’ sense that the deliverances of practical reason, even when it is operating in its fullest capacity, will issue in decisions in particular circumstances that cannot be captured by the notion of ‘cross-situational consistency’. I conclude that insofar as that is the case Doris has managed to make very little dialectical contact with the concept of virtue as that has been conceived in the virtue ethics tradition.


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Author Biography

Carrie Swanson, University of Iowa Department of Philosophy

Department of Philosophy

Assistant Professor


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How to Cite

Swanson, C. (2018). John Doris’ Excellence Adventure. Journal of Ancient Philosophy, 12(1), 173-223.