11 Responses to Taking Virtue Littorally

  1. Neil September 20, 2013 at 12:10 pm #

    What do you mean by “[s]ince mental states are multiply realizable,…?”

    • Roderick September 20, 2013 at 11:17 pm #

      The same mental state can be realised/embodied/implemented by different physical states. More here.

  2. Irfan Khawaja September 20, 2013 at 3:23 pm #

    I like the paper. I need to read it again to get my mind around the arguments, but in addition to your criticisms, I’ve always thought that Harman’s argument was self-defeating: to attribute reliability to the social-scientific findings he cites, we have to attribute character traits to the scientists doing the experiments, at least traits sufficient to underwrite and explain the reliabiilty we attribute to the experiments. In other words, if the experimental findings are to be trusted, the experiments must themselves be trustworthy. As I see it, the attribution of trustworthiness to the experimenters is both required for and incompatible with his thesis, and entails other similar ones (e.g., honesty, etc.).

    • Roderick September 20, 2013 at 11:30 pm #

      I assume Harman would say that all we need to attribute to the experimenters is the likelihood of producing trustworthy results, and that this likelihood can be the (predictable) product of the particular experimental environment rather than of an internal state that’s stable across all environments.

      Which sounds a bit like the last part of the Meno, now that I think of it.

      • Irfan Khawaja September 21, 2013 at 10:43 am #

        He probably would say that, but saying it would leave him with a weaker thesis than the one he actually asserts. As you say in the paper, there’s a fair bit of triumphalism about Harman et al’s way of stating the “attribution error” thesis, but the way you’ve just put things seems to me incompatible with that triumphalism.

        I would go on to ask (i.e., ask Harman): if there’s such a premium on having social scientific evidence before we make attributions of any kind–even relatively modest ones–don’t we need social scientific evidence about the kind of attributions we can make to the experimenters in the “attribution error” experiments? In other words, don’t we need to do social science experiments on the experimenters before we know what degree of trustworthiness to attribute to them? It seems to me somewhat hand-waving (in Harman) to say that there is some unspecified (and given the absence of social-science evidence, unspecifiable) likelihood of their producing trustworthy results. To attribute a likelihood of producing trustworthy results, we need evidence of their likelihood to produce them. To acquire that kind of evidence, we need social scientific experiments designed to track their trustworthiness. But then the same question would arise with respect to the experimenters producing these latter experiments, and so on. How trustworthy are they? How do we know? More experiments? By whom?

        A basic problem with Harman’s appropriation of the psychological literature is a failure to ask the question: what is the appropriate context for the application of these findings in the first place? How global can social scientific findings be? Could findings like the ones in the error attribution literature really overturn the very idea of a trait attribution as such? Or do the findings leave the possibility of trait attribution in place, but just demand that we be more careful in the precise way we make them? Harman et al seem to me to rush to the first conclusion without any real discussion of the second.

        A related problem. Yes, one literature in social psychology suggests that trait attributions are errors. But has anyone done a meta-survey of the whole field to figure out whether that is the assumption of the whole field? If not, what we have is not a clear-cut social-scientific finding, but a field in conflict with itself. I’m no expert on social psychology, but I’ve read enough in it to think that “field in conflict” is more plausible a hypothesis than “Lo, the social psychologists have now spoken, and They have discovered that trait attribution is an error.”

        • Irfan Khawaja September 21, 2013 at 10:55 am #

          Just to clarify, in my comment, I was assuming that a reduction of trustworthiness to the external experimental environment is, in principle, only partial, leaving some remainder to be explained by some appeal to the experimenter’s internal state, however minimal. There is no way to dismiss the explanatory relevance of the experimenter’s internal state altogether; that just seems ridiculously implausible to me. You have to rule out the possibility, for instance, that the experimenter will not falsify his results. I don’t see how Harman could reduce that to “external experimental environment.” Yes, there are incentives against lying, but there are incentives for it, and there is no a priori reason to assume that a given experimenter just “goes with the flow” of one set of incentives rather than another.

        • djr September 22, 2013 at 9:44 pm #

          You raise some interesting questions about the kinds of assumptions that social scientific inquiries make, but I don’t see why situationism requires such a complex response as you offer. It seems enough to remark, as Roderick does in the paper, that the supposedly decisive studies actually show a non-trivial extent of variety in how people behave. It is not open to situationists to explain this variation by claiming that the subjects’ interpretations of the situation changes the situation; that’s not a defense of situationism, but an admission of defeat. The strongest claims made on behalf of the studies are just straightforwardly false, and situationism fails on its own terms.

          I think these studies *do* strongly suggest that such behavioral dispositions as most people possess are context-sensitive and that we are especially likely to act “out of character” in unfamiliar situations. But that is not only philosophically unproblematic for the “traditional” views that situationists oppose, it’s not even an especially philosophical observation; I think I was probably about nine or ten years old when I first consciously reflected on how different people could be in different situations. So situationism does not even strike me as undermining ordinary, pre-philosophical views — unless there are people out there so obtuse that they haven’t noticed what I noticed when I was a kid.

          Rachana Kamtekar’s ‘Situationism and Virtue Ethics on the Content of Our Character’, Ethics 114 (2004) is the best thing I’ve read on these issues. If you haven’t read it, it’s worthwhile. http://www.u.arizona.edu/~kamtekar/papers/situationism.pdf

        • Irfan Khawaja September 24, 2013 at 7:11 am #

          Responding to djr:

          I’m not sure we’re disagreeing, or if we are, where we are. My point is this: To trust scientific findings, you have to attribute some degree of trustworthiness to the scientists conducting it. Your confidence in the veracity of the study varies with the counterfactual stability of the trustworthiness of the scientists. To trust a study at all, you have to know that the scientists would not lie, would not fudge, would not give in to non-alethic considerations, would not….(etc.), where the “etc.” stands for a list of “would nots” constitutive of trustworthiness. The more you trust a study, the more counterfactual stability you are presupposing in the people who conducted it. In this case, you are saying: they really wouldn’t lie, they really wouldn’t fudge, they really wouldn’t give in to pressure to evade the evidence, not even if…, not even if…. (etc.)

          Suppose that’s right. Now suppose you encounter someone who brandishes these “ascription error” findings with triumphal confidence. To him, the studies are well nigh conclusive in showing that ascription error is an obvious mistake. My point is: how could they be conclusive, consistent with the thesis itself? The thesis tells us that we can’t make ascriptions of counterfactually stable traits. But that degree of confidence in the thesis presupposes ascriptions of counterfactually stable traits–the kind of traits that make for a good scientist.

          So it seems to me that the person making the argument is trying to have things both ways. I wouldn’t deny that the studies show that there is a lot of context-sensitivity to trait ascriptions. But in that case, the studies are themselves context-sensitive. They don’t have the kind of global implications that many of their proponents take them to have–Harman among them.

          Thanks for the Kamtekar reference.

  3. RJ Reynolds September 21, 2013 at 3:17 am #

    I will be interested in reading this. One of my major disagreements with Rand (and you) on ethics is that real ends are ultimately arbitrary and reduce to internal differences in the machinery of particular individuals, not subject to rational disputation anymore than liking or not liking ice cream is (though I am not identifying moral judgment as an emotional outburts or physical response, but drawing an analogy). I am somewhat sympathetic with multiple realizability, which has come about based on my interest in the nature of consciousness (John Searle, especially). While I am convinced that intelligence must be a product of particular material structures in any given individual, that doesn’t entail that thought itself is dependent on a particular kind of brain [after all, human brains vary yet most of us do think].

  4. MBH September 21, 2013 at 12:14 pm #

    Brilliant, as usual.


  1. Work in progress (5) « The Institute for Objectivist Studies - September 21, 2013

    […] Long has a very interesting paper up on his website, “Why Character Traits are Not Dispositions,” and I have some comments on it there […]

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