I have recently accepted an invitation to contribute a chapter to the forthcoming Handbook of Virtue Ethics in Business and Management edited by Alejo Sison and to be published by Springer. My chapter will be titled: “Virtues and Psychology: Do We have Virtues and How can We Know?” Here’s the abstract:
In this chapter I will first briefly review the Neo-Aristotelian conception of a virtue, primarily as espoused by Hursthouse, MacIntyre, Annas, and Sreenivasan. In short, a virtue is a multi-track disposition to reliably exhibit a certain type of behavior (e.g., honesty) in a wide variety of situations in the right circumstances. Second, I will present two independent challenges arising from social psychology to the empirical plausibility of the Neo-Aristotelian account: situationism and the fundamental attribution error. The situationist John Doris and Gilbert Harman offer a host of psychological findings that collectively dispute the idea that people can demonstrate cross-situational reliability in their behaviors. Situational factors, such as whether we just found a dime or how much spare time we have, tend to dictate our behavior much more than any supposed character traits like virtues (or vices). Social psychology has also demonstrated that people have a strong tendency to attribute character traits (including virtues and vices) to others far too quickly and on far too little evidence, including on the basis of a single action. This common error (known as the fundamental attribution error) then raises the larger question of how much evidence is required to know that someone else does possess a virtue. Third, I will sketch various responses to these challenges raised by social psychology. The Neo-Aristotelians (Annas and Hursthouse, for instance) have generally responded by claiming that their notion of virtue has been misunderstood and remains empirically plausible. Christian Miller, on the other hand, has undertaken a reconstruction of virtues that accords with these empirical findings. Finally, Mark Alfano has argued that even if virtues don’t exist, publicly attributing them to people can produce moral behavior.