I’ve just recently arrived home from a wonderful trip to Sacramento to visit the philosophy department at California State University, Sacramento. While there I gave a talk on “Creating Heroes and Villains: Attributing Character Traits with Little Evidence.” Here’s a short summary of what I had to say.

The Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) is a mistake in cognitive processing that we all make regularly. If another driver has ever cut you off and you thought he or she was therefore a terrible driver (or something more colorful), then you’ve committed the FAE. The FAE is the tendency to attribute traits (including virtues and vices) to others on the basis of very little evidence, including even one behavior by that agent.

The problem is that one or a few behaviors by an agent are far from sufficient to give you sufficient evidence that the agent has the trait you’ve attributed. Let’s focus specifically on traits that are also virtues or vices. If someone possesses a virtue or a vice, according to Neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics, then that person has two kinds of reliability. Suppose a person is honest. Temporal reliability means that this person has reliably behaved and will continue to reliably behave honestly across time. That person will also reliably behave (and has reliably behaved) honestly in a variety of situations, which is situational reliability.

However, when we are guilty of committing the FAE, we lack evidence of either reliability. Therefore, the FAE calls into question our epistemic justification for at least most (if not all) of our attributions of virtue and vice to others.

While the FAE presents a unique challenge to Neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics, all is not lost. I argued that virtue and vice attributions, even if epistemically unjustified, still perform an important normative function. Essentially, when we attribute a virtue or a vice to someone, we are gossiping about them. And when we gossip, we explain moral norms and we initiate norm enforcement.

Suppose you publicly attribute a vice to someone. You’ve just done several things. First, if that person is among your audience, you’ve informed that person that his or her behavior is not acceptable; it violates a moral norm. Second, you’ve called others to join you in ostracizing this person (or at least threaten ostracism). As I explain, ostracism is a powerful norm enforcement mechanism. It excludes those that do not follow norms and improves the average utility for the remaining group.It also reduces the amount of norm violations. Ostracism is arguably an evolutionarily old behavior. Third, when you publicly attribute a vice to this person, you make clear to others that if they behave in the same way, they will be subject to similar ostracism.

Alternatively, if you publicly attribute a virtue to someone, you’ve done several things. First, if again the praised person is among your audience, then you’ve encouraged her or him to continue to act in a virtuous manner. Several studies have recently indicated that such public praise is an effective way to get people to behave morally. Second, you engage in the opposite of ostracism. Instead of warning others from interacting with the vicious, you encourage others to interact with the virtuous. Think, for instance, of when you see positive feedback of a seller on Amazon.com or eBay. You’re more inclined to interact with them. Third, you point out to others that if they behave in a similar manner, they too will be praised.

Essentially then what you do when attributing a vice to someone is to turn them into a villain. And when you attribute a virtue, you transform that person into a hero.

There are some real worries (that I won’t cover here) that gossiping about people in this manner is not fair. And admittedly sometimes it is not fair or morally permissible. But quite often, even if not fair to the agent, it is still permissible. Not only does society as a whole benefit (at least in certain conditions), it also can help the agent gossiped about. It can encourage them to continue behaving well or to cease behaving improperly.