Character and Virtue Ethics
The philosophical notion of virtue ethics claims that an individual’s ethical thinking relies primarily on his or her character traits. According to this theory, people’s moral choices are governed by their character traits rather than by set moral rules or the probable consequences of their actions. In virtue ethics, a person who possesses a certain active character trait such as kindness, bravery, or empathy is expected to act by this quality at all times. However, the field of situational psychology has generated empirical evidence that raises questions regarding the basis of virtue ethics, as it proves that people’s moral decisions can vary depending on the circumstances. The two major studies that serve as empirical evidence of this notion are the Stanford prison experiment and Milgram’s obedience studies.
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The Stanford prison experiment was carried out by Phillip Zimbardo in 1971 and involved university students as the subjects. The students were separated into two groups—guards and prisoners—and placed in the school’s basement, where prison conditions were imitated. Both the guards and the prisoners had responsibilities and rights similar to those in a real-life prison. Although the researchers did not govern the behavior of the subjects, both the prisoners and the guards were constantly monitored. Initially, the duration of the experiment was supposed to be between one and two weeks. However, after the first two days of the experiment, the prisoners began to riot, and the guards began to humiliate and physically abuse the prisoners, causing the study to be concluded after six days. The Stanford prison experiment serves as a great example in support of situational psychology: The subjects chosen for the experiments were all average middle-class males who had shown good results on psychological evaluation, no sadistic tendencies, and no criminal record. However, as they became accustomed to the situation and the control it offered, the guards became increasingly violent and cruel. The prisoners, on the other hand, showed full compliance with the guards’ orders, as well as severe emotional distress.
Milgram’s obedience studies, in comparison, were intended to explore how people’s moral choices are influenced by the thought that a higher authority requires them to perform hurtful actions on another person. The experiment involved the subjects being asked to serve as teachers and ask a learner certain questions. If the student, located in another room, did not answer correctly, the subjects were required to punish him or her by administering electric shocks. The voltage of the shocks increased with each wrong answer. While the learners were part of the experimental team and did not truly receive electric shocks but were pretending to do so, the subjects believed that the punishment was hurting the learner. When the subjects refused to proceed with the penalty, the researchers insisted that it was crucial to the experiment and that there was no other choice, thus showing their authority in the matter. The results of the study proved that people were more likely to cause harm or pain to an innocent person if an authority told them to do so and they believed that they had to obey, therefore also proving that people who are good in character may be influenced by other factors to commit immoral actions.
Overall, both studies show that people’s moral choices depend on circumstances rather than on their character traits. The concept of practical reason also fits into the debate, as a person’s capacity to think rationally may be impaired by certain conditions, as well. Therefore, the field of situational psychology creates a high degree of ambiguity in the study of people’s ethical choices, undermining arguments that support virtue ethics.