No such thing as virtue?

The Good Samaritan is a model of virtue because he gave assistance to a stranger who sorely needed it, at significant cost to himself, after several who might have been thought to have a greater duty to help passed the sufferer by.

But what if there is no such thing as virtue? What if the Samaritan wasn’t really good? What if he merely happened to relieve suffering that time, but another time might have turned a blind eye to it? What if it all depends on the occasion? Maybe even Caligula acted kindly at times. Maybe even Mother Teresa sometimes didn’t.

That’s what I hear occasionally from students who are learning of the classical doctrine of the virtues for the first time. They tell me that there is no such thing as stable moral character. Virtue is non-existent, like ghosts and unicorns. How do they know? Because that’s what some of their psychology professors tell them.

After a certain number of students told me this, I did a little digging. Yes, some psychologists really do propound such a theory, and it’s a convenient excuse if one is considering kicking the dog, cheating on the test, or flipping off the driver in the next lane. But there is much less to it than meets the eye.

The experiments on which these psychologists base their hypothesis are actually somewhat interesting, but what they show is another question. In the first and most famous such experiment, by John M. Darley and C. Daniel Batson, seminary students were recruited under the pretext of having them give talks on assigned topics – some on seminary employment, others on the Good Samaritan.

The researchers had the students fill out personality questionnaires covering their views and attitudes toward religion. At a certain point, under another pretext, the students were asked to walk to a different building. Some were told to hurry; some weren’t. On the way, each student passed a confederate of the experimenters who was slumped in an alleyway, moaned, and gave a few coughs. The question was: would the passerby stop to give assistance to the supposed sufferer?

Jumping to conclusions

Of the seminarians who were not in a hurry, most stopped. Some, in fact, were so eager to help that the person who was feigning distress had a difficult time getting them to leave before another experimental subject came along.

On the other hand, of the seminarians who were in a hurry, most did not stop, and there was very little correlation between whether they stopped and what they had said in their questionnaires. From this finding, many psychologists have concluded that morally irrelevant situational factors like being in a hurry matter far more than supposed virtue in determining how people will behave. Ergo, stable moral character is a myth.

When I returned to the original experiment, I was surprised to find that Darley and Batson did not actually draw such a silly conclusion. Their discussion of what their experiment meant was much more thoughtful, and rightly so, for everyday life constantly reminds us of the importance of differences in character. One man is a good husband; another is a louse. I can loan my car to my daughter-in-law, but I had better not loan money to my brother-in-law.

The hypothesis that there is no such thing as stable moral character is also contradicted by the experience of banks, insurance companies, and law enforcement. That’s why we have credit records, actuarial scores, and rap sheets. We therefore have excellent prima facie reason that there really is such a thing as stable moral character, and that it is very important.

So what is wrong with the no-such-thing-as-virtue school of thinking? Why shouldn’t such experiments be taken as showing that stable character is nonexistent?


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The two original experimenters themselves give the first reason for thinking so. Post-experiment interviews suggested to them that some of the seminary students may have been torn between stopping to help the fellow in the alley, and continuing on their way to keep their promise to help the experimenter. “And this is often true of people in a hurry,” they write. “Conflict, rather than callousness, can explain their failure to stop.”

But the literature on such experiments not only tends to ignore this point, but exhibits other blind spots too. The first thing it overlooks is that although being in a hurry made a difference, it didn’t make all the difference. A good many seminarians in a hurry helped; a good many not in a hurry didn’t. From a failure to find a complete explanation of the difference in behaviour, it doesn’t follow that the complete explanation lies in circumstances rather than moral character.

The second thing it overlooks is that it’s very hard to measure virtue independently of what people actually do. For example, being in seminary is hardly evidential; on one occasion, a student asked me for a recommendation to seminary so that he could become a minister just because his dad, a Unitarian pastor, made a pretty good income. (The student’s other top career choice was restoring vintage cars.)

Responses to the sorts of personality questionnaires that psychologists ordinarily use aren’t much help either. In the original Darley and Batson study, the highest correlation was between the behaviour of the seminarians and whether they viewed religion as a “quest” – but what does that mean?

Third, virtue comes in degrees. Most of us are pretty flawed, and are sorely challenged by our temptations. We win some, we lose some. Each time someone wins a match, it is a little easier to prevail in the next one. Each time he loses, it’s a little harder. So the fact that passersby often fail to help someone they really ought to help doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as virtue, but, at most, that not many of them have it to the very highest degree.

Fourth, “virtue vs. circumstances” is a false alternative, because even highly virtuous people don’t always act the same way – and they shouldn’t. A perfectly virtuous person will always act virtuously, but the virtuous course of action is not always the same. For example, the virtue of generosity does not always require giving everyone who asks for something what he wants. It depends on circumstances.

Granted, the proponents of the “no such thing as virtue” theory do take a stab at it at the fourth problem. As we saw, they argue that the differences in behaviour that experimental subjects exhibit depend not just on circumstances, but on morally irrelevant circumstances, such as whether they are in a hurry.

To say this, we have to overlook their admission that this particular circumstance may not have been morally irrelevant after all. But even aside from that problem, let’s not be in a hurry to draw conclusions.

Multiple factors

Consider that fellow in the alleyway. Were the passing seminarians convinced that his distress was genuine, or did they wonder whether he was faking? After all, some people do feign distress, whether for predatory or non-predatory reasons. Besides, the fellow was faking, and it is unreasonable to assume that passersby wouldn’t sense something “off”. It isn’t clear whether the post-experiment interviews investigated this possibility.

What kind of distress did the passersby think the fellow in the alleyway was in? If he had fallen and banged his head, then he could probably have been helped. If he was drunk or desperate for a fix, then they probably didn’t have the means to help him. If he was agitated because he was high on PCP, it would be dangerous to try.

In many cities these days, authorities don’t even respond to 911 calls about people acting distressed. Sometimes, not responding is policy; sometimes, they are just overworked. Even people who want to be helpful can’t help everyone. It would be impossible. We have to make choices.

Did the passersby even notice the fellow? Several of the seminarians obviously did – they stepped over him! Most of them mentioned to the researchers that they wondered whether he may have needed help. In many cases, though, it seems that this thought occurred to them only afterward, not at the time. Being oblivious when hurrying is surely a flaw, but it is a different flaw than noticing and not giving a damn.

Not to let the passersby too easily off the hook, suppose we accept the judgments of no-such-thing-as-virtue thinkers concerning whether they did the moral thing. This merely exposes a fifth problem: Where are such thinkers getting these judgments?

This question is important because, according to the classical view, every other virtue hinges on the virtue of practical wisdom, which involves judging well. For example, I may have a perfect readiness to be generous – and such a disposition is nothing to take lightly – yet I may be a poor judge of who stands in need of my generosity. Now plainly, the psychologists who say there is no such thing as virtue are confident in the stability of their own moral wisdom. Otherwise, how could they presume to offer any judgments whatsoever about what is morally relevant or irrelevant?

But if their entire methodology is predicated upon their having the stable virtue of moral wisdom, then how can they conclude that there is no such thing as stable moral character?

J. Budziszewski is a Professor in the Departments of Government and Philosophy, University of Texas at Austin. This article has been republished with permission from his blog, The Underground Thomist

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