This week we spoke a little about Aristotle’s virtue ethics. Virtue ethics is based on a belief in character traits: states of mind which prepare us to act in certain ways across a variety of situations. According to Aristotle, when we stabilize these traits, we are successful at being human.
We then discussed an article by Gilbert Harman which put the very existence of character traits in question, and which proposes a situationist reading of Stanley Milgram’s experiments (and other experiments in social psychology). The Milgram experiments seem to show that ordinary human beings will perform evil acts under the right circumstances. Harman concludes that situations, not character traits, explain our actions. For a modern take on the Milgram experiment, have a look at the Jeu de la Mort (2010).
We considered a few answers that Aristotle might give to Harman, such as (a) that perhaps most people have character traits, but are too weak to act on them (i.e. most people are incontinent), (b) that the Milgram experiments selected people unlikely to be virtuous in the first place.
Finally we considered Charles Taylor, who proposes an alternative approach to social science. Our lives evidently have meaning, but this meaning does not seem to be captured in the data-gathering, empirical approaches to social science we have seen thus far. Taylor thinks that studying people is like reading a text, and that so to fully grasp what is going on we must grasp it as a whole, as we understand a novel or a play. We must be interpreters of human life, in part because human life is like a novel. Our lives consist of meaningful experiences in fields of other meaningful experiences, and to grasp what our lives are about you need to understand them all together. That’s why it’s one thing to describe how people behave when they are ashamed, and another to understand what shame is. Taylor doesn’t tell us much about what this sort of social science would be like. What he does tell us is that it won’t have great predictive power and it will allow for exceptions - but these are prices he is willing to pay.
Every week I'll add some information about what we discussed in class.