Are Character Traits Reliable?

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Amanda Thomas
Philosophy 103
November 19, 2012
Paper No. 2
In the book “Experiments in Ethics” by Kwame Anthony Appiah he states that “Individual moments of compassion and honesty makes our lives better, even if we are not compassionate through and through”. (Appiah 70) He also continues on to say that “[w]e can’t be content with knowing what kind of people we are; it matters, too, what kind of people we hope to be” (Appiah 72). He discusses the relationship between moral philosophy and scientific research. He used some research experiments such as Milgrams and The Good Samaritan to further explain this quote. During these discussions he explains the difference between situationist and globalist/virtue ethics. Situationists are people who feel that what predicts behavior are situational factors instead of character traits. Globalists disagree with that statement and argue that character traits predict behavior. They also propose that good actions are defined as those done by people with the proper virtues and that virtues exist as part of individuals’ character makeup. A variety of psychological studies doubt these premises. The main issue is whether we have stable personality and character traits.

Appiah uses modus tollens to give a logically from of the situationist argument. If the juice is made with sugar, then the juice is sweet. The juice is not sweet. Therefore, the juice is not made with sugar. One premises using modus tollens that a situationist could agree on is that if virtue ethics is true, then character traits predict behavior. Character traits don’t predict behavior; therefore virtue ethics is not true. Appiah takes the Milgram experiment to rule out certain strong forms of virtue ethics. He notes that virtue ethics can still serve as a guide to life, defining the ideals that should serve as our aims, even thought we rarely live up to them. Moral psychology imposes limits on the kind of people we can become. Appiah uses a phrase that is, of...
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