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Virtue and situation : effects of situational factors on attention and emotion Brooks, Ian Gregory


Many psychological studies have results that are difficult to explain in terms of the neo-Aristotelian model of virtue, vice and moral education. This thesis asks whether neo-Aristotelian moral psychology can account for empirical data on the effects that situational factors have on behaviour, specifically studies where situations affect attention and emotion. Some neo-Aristotelians argue that studies of behaviour are irrelevant to virtue theory; I disagree. John Doris’ situationist critique of virtue ethics has significant flaws, but its central point stands: neo-Aristotelian states of character as usually conceived imply predictions about behaviour that are empirically unreliable, leading to the conclusion that neo-Aristotelian moral psychology is problematic as a model of what human beings are really like. Talk of virtues and vices does not explain or predict the disproportionate effects seen in these studies. Doris argues that only local traits such as “office-party-sociability” are reliable predictors of behaviour. I respond to the situationist critique by looking for ways of supplementing neo-Aristotelian moral psychology to account for the effects of situational factors on behaviour. The main contribution of my dissertation is to show that there are interpersonal differences in behaviour which are best explained in terms of dispositions that modulate the degree to which situational factors affect attention and emotion. Contrary to situationism, the influence of these dispositions is not restricted to specific situations like office parties. These dispositions behave like neo-Aristotelian states of character. They are teachable, and they are responsive to reason. I argue that these dispositions are constituents of virtue; each virtue consists of a set of dispositions, and each virtue’s set consists in part of dispositions to pay attention in an appropriately selective manner. Dispositions to pay appropriately selective attention can account for many of the effects of situations on behaviour in a way that most neo-Aristotelians would find unobjectionable. However, I have one conclusion which may disturb some neo-Aristotelians: it may be impossible for one person to become virtuous in every respect. I suggest that virtue might require not personal perfection but appropriate interpersonal trust.

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