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Alfano, Mark. Character as Moral Fiction.

ALFANO, Mark. Character as Moral Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. ix + 226 pp. Cloth, $90.00--Thanks to Owen Flanagan, Gilbert Harman, and John Doris (among others), a fruitful

discussion at the intersection of social psychology and moral philosophy has unfolded over the past two decades about the viability of a robust virtue theory in the Aristotelian tradition. In this important book, Mark Alfano significantly advances the terms of debate about whether certain individuals are more disposed than others to be morally good and to behave ethically--as Aristotle understandably assumed--or, alternatively, in the language of experimental social psychology, whether our behavior is determined predominantly if not exclusively by external, situational factors, in which case moral character may be said to matter very little.

Alfano comes down fairly squarely on the side of situationist critiques of virtue ethics, reviewing well-known experiments by Milgram, Zimbardo, Darley, Batson, and many others suggesting that human behavior is fickle and context dependent. To a virtue theorist it is disconcerting, to say the least, to learn that most people suffer airport frustrations far more graciously when they have been smelling cinnamon buns, even if the scent barely registered in consciousness. Situational nonreasons such as ambient odors should not, on purely ethical or rational grounds, cause us to behave more altruistically, and yet many accumulated studies suggest that they do.

Alfano is probably overly dismissive of person-situation interactionism, which may well be the modal view in contemporary psychology. It is also a view that is bolstered by research in behavioral genetics, which highlights the joint contributions of hereditary predispositions and environmental triggers (such as stress or nutrition). Alfano refers, somewhat less than magnanimously, to partial or limited defenses of virtue theory as "the dodge," "the retreat," and "the counter-attack." These names may be prejudicial, but the author otherwise represents the theoretical positions reasonably well. An especially useful contribution is Alfano's distillation of nine major tenets associated with the "hard core of virtue ethics"--at least half of which he calls into question on the basis of social psychological demonstrations of cross-situational instability in behavior.

For some reason, the philosophical literature has been slow to incorporate the scientific change of heart best exemplified by Walter Mischel, one of the earliest and most outspoken critics of the study of personality traits. Since the late 1990s, Mischel and Yuichi Shoda have developed an if-then model of person-by-situation interactions that reveals considerable stability and consistency at the level of individual personality structure, even if the underlying structure (like that of a musical piece) may be difficult to perceive in light of dynamic behavioral patterns (such as changing musical notes). Their research yielded evidence of traits (such as verbal aggression in children's responses to adult interventions) that are quite a bit more general (and therefore more psychologically meaningful) than the hyper-specific "local" traits favored by Doris (and Alfano), such as "honesty-toward-one's sisters" and "physical-courage-in-the-face-of-artillery-fire." Near the end of the book, Alfano suggests provocatively that philosophers "could reconceptualize virtue as a triadic relation among an agent, a social milieu, and an environment," but this idea is not fully developed, nor is its connection to existing interactionist models.

The biggest strength of Alfano's book lies in the detailed, thoughtful nature of its review of empirical research in social psychology, its patient, open-minded consideration of many different theoretical and metatheoretical proposals, and its expansion of the situationist critique to epistemological as well as ethical questions. Ultimately, Alfano concludes that belief in the stability, consistency, and attainability of ethical and epistemic virtues (such as honesty and rationality) is probably unwarranted, in light of scientific evidence. At the same time, he argues that such a belief is a useful fiction--especially when it comes to the moral education of children. Alfano is on solid ground in proposing that, because of the power of self-fulfilling prophecies, it is beneficial for society to cultivate ideal notions that there are both good and evil (and rational and irrational) persons and acts, but here he may be engaging in a bit of a philosophical dodge (or side-step) of his own.

Neo-Aristotelians are not interested in the question of whether it is expedient or pragmatically useful to subscribe to certain ideals of moral development and the attainment of ethical and epistemic virtues. Those who are naturalistically inclined would like to know whether such virtues are in fact attainable, in light of evidence from social and cognitive psychology suggesting that they might not be. Alfano has done an admirable job of demonstrating why virtue theorists have been on the proverbial ropes, given what we have learned from psychology over the last few decades, but neither he nor the other situationists whose work he champions have delivered the knockout punch. We await the next round most eagerly, even if the fight (like the nature-nurture debate itself) is destined to end in a draw.--John T. Jost, New York University, and Lawrence J. Jost, University of Cincinnati
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Author:Jost, John T.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2015
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