Virtue ethics often explains behavioral aspects with regards to people’s character traits such as being kind. Our society is endowed with the habit of praising those who show virtuous character traits and condemning those who display vices such as cowardice and dishonesty. However, some of the recent psychological literature has dived into the question of virtue ethics and how it relates to variable external situations.
Psychologists in the social dynamics have described different ways in which an ordinary person misunderstand that someone’s actions are caused by their character trait and not by the prevailing circumstances of the situation. One of the moral philosophers, Gilbert Harman, has argued the theory of situations and its implication for morality. An experiment was carried out to show how people behave when faced with different situations. Milgram experiment required subjects to administer a shock to learners if they failed to give the correct answer. This test showed how far people would go beyond their designation. In a business environment, it would be a question of the extent of obedience to the authority. Although it was anticipated that a few of the administers would go past the “Very strong shock” point, it was surprising that all the subjects in the experiment went beyond this point. As if this is not shocking enough, it is stated that sixty-five percent of the subject went beyond maximum shock even after some of the learners pounded hard on the wall. During this test, the subjects requested the experimenters for them to stop administering shock on the learners but they kept hearing “please go on”, “please continue” and they obediently did what they were told. This experiment in itself is a reflection of how people act when faced with a difficult and demanding situation. The subjects having been delegated the duty of administering a shock to learners requires them to fulfill their responsibility. Experimenters, on the other hand, require the subject to do as they tell them and for them, this implies that the subject has a good personal trait. Others would reason that the subjects administering shock are inhumane which is a vice. From this scenario, it is difficult to know the subjects character trait since to some extent, they administered shook against their will. For this reason, Harman emphasizes abandoning character-based virtue ethics and puts more focus on the situation. The fact that a high percentage of the subjects continued with the experiment even after seeing the learners suffer, is an indication that people act differently according to the situations they are in. Moreover, it would be incorrect to justify their action by saying that they possess the same character traits. Therefore, attributing character traits to people may bring a misguided conclusion.