Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

, Volume 18, Issue 4, pp 835–849

Situationism and the Neglect of Negative Moral Education



This paper responds to the recent situationist critique of practical rationality and decision-making. According to that critique, empirical evidence indicates that our choices (1) are governed by morally irrelevant situational factors and not durable character traits, and (2) rarely result from overt rational deliberation. This critique is taken to indicate that popular moral theories in the Western tradition (i.e., virtue ethics, Kantian ethics, and utilitarian ethics) are descriptively deficient, even if normatively plausible or desirable. But we believe that the situationist findings regarding the sources of, or influences over, our moral agency do not reflect durable features of human nature, and claim that these findings are a byproduct of a deficient approach to moral education. Existing models of moral education, which are “positive” in nature, do a poor job of developing virtuous people. Instead, we argue that a “negative” approach to moral education, traceable to Locke, Smith, and Rousseau, would be more successful. This strategy represents something of a compromise between the strategies adopted by thinkers like Rachana Kamtekar (Ethics: Int J Soc, Polit, Leg Phil 114 (3): 458–491 2004), who argues that traditional moral categories escape largely untouched by findings in social psychology, and John Doris (Noûs 32(4):504–530 1998) and Gilbert Harman (Bus Ethics Q 13 (1): 87–94 2003), who argue that findings in psychology prove our traditional moral theories are defective.


Moral education Situationism Social psychology Virtue 

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of California, San DiegoLa JollaUSA
  2. 2.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of New OrleansNew OrleansUSA

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