Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

, Volume 21, Issue 2, pp 341–358 | Cite as

Power, Situation, and Character: A Confucian-Inspired Response to Indirect Situationist Critiques

  • Seth RobertsonEmail author


Indirect situationist critiques of virtue ethics grant that virtue exists and is possible to acquire, but contend that given the low probability of success in acquiring it, a person genuinely interested in behaving as morally as possible would do better to rely on situationist strategies - or, in other words, strategies of environmental or ecological engineering or control (Doris, 2002, 1998; see also Levy 2012). In this paper, I develop a partial answer to this critique drawn from work in early Confucian ethics and in contemporary philosophy and psychology. From early Confucian ethics, I lean on the concept of li, or ritual. Ritual represents both a set of situational manipulations that are especially effective at directly producing moral behavior and at indirectly cultivating virtue over time, and also a virtue that consists of facility with and expertise in these situational manipulations (Mower 2013; Slingerland, 2011; Sarkissian, 2010; and Hutton, 2006). Appealing to the particular example of social power, I then argue that one is justified in attempting to acquire virtue if one (a) knows that one will frequently encounter circumstances in which purely situationist strategies lose effectiveness, (b) if these circumstances also carry moral urgency: the risk of great harm or opportunity for great benefit to others is high, and (c) if utilizing the potent combination of situationist strategies and virtue envisioned by the early Confucians as ritual is possible.


Virtue ethics Confucian ethics Situationism Moral psychology 


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of OklahomaNormanUSA

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