The Journal of Ethics

, Volume 13, Issue 2–3, pp 235–242 | Cite as

Skepticism about Character Traits

  • Gilbert HarmanEmail author


The first part of this article discusses recent skepticism about character traits. The second describes various forms of virtue ethics as reactions to such skepticism. The philosopher J.-P. Sartre argued in the 1940s that character traits are pretenses, a view that the sociologist E. Goffman elaborated in the 1950s. Since then social psychologists have shown that attributions of character traits tend to be inaccurate through the ignoring of situational factors. (Personality psychology has tended to concentrate on people’s conceptions of personality and character rather than on the accuracy of these conceptions). Similarly, the political theorist R. Hardin has argued for situational explanations of bloody social disputes in the former Yugoslavia and in Africa, rather than explanations in terms of ethnic hatred for example. A version of virtue ethics might identify virtues as characteristics of acts rather than character traits, as traits consisting in actual regularities in behavior, or as robust dispositions that would manifest themselves also in counterfactual situations.


Acts Dispositions E. Goffman R. Hardin J.-P. Sartre 


  1. Doris, J. 2002. Lack of character. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  2. Funder, D. 2001. Personality. Annual Review of Psychology 52: 197–221.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Goffman, E. 1959. The presentation of self in everyday life. Garden City: Doubleday Anchor.Google Scholar
  4. Hardin, R. 1995. One for all: The logic of group conflict. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Harman, G. 1983. Human flourishing, ethics, and liberty. Philosophy and Public Affairs 12: 307–322.Google Scholar
  6. Harman, G. 1996. Moral relativism. In Moral relativism and moral objectivity, ed. G. Harman, and J. Thomson, 1–64. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.Google Scholar
  7. Harman, G. 1999. Moral philosophy meets social psychology: Virtue ethics and the fundamental attribution error. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 99: 315–331.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Harman, G. 2000. The nonexistence of character traits. Proceedings of the Aristotelian society 100: 223–226.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Hursthouse, R. 1999. On virtue ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Kamtekar, R. 2004. Situationism and virtue ethics on the content of our character. Ethics 114: 458–491.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Kunda, Z. 1999. Social cognition: Making sense of people. Cambridge: The MIT Press.Google Scholar
  12. Merritt, M. 1999. Virtue ethics and the social psychology of character. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley.Google Scholar
  13. Milgram, S. 1974. Obedience to authority. New York: Harper and Row.Google Scholar
  14. Sabini, J., and M. Silver. 2005. Lack of character? Situationism critiqued. Ethics 115: 535–562.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Sabini, J., M. Siemann, and J. Stein. 2001. The really fundamental attribution error in psychological research. Psychological Inquiry 12: 1–15.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Sartre, J. 1956. Being and nothingness (trans: Barnes H.E.). New York: Philosophical Library.Google Scholar
  17. Thomson, J. 1996. Evaluatives and directives. In Moral relativism and moral objectivity, ed. G. Harman, and J. Thomson, 125–154. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.Google Scholar
  18. Thomson, J. 1997. The right and the good. The Journal of Philosophy 94: 273–298.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Thomson, J. 2001. Goodness and advice. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  20. Tucker, C. 2004. Harman vs. virtue theory: Do character traits explain behavior? Southwest Philosophy Review 21: 137–146.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyPrinceton UniversityPrincetonUSA

Personalised recommendations