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Dilemmas for the Rarity Thesis in Virtue Ethics and Virtue Epistemology


“Situationists” such as Gilbert Harman and John Doris have accused virtue ethicists as having an “empirically inadequate” theory, arguing that much of social science research suggests that people do not have robust character traits (e.g., virtues or vices) as traditionally thought. By far, the most common response to this challenge has been what I refer to as “the rarity response” or the “rarity thesis”. Rarity responders (such as Ernest Sosa and Gopal Sreenivasan) deny that situationism poses any sort of threat to virtue ethics since there is no reason to suppose that the moral virtues are typical or widespread. But, far from being its saving grace, I will argue, the rarity thesis forces virtue ethicists into positions that are incompatible with their theoretical foundations or render their theory normatively irrelevant. The more the virtue ethicists modify their thesis to fit the empirical evidence and to be normatively relevant, the less they retain a virtue ethical theory. This is also the case for virtue epistemologists.

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  1. 1.

    The argument assumes a definition of character traits as dispositions that are temporally stable and cross-situationally consistent—what I take to be a fairly uncontroversial definition in the literature. It also involves a conceptualization of virtues and vices and a subspecies of character traits more generally.

  2. 2.

    There is, however, something odd about this response given that the Aristotelian character is even thicker than the “simplistic” conception of character the situationists are targeting as empirically adequate. If the simplistic conception is empirically inadequate, then certainly the more robust conception is as well. In the very least it is quite threatened. Thus, it seems to me that the defense that is needed is the argument that the Aristotelian conception of character is unharmed by the social psychology studies and as such is empirically adequate. But, this is not the focus of this paper. The focus of this paper is on a different response: the rarity response.

  3. 3.

    By normative relevancy, I simply mean that the theory offers a story of how to become moral and as such a basis for assessing or evaluating behavior. (Or, in the case of epistemology—discussed later in the paper—how to become knowledgeable or wise).

  4. 4.

    Sosa’s “driving competence” example works as an argument from analogy to defend virtue-based “moral competence” against situationism (as driving competence survives driving conditions that can trigger or impair driving competence).

  5. 5.

    Alfano also argues (see pp. 102–104) that in addition to this “noble lie,” there are other defenses of/interpretations of his fictitious virtue thesis. One is what might be called the “asymmetric standards of evidence defense.” Here, Alfano makes the point that if getting something wrong will lead to dire consequences, very good evidence is required, but if getting something wrong will merely lead to trivially negative consequences then one is under less obligation. Since the consequences of attributing vice are more negative or dire than attributing virtue, we can relax the standards for sufficient evidence of virtue. The other might be called the “inevitability defense.” Here, Alfano makes the point that we cannot help but believe in traits, or believe that people have virtues (a la Strawson’s point about believing we are free). However, I do not believe that either of these additional extrications helps against my central concern about the attribution of factitious virtue being none too virtuous. Regarding the point about less dire consequences, part of my point is that the consequence (at least as they relate to virtue) are less benign than Alfano makes them seem. Regarding the inevitability thesis, I think it is in part false and in part irrelevant to his claims about fictitious virtue. In part false because I do think it is possible for us to stop believing that people have virtues as traditionally construed and in part irrelevant because inevitability about perceptions regarding others is different than inevitability about positive attributions or affirmations that are done with the intention of making the person think and act as if they are honest etc. In the “factitious virtue” strategy we believe it to be false that a person has certain virtue traits but attribute those traits to them anyway in order to mold their identity and behavior.

  6. 6.

    Other potential intellectual virtues: intellectual carefulness, perseverance, humility, vigor, flexibility, courage, thoughtfulness, integrity, open-mindedness, insightfulness, originality, non-wishful thinking, non-obtuseness, and non-conformity (Alfano 2012). Alfano pulls this list from Zagzebski (1996, 155).

  7. 7.

    There is actually an even weaker version of C-VE, which would hold not only that knowledge only requires acts that demonstrate instances of curiosity, courage, open-mindedness, etc. but also that those acts need not be pure (e.g., it may partly be characterized by curiosity and partly characterized by positive mood). I do not see how this weaker version would fare any better than weak C-VE that I outline, since it may help save non-skepticism (1), but it is then so weak that it is hardly a virtue epistemology theory any more—what is doing the heavy lifting is the positive mood.

  8. 8.

    Some of these responses were discussed in Section 1 of this paper. For an overview of responses to the situationist challenge see Miller (2013a, b).


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I would like to thank Christian Miller for comments on an earlier draft of this paper and colleagues in the 2013 Character Project Summer Seminar at Wake Forest University which was funded by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of the Character Project or the John Templeton Foundation.

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Correspondence to J. S. Blumenthal-Barby.

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Blumenthal-Barby, J.S. Dilemmas for the Rarity Thesis in Virtue Ethics and Virtue Epistemology. Philosophia 44, 395–406 (2016).

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  • Virtue ethics
  • Virtue epistemology
  • Situationism