The Milgram Experiments, Learned Helplessness, and Character Traits
- 644 Downloads
The Milgram and other situationist experiments support the real-life evidence that most of us are highly akratic and heteronomous, and that Aristototelian virtue is not global. Indeed, like global theoretical knowledge, global virtue is psychologically impossible because it requires too much of finite human beings with finite powers in a finite life; virtue can only be domain-specific. But unlike local, situation-specific virtues, domain-specific virtues entail some general understanding of what matters in life, and are connected conceptually and causally to our traits in other domains. The experiments also make us aware of how easily unobtrusive situational factors can tap our susceptibilities to obedience, conformity, irresponsibility, cruelty, or indifference to others’ welfare, thereby empowering us to change ourselves for the better. Thus, they advance the Socratic project of living the examined life. I note a remarkable parallel between the results of the baseline Milgram experiments and the results of the learned helplessness experiments by Martin Seligman et al. This provides fresh insight into the psychology and character of the obedient Milgram subjects, and I use this insight to argue that pusillanimity, as Aristotle conceives of it, is part of a complete explanation of the behavior of the obedient Milgram subjects.
KeywordsAkrasia Global virtue Learned helplessness S. Milgram Pusillanimity Self-knowledge
- Adams, R. 2006. A theory of virtue: Excellence in being for the good. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
- Adorno, T. 1950. The authoritarian personality. New York: Harper & Brothers.Google Scholar
- Annas, J. 1993. The morality of happiness. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
- Arendt, H. 1963. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the banality of evil. New York: Viking Press.Google Scholar
- Aristotle. 1999. Nicomachean ethics, 2nd ed (trans: Irwin, T.). Indianapolis: Hackett.Google Scholar
- Badhwar, N. 1996. The limited unity of virtue. Nous 5: 306–329.Google Scholar
- Blass, T. 2000. The Milgram paradigm after 35 years: Some things we now know about obedience to authority. In Obedience to authority: Current perspectives on the Milgram paradigm, ed. T. Blass, 35–60. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar
- Blass, T. 2002. The man who shocked the world. http://psychologytoday.com/articles/pto-20020301-000037.html. Accessed 8 June 2008.
- Curzer, H. 2005. How good people do bad things. In Oxford studies in ancient philosophy V, ed. D. Sedley, 233–256. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
- Doris, J. 2002. Lack of character: Personality and moral behavior. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
- Emerson, R. 1862. The eulogy of Henry David Thoreau. http://www.rwe.org/pages/eulogy_of_thoreau.htm. Accessed 5 January 2008.
- Flanagan, O. 1991. Varieties of moral personality: Ethics and psychological realism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
- Geach, P. 1977. The virtues. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
- Haidt, J. 2006. The happiness hypothesis: Finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
- Harman, G. 1999. Moral philosophy meets social psychology: Virtue ethics and the fundamental attribution error. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 99: 315–331.Google Scholar
- Harman, G. (2009). Skepticism about character traits. The Journal of Ethics (this issue). doi:10.1007/s10892-009-9050-6.
- Irwin, T. 1988. Disunity in the Aristotelian virtues. In Oxford studies in ancient philosophy, vol. Supplementary Volume, ed. J. Annas, 61–78. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
- Kraut, R. 1988. Comments on ‘Disunity in the Aristotelian virtues’ by T. H. Irwin. In Oxford studies in ancient philosophy, vol. Supplementary Volume, ed. J. Annas, 79–86. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
- Milgram, S. 1974. Obedience to authority. New York: Harper & Row.Google Scholar
- Milgram, A. 2000. My personal view of Stanley Milgram. In Obedience to authority: Current perspectives on the Milgram paradigm, ed. T. Blass, 1–8. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar
- Milo, R. 1984. Immorality. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
- Peterson, C., S. Maier, and M. Seligman. 1993. Learned helplessness: A theory for the age of personal control. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
- Plato. 1997. Plato: Complete works (trans: Cooper, J. M. and Hutchinson, D. S.). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.Google Scholar
- Plato. 2002. Apology. In Five dialogues (trans: Grube, G. M. A.). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.Google Scholar
- Ross, L., and R.E. Nisbett. 1991. The person and the situation. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.Google Scholar
- Royce, J. 1989. The moral insight. In Vice and virtue in everyday life, ed. C. Sommers, and F. Sommers, 55–59. New York: Harcourt Brace & Jovanovich.Google Scholar
- Seligman, M. 2002. Authentic happiness. New York: Free Press.Google Scholar
- Singer, P. 1972. Famine, affluence, and morality. Philosophy and public affairs 1:229–243. Revised version at http://www.petersingerlinks.com/famine.htm. Accessed 5 January 2008.
- Thoreau, H. D. 1849. Civil disobedience. http://thoreau.eserver.org/civil1.html. Accessed 5 January 2008.
- Vlastos, G. 1971. The paradox of Socrates. In The philosophy of Socrates: A collection of critical essays, 1–21. New York: Doubleday & Co.Google Scholar
- Vlastos, G. 1991. Socrates: Ironist and moral philosopher. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
- Wilson, T. D. 2002. Strangers to ourselves: Discovering the adaptive unconscious. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
- Zimbardo, P., C. Maslach, and C. Haney. 2000. Reflections on the Stanford prison experiment: Genesis, transformations, consequences. In Obedience to authority: Current perspectives on the Milgram paradigm, ed. T. Blass, 193–237. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar