The Journal of Ethics

, Volume 13, Issue 2–3, pp 257–289 | Cite as

The Milgram Experiments, Learned Helplessness, and Character Traits



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.


Akrasia Global virtue Learned helplessness S. Milgram Pusillanimity Self-knowledge 


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Philosophy, DAHT 605University of OklahomaNormanUSA

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