Scepticism about Virtue and the Five-Factor Model of Personality
Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 November 2016
Considerable progress in personality and social psychology has been largely ignored by philosophers, many of whom still remain sceptical concerning whether the conception of character presupposed by virtue theory is descriptively adequate. Here, I employ the five-factor model of personality, currently the consensus view in personality psychology, to respond to a strong reading of the situationist challenge, whereby most people lack dispositions that are both cross-situationally consistent and temporally stable. I show that situationists rely on a false dichotomy between character traits and situations, and that evidence supports the empirical adequacy of the sorts of character traits presupposed by virtue ethics. Additionally, I suggest that the personality traits of the five-factor model are relevant to virtue theory, in so far as they are malleable, morally salient, and seem to structurally parallel Aristotelian virtues and vices. Thus, contra situationism, the five-factor model supports the descriptive adequacy of a virtue-theoretical framework.
- Research Article
- Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2016
2 I concentrate on ‘virtue ethics’ as opposed to virtue theory in general, although most of what I have to say applies, mutatis mutandis, to any ethics which presupposes character traits saliently like those presupposed by virtue ethics.
3 In this article I focus on situationism as a philosophical, as opposed to psychological, position. Whereas situationist psychologists, such as Ross and Nisbett in Ross, L. and Nisbett, R. E., The Person and the Situation (New York, 1991)Google Scholar, posit the primacy of situations in explaining behaviour on the basis of experimental evidence, philosophical situationists, such as Doris in e.g. Doris, J. M., Lack of Character (Cambridge, 2002)CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Harman in e.g. Harman, G., ‘Moral Philosophy Meets Social Psychology: Virtue Ethics and the Fundamental Attribution Error’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 99 (1999), pp. 315–31CrossRefGoogle Scholar, concentrate on the implications of such work in psychology for philosophical theories like virtue ethics.
4 I shall ignore differences between ‘character’ and ‘personality’ traits since I take the situationist challenge, under the strong interpretation which I will presently develop, to pertain, as Doris puts it, ‘not so much [to] what distinguishes character and personality traits as what they have in common: behavioral consistency as the primary criterion of attribution’ (Doris, Lack of Character, p. 20).
5 Doris, Lack of Character, p. 19.
6 See Doris, Lack of Character, p. 22.
7 See Doris, Lack of Character, ch. 4 and Adams, R. M., A Theory of Virtue: Excellence in Being for the Good (Oxford, 2007)Google Scholar, ch. 8.
8 See Hartshorne, H. and May, M. A., Studies in the Nature of Character, Volume I: Studies in Deceit (New York, 1928)Google Scholar.
12 J. M. Darley and D. C. Batson, ‘From Jerusalem to Jericho: A Study of Situational and Dispositional Variables in Helping Behavior’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (27), pp. 100–8.
13 Doris, Lack of Character, p. 23.
14 Doris, Lack of Character, p. 28.
17 Doris, Lack of Character, p. 22.
18 Doris, Lack of Character, p. 23.
19 Although, as I have suggested, it is not the widespread existence of the virtues and vices per se that is best seen as the main situationist target, occasional remarks in the debate seem to invite such a reading, such as Doris's comment that the exceptions to situationist findings in experiments such as those mentioned above only ‘prove the rule’ (Lack of Character, p. 60). Moreover, more often than not, situationists will remain silent concerning the few subjects who, for instance, do stop to help while in a hurry, refuse to administer shocks, help whether or not they find a dime, and so on.
21 Since Doris's and Harman's challenges appeared, situationism has developed, so it is important to bear in mind that I am not refuting, and cannot here refute, all versions of the challenge. Recently, for instance, Merritt, M. W., Doris, J. M. and Harman, G., ‘Character’, The Moral Psychology Handbook, ed. Doris, J. M. and The Moral Psychology Research Group (Oxford, 2010), pp. 355–92CrossRefGoogle Scholar, took issue not with people's lack of cross-situational consistency and temporal stability of traits, which they claim is no longer ‘much in dispute’ (p. 358). Instead, Merritt et al. targeted the assumption that the conception of practical rationality built into certain Aristotelian conceptions of virtue ethics is empirically viable. Though this is an important question in its own right, I think that my arguments here leave it open for the most part. For the question of whether there exist global traits (understood as traits meeting conditions (i) and (ii) above) is largely orthogonal to whether or not such traits are the result of (conscious) practical reasoning, or largely unconscious affective-cognitive dispositions.
22 This claim, in turn, can be understood in different ways. It may be that global traits are psychologically impossible. However, since situationist arguments rely on experiments in empirical psychology, it is unclear how these could establish psychological impossibility. Alternatively, it may be that human psychology, for the most part, is infertile soil for the cultivation of global traits, since most people lack global traits. But since virtues and vices are global traits, most people lack the psychological resources for virtue.
23 Compare: ‘(1) If behavior is typically ordered by robust traits, systematic observation will reveal pervasive behavioral consistency. (2) Systematic observation does not reveal pervasive behavioral consistency. (3) Behavior is not typically ordered by robust traits’ (Merritt et al., ‘Character’, pp. 357–8).
25 Adams, A Theory of Virtue, pp. 126–31.
26 Adams, A Theory of Virtue, p. 127.
28 Compare Sabini and Silver, ‘Lack of Character?’.
29 See Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, e.g. p. 38.
30 This approach to traits echoes the CAPS approach (see e.g. Mischel, W. and Soda, Y., ‘A Cognitive-Affective System Theory of Personality: Reconceptualizing Situations, Dispositions, Dynamics, and Invariance in Personality Structure’, Psychological Review 102 (1995), pp. 246–68CrossRefGoogle Scholar), which, according to Miller, C., Character and Moral Psychology (Oxford, 2014)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, ch. 5, provides a sophisticated framework for our folk-psychological trait discourse, and has recently been employed by philosophers building their own, empirically informed theories of virtue, as witness Russell, D., Practical Intelligence and the Virtues (Oxford, 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Snow, N., Virtue as Social Intelligence: An Empirically Grounded Theory (New York, 2009)Google Scholar. Although I take what I say here to be compatible with such views, my aim is not to construct a new theory of character traits, but rather to rely on current personality psychology to undermine situationism, on the one hand, and possibly rekindle trust in virtue ethics, on the other. The CAPS model itself is compatible with the five-factor model discussed below, and often thought to simply elucidate different aspects of personality rather than articulate a distinct conception of traits (see McAdams, D. P. and Olson, B. D., ‘Personality Development: Continuity and Change Over the Life-Course’, Annual Review of Psychology 61 (2010), pp. 517–42CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed). Much of what I say here, then, will predictably be compatible with that view.
33 Jayawickreme, Compare E. et al., ‘Virtuous States and Virtuous Traits: How the Empirical Evidence Regarding the Existence of Broad Traits Saves Virtue Ethics from the Situationist Critique’, Theory and Research in Education 12 (2014), pp. 283–308 Google Scholar, who also offer a favourable assessment of the FFM's prospects in addressing situationism, focusing on the model of traits as density distributions, developed by Fleeson, W., ‘Toward a Structure- and Process-Integrated View of Personality: Traits as Density Distributions of States’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 80 (2001), pp. 1011–27CrossRefGoogle Scholar.
34 Debate is ongoing concerning whether more dimensions should be added. For example, the HEXACO model is like FFM with the addition of ‘honesty/humility’. See, e.g. Ashton, M. C. and Lee, K., ‘Honesty-Humility, the Big Five, and the Five-Factor Model’, Journal of Personality 73 (2005), pp. 1321–54CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed and Saucier, G., ‘Recurrent Personality Dimensions in Inclusive Lexical Studies: Indications for a Big Six Structure’, Journal of Personality 77 (2009), pp. 1577–1614 CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.
37 Table adapted from Nettle, Personality, pp. 28, 209.
38 Nettle, Personality, p. 41.
39 Nettle, Personality, pp. 6-9.
43 Nettle, Personality, pp. 27–32.
44 For philosophical objections to the FFM, see: Doris, Lack of Character, pp. 67–71; Prinz, J. J., ‘The Normativity Challenge: Cultural Psychology Provides the Real Threat to Virtue Ethics’, The Journal of Ethics 13 (2009), pp. 117–44CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 120–2; Miller, Character and Moral Psychology, ch. 6; Miller, C., ‘Lack of Virtue and Vice: Studies in Aggression and their Implication for the Empirical Adequacy of Character’, Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics, vol. 4, ed. Timmons, M. (Oxford, 2015), pp. 80–112 Google Scholar. Alfano, M., Character as Moral Fiction (New York, 2013), pp. 52–3CrossRefGoogle Scholar, basically dismisses it as irrelevant to virtue ethics within two pages. However, in his more recent Alfano, M., Moral Psychology: An Introduction (Cambridge, 2016), pp. 130–2Google Scholar, Alfano is less pessimistic concerning the prospects for the FFM, suggesting that evidence for the model highlights the need to take personality into account if we are to offer any adequate explanation of human behaviour.
48 Nettle, Personality, pp. 44–5.
49 Doris, Lack of Character, p. 74.
50 Doris, Lack of Character, p. 73.
51 Doris, Lack of Character, p. 74.
52 Doris, Lack of Character, p. 74. This, by the way, seems to me to be another passage where it seems like the situationist challenge has moved from targeting global traits to virtues.
53 Ross and Nisbett, The Person and the Situation, pp. 114–15.
55 E.g. Adams, A Theory of Virtue, pp. 122–5 construes virtues probabilistically: more or less virtue concerns probabilities of exhibiting virtuous behaviour under given circumstances.
56 See Doris, Lack of Character, pp. 67–72 and Prinz, ‘The Normativity Challenge’, p. 121.
57 Doris, Lack of Character, p. 38.
59 E.g. H. S. Friedman et al., ‘Psychosocial and Behavioural Predictors of Longevity: The Ageing and Death of the “Termites”’, American Psychologist 50 (1995), pp. 69–78.
60 E.g. Slutske, W. S. et al., ‘Personality and Problem Gambling: A Prospective Study of a Birth Cohort of Young Adults’, Archives of General Psychiatry 62 (2005), pp. 769–75CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; Swendsen, J. D. et al., ‘Are Personality Traits Familial Risk Factors for Substance Use Disorders? Results of a Controlled Family Study’, American Journal of Psychiatry 159 (2002), pp. 1760–6CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.
63 Kelly and Conley, ‘Personality and Compatibility’.
64 Friedman et al., ‘Psychosocial and Behavioural Predictors of Longevity’.
66 I should note that any correlations in the .30 ballpark mentioned in this section are not subject to the criticism that correlation coefficients for personality measures stagnate at around .30, which mainly concerns single-item behavioural measures (as Doris, Lack of Character, p. 72 acknowledges), since the correlations cited herein concern meta-analytic results for predictions of major life outcomes (almost inevitably containing a wide range of results if they are any good), as well as moment-by-moment behavioural predictions. Questioning the importance of .30 correlations for such measures manifests insensitivity to our subject matter, namely human psychology.
69 Fleeson, ‘Toward a Structure- and Process-Integrated View of Personality’.
71 Wrzus, C., Wagner, G. G. and Riediger, M., ‘Personality-Situation Transactions from Adolescence to Old Age’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 13 (2015)Google Scholar, no pagination specified.
72 Bouchard, T. J. and Loehlin, J. C., ‘Genes, Evolution, and Personality’, Behavior Genetics 31 (2001), pp. 243–73CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Bouchard, T. J. and McGue, M., ‘Genetic and Environmental Influences on Human Psychological Differences’, Journal of Neurobiology 54 (2003), pp. 4–45 CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.
73 Netter, Personality, pp. 69–70.
74 Nettle, Personality, pp. 121–2; see also pp. 99–101, 151–2, 177–81, 201–7, where Nettle puts forward equally credible hypotheses for the fluctuating selection of the remaining traits.
76 Depue, R. A. and Collins, P. F., ‘Neurobiology of the Structure of Personality: Dopamine Facilitation of Incentive Motivation, and Extraversion’, Behavioural and Brain Sciences 22 (1999), pp. 491–517 CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; Canli, T., ‘Functional Brain Mapping of Extraversion and Neuroticism: Learning from Individual Differences in Emotion Processing’, Journal of Personality 72 (2004), pp. 1105–31CrossRefGoogle Scholar.
77 See Nettle, Personality, pp. 141–3.
80 Gurrera et al., ‘The Five-Factor Model in Schizotypal Personality Disorder’, and Nettle, Personality, pp. 191–3.
81 Nettle, Personality, p. 70.
82 Slutske et al., ‘Personality and Problem Gambling’; Swendsen et al., ‘Are Personality Traits Familial Risk Factors for Substance Use Disorders?’.
83 Claridge, G. and Davies, C., ‘What's the Use of Neuroticism?’, Personality and Individual Differences 31 (2001), pp. 383–400 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Watson, D., Gamez, W. and Simms, L. J., ‘Basic Dimensions of Temperament and their Relation to Anxiety and Depression: A Symptom-Based Perspective’, Journal of Research in Personality 39 (2005), pp. 46–66 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.
85 Miller, Character and Moral Psychology, p. 136 (emphasis in the original).
86 This remark may require some clarification, for someone who has a mean score on a given dimension may be thought to not have a trait. For instance, consider the dimension of Neuroticism; someone may be on the high or low end; but someone may also be in the middle, thereby seeming to be neither neurotic nor the contrary. Hence, it may be said, such a person might appear to be trait-less at least vis-à-vis Neuroticism. But to think so would be a mistake. On the FFM (as on Aristotelian ethics) someone who has a mean score may be said to have an affective-cognitive disposition to behave, etc. in a way that lies somewhere in between those of the person who is very high and the one who is very low in Neuroticism. To illustrate, on pain of oversimplification, someone with a mean score on neuroticism will probably be neither insensitive to all danger and threat (as someone exceptionally low might), nor interpret every difficulty as a hint of impending doom (as someone very high might). But this does not mean that one with the score in question would not be disposed (i.e. have a disposition) to respond in certain characteristic ways in trait-relevant situations, even if we lack a term for this trait.
87 Miller, Character and Moral Psychology, pp. 140–1.
88 See Prinz, ‘The Normativity Challenge’, pp. 121–2.
89 Even McCrae, ‘The Place of the FFM in Personality Psychology’, pp. 58–61.
92 Ragby, R. M. et al., ‘Personality and Differential Treatment Response in Major Depression: A Randomized Controlled Trial Comparing Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy and Pharmacotherapy’, Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 53 (2008), pp. 361–70Google Scholar.
94 E.g. McCrae, R. and Costa, P. T., ‘Toward a New Generation of Personality Theories: Theoretical Contexts for the Five-Factor Model’, The Five-Factor Model of Personality: Theoretical Perspectives, ed. Wiggins, J. S. (New York, 1996), pp. 51–87 Google Scholar. Srivastava, Compare S. et al., ‘Development of Personality in Middle Adulthood: Set Like Plaster or Persistent Change?’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84 (2003), pp. 1041–53CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.
97 Specht, J., Egloff, B. and Schmukle, S. C., ‘Stability and Change of Personality Across the Life Course: The Impact of Age and Major Life Events on Mean-Level and Rank-Order Stability on the Big Five’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 101 (2011), pp. 862–82CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Roberts, B. W., O'Donnell, M. and Robins, R. W., ‘Goal and Personality Trait Development in Emerging Adulthood’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 87 (2004), pp. 541–50CrossRefGoogle Scholar.
98 Roberts, B. W. and DelVecchio, W. F., ‘The Rank-Order Consistency of Personality Traits from Childhood to Old Age: A Quantitative Review of Longitudinal Studies’, Psychological Bulletin 126 (2000), pp. 3–25 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Also recall the study noted earlier, which found that engaging in simple tasks can increase Openness even in old age.
100 This should be interpreted with caution, for it would be a gross oversimplification to think that however high one scores on these dimensions, it is always for the better. Indeed, the links between extreme scores on FFM dimensions and pathologies should seriously undermine our confidence in such scenarios.
101 See e.g. M. D. Blonigen et al., ‘Stability and Change in Personality Traits from Late Adolescence to Early Adulthood: A Longitudinal Twin Study’, Journal of Personality 76.2 (2008), pp. 229–66, at 256.
102 See McAdams and Olson, ‘Personality Development’.
103 Roberts et al., ‘Goal and Personality Trait Development in Emerging Adulthood’.
105 Some situationists (e.g. Olin and Doris, ‘Vicious Minds’; Alfano, Character as Moral Fiction, pp. 111-80) have recently targeted the epistemic virtues. But I take my requirement here to amount to something weaker than a requirement for epistemic virtue, something, moreover, discrediting which would require independent argument on the part of situationists.
106 Miller, Character and Moral Psychology, pp. 147–50; Prinz, ‘The Normativity Challenge’, p. 121.
107 Olin and Doris, ‘Vicious Minds’, p. 665.
109 Doris, Lack of Character, p. 26.
111 Sheppard, K. E. and Boon, S. D., ‘Predicting Appraisals of Romantic Revenge – The Roles of Honesty-Humility, Agreeableness, and Vengefulness’, Personality and Individual Differences 52 (2012), pp. 128–32CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Lee, K. and Ashton, M. C., ‘Psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and Narcissism in the FFM and the HEXACO Model of Personality Structure’, Personality and Individual Differences 38 (2005), pp. 1571–82CrossRefGoogle Scholar.
113 Schmitt, D. P., ‘The Big Five Related to Risky Sexual Behaviour Across 10 World Regions: Differential Personality Associations of Sexual Promiscuity and Relationship Infidelity’, European Journal of Personality 18 (2004), pp. 301–19CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Miller, J. D. et al., ‘The Utility of the Five Factor Model in Understanding Risky Sexual Behavior’, Personality and Individual Differences 36 (2004), pp. 1611–26CrossRefGoogle Scholar.
117 Lee and Ashton, ‘Psychopathy, Machiavellianism and Narcissism in the FFM and the HEXACO Model of Personality Structure’.
118 To put this differently, my arguments so far point to the importance of the FFM in the debate between situationists and virtue ethicists, as well as the potential of this model for an empirically informed virtue ethics. However, the story I offer is compatible with such views as Miller's, for instance, according to whom most people have ‘mixed traits’, comprising some features that we would describe as virtuous and others which seem vicious. See Miller, Character and Moral Psychology.
119 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, pp. 36–40.
120 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, pp. 43–4.
121 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, p. 40.
122 This is liable to mislead in the way indicated at the beginning of this section, namely to seem as though Agreeableness was empathy and the like. But the suggestion is only that Agreeableness is the FFM dimension that pertains to these virtues, not that the higher one scores on it, the more virtuous one will be.
123 Bègue et al., ‘Personality Predicts Obedience in a Milgram Paradigm’.
124 Schmitt, ‘The Big Five Related to Risky Sexual Behaviour’; Miller et al., ‘The Utility of the Five Factor Model in Understanding Risky Sexual Behavior’; Orzeck and Lung, ‘Big Five Personality Differences of Cheaters and Non-Cheaters’.
125 See Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, pp. 137–40.
126 See e.g. Plato, Laches and Charmides, trans. R. K. Sprague (Indianapolis, 1992).
127 See Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, pp. 159–83.
128 See Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, pp. 142–3.
129 I am grateful to Berys Gaut for encouraging me to write this article and for invaluable comments on previous drafts. I would also like to thank two anonymous reviewers for Utilitas for their comments, and Benjamin Sachs for comments on parts of an earlier draft. Finally, I would like to acknowledge my indebtedness to The Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation for a scholarship which has allowed me to pursue doctoral research in philosophy.