Situationism and Moral Responsibility: An Externalist Account
Ciurria, Michelle Theresa
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Situationism is the position that there is no such thing as broad, situation-invariant character. This view emerged from situationist psychology experiments, such as the famous Milgram Obedience Experiments. It is supposed to impugn character-based theories that posit motivationally self-sufficient virtues, such as (one natural reading of) Aristotelian virtue ethics. While situationists agree on this point, a survey of the literature reveals that they defend inconsistent accounts of moral responsibility, ranging from radically revisionary to staunchly conservative. In my dissertation, I begin by focusing on three of the most preeminent situationists—John Doris, Gilbert Harman, and Philip Zimbardo—and show that their accounts of moral responsibility are inchoate, mutually incompatible, and sometimes incongruous with the central logic of situationist psychology. I also argue that the epistemological problem, i.e., the problem that we have very weak and unreliable access to our mental states, undermines traditional psychological accounts of moral responsibility, which depend on strong introspective access. This position is corroborated by cognitive science research into cognitive distortions such as confabulation, rationalization, and cognitive bias. In the constructive part of my dissertation, I propose a new, externalistic account of moral responsibility, based on Holmes' standard of the reasonable person (SRP), which measures responsibility by what a reasonable person would do in the defendant's circumstances. This account was developed as an alternative to traditional choice and character-based theories of legal responsibility, and is particularly apt for assessing cases of negligence and coercion, which traditional theories were incapable of explaining. If we see situational constraints as a form of coercion, this account is also adept at capturing these types of excuses. I argue that an equivalent to SRP is long overdue in moral philosophy, for the purposes of capturing non-psychological excusing factors and accommodating empirical research that undermines the traditional assumption of epistemic transparency.