“Situational factors are often better predictors of behavior than personal factors,” writes Quassim Cassam to quote John Doris from his 2002 book on character. Cassam argues in his book that the adoption of epistemic vices and the development of epistemic virtues are important factors for humanity and that they can shape how people behave. Cassam’s argument runs against the quote from Doris.
To present his argument, Cassam lays out arguments from situationists writing, “one would think that curiosity, creativity, and flexibility are intellectual virtues, yet studies suggest that people are more likely to reason creatively, flexibly, and curiously when their moods have been elevated by such seemingly trivial and epistemically irrelevant situational influences as candy, success at anagrams, and comedy films.” The argument is that our minds are flexible and adaptable depending on the situation. We might be disciplined, open-minded, and patient when we are sitting in front of our computer at 9 a.m. for work, but when we are in a hurry and someone spills something in front of us at the grocery store, those traits no longer matter. If something as simple as a plant in our office, the smell of cleaning solutions, and the number of a building can change our mood, how well we tidy up, and whether judges assess large or small fines on a business, then we are not really in control as much as we think. Situations control us more than we recognize.
Cassam takes the argument to its conclusion by writing, “Situationists conclude that people don’t have robust character traits like compassion and courage, and that how they behave is often better explained by other factors.” But for Cassam, this conclusion is overreaching. People really do behave differently based on individual character traits. Epistemic vices and their study demonstrate that people who are more open-minded make consistently better decisions than people who are closed-minded. Similarly, people who are gullible, arrogant, and prejudiced will systematically behave in ways that are more detrimental to themselves and society than people who do not display those character traits. Situationists, Cassam argues, give to much weight to the environment and not enough weight to individuals, agency, and the power of the human mind to be considerate and self-reflective.
Personally, I find myself to lean more toward the situationists than toward Cassam. I agree that laboratory studies involving confederates and environmental studies demonstrating that trivial factors which influence behavior are limited. They don’t truly capture reality, just a brief and normally unusual snapshot of our lives. However, I think in our general daily thinking we error too far in assuming that individuals truly control their lives. It is a useful fiction, but I think we would do well to recognize the power of our environments and be more considerate in shaping the structures, institutions, and situations which guide our lives. We can learn lessons from the impacts of seemingly trivial factors that influence our behaviors. We can see that we have the capacity to change dramatic traits about ourselves from situation to situation and better structure how we interact with the world around us to produce more virtuous behaviors. Assuming that humans are consistent and that virtues or vices are more a matter of control than a matter of situational context ignores the reality that we live within institutions that shape how our minds work.