Aristotle on the person-situation debate: the influence of environment on natural character

Studies of Aristotle’s conception of character (τὸ ἦθος) traditionally focus on his ethical works (Annas, 1993; Nussbaum, 1986; and Sherman, 1989). In this context, character is discussed mainly in its role as the bearer of morality: it is a virtuous state (ἕξις) of character that disposes one to perform actions that hit the mean and that are therefore praiseworthy. Aristotle emphasizes that these states of character – and not just our actions – are ‘up to us and voluntary’ (see, e.g., NE III 5, 1114a4-31; b28-9: ἐφ’ ἡμῖν καὶ ἑκούσιοι). Provided that we receive the appropriate moral education from childhood and are raised in a properly organized city, we can shape our character by performing right and just actions. The moral character that results from this kind of habituation is stable across time and robust across situations, and therefore reliably predicts and guides virtuous actions. It is this ‘personality’ view of character that has continued to inspire virtue-ethicists and moral psychologists to the present day, but which – more recently – also has attracted considerable criticism (see Doris 2002, especially 1-27; Merritt, 2000: 365-366; and Merritt, Doris & Harman, 2010: 356-360). For, according to the so-called situationist view of personality, studies in social and personality psychology provide substantial empirical evidence against the existence of such ‘global’ personality traits (instead, traits are at most temporally stable and are situation-specific) and in favor of our behavior being influenced by situational factors (rather than by our personality traits), which are often not in our control.

An important part of the ‘Aristotle on the physiology of character’ project that I will be working on in the next couple of months involves showing that Aristotle’s mostly neglected biological views about ‘natural’ (as opposed to ‘moral’) character offer a third, alternative view of character that accommodates both the personality views about the importance of traits in explaining our actions as well as the situationist views about the influence of our environment. In short, I believe that Aristotle’s own position about character and virtue is more subtle and less empirically problematic than it is sometimes made out to be.

For, in his biological works, Aristotle treats character as one of the four differentia by which animals differ from one another (the other three being: their ways of life, actions, and parts) and defines it as a natural capacity (φυσικὴ δύναμις) of the soul that predisposes the animal’s – non-moral – feelings or actions related to survival and procreation. For instance, Aristotle characterizes the cuckoo as an extremely cowardly bird on account of the fact that ‘it is chased by all other birds and lays eggs in the nests of others’ (GA III 1, 750a13-15). Thus, although natural character traits also reliably predict and guide all kinds of behaviors (e.g., cuckoos typically allow themselves to be pecked at even by little birds: HA IX 29, 618a25-30), Aristotle believes that those traits themselves are highly determined by the organism’s physiological make-up or what he calls its ‘material nature’ (which in the case of the cuckoo is cold: GA III 1, 750a12) and by external efficient causes that are not up to that organism, such as climate, aging, and disease (e.g., old cuckoos are even colder in nature and therefore cannot help but be even more cowardly). In other words, although Aristotle consistently holds that it is the animal’s natural character that predicts its behavior, natural character traits themselves are not robust, but influenced – if not determined – by situation and are stable only incidentally, depending on the extend to which their situation remains stable over time. Since Aristotle considers the characters of animals as similar, and their intellectual capacities as analogous, to those of humans (HA VIII 1, 588a18-b3), it is reasonable to suppose that physiological and environmental factors will equally determine the kind of natural character humans have. Indeed, this is confirmed by Aristotle’s infamous ‘ethnography’ in Pol VII 7, 1327b18-1328a20, where he suggests that the types of character a given class of humans has, and even the type of political organization it is capable of, depend on the climate in which it lives.

The idea is thus that, although Aristotle never denies that the shaping of our moral character is ‘up to us’ or that character – whether moral or natural – guides our actions, his biological views indicate that the stability and quality of our natural character is influenced by all kinds of natural and environmental factors that are not in our control. Only those who have developed a state of moral character (whether virtuous, vicious, or akratic) possess global personality traits; for everyone else who does not possess such moral states, traits are highly local and situation specific. This fragility of natural character has important ethical consequences, in particular with regard to moral luck: Aristotle believes that only very few humans possess the appropriate natural traits that make the transition to moral character easy or even possible, which means that not all humans possess equal opportunities for the development of virtue and hence for living a happy life.