Virtues as Properly Motivated, Self-Integrated Traits

PIs: Blaine Fowers & Brad Cokelet

It is common to attribute virtue traits such as fairness and kindness to ourselves or to other people. Yet many philosophers and social scientists doubt that virtues exist. We designed three studies to provide high quality evidence for robust virtue traits. The best way to show that a virtue exists is to provide evidence of it as an individual trait that occurs consistently. A robust virtue includes behavior, motivation, and self-integration that are aligned with the virtue and carried out consistently over time by a person. In the first study, we will intensively assess individuals in their natural environments. We will ask them to describe their virtue-related behavior, motivation, and self-integration four times per day for 14 days. We chose fairness and kindness because there are many daily opportunities to express these virtues. We expect moderate to strong consistency between virtue-related behavior, motivation, and self-integration within individuals over time. That is, when virtue-related behavior is low, motivations and self-integration will also be low. When virtue-related behavior is higher, motivations and self-integration will also be higher. This would mean that there are individual differences in the degree of virtue. We also expect an individual’s behaviors in one part of the study to be strongly related to his or her behaviors in another part of the study. The same should be true of motivations and self-integration. We will also test whether these virtues are more likely in private versus public settings and in close relationships compared to interactions with strangers or acquaintances. These numerical data will strongly test for the presence or absence of virtues.

We will also investigate more deeply how virtues fit or do not fit into people’s lives. After collecting the numerical data, we will select five individuals with high levels of the virtues and five with low levels of the virtues. We will interview them to find out how they learned about fairness and kindness. We will also ask them to describe the good and not so good examples of how they have practiced these virtues. This interview will allow us to gain a richer understanding of how virtues are or are not integrated into individuals’ lives and identities.

We designed two experimental studies to test whether we can observe virtuous behavior in controlled conditions. We will measure kindness and fairness as traits in all participants. Then we will randomly assign participants to experimental conditions that will encourage or discourage each virtue. If these virtues exist, then people with higher levels of the traits should act more kindly or more fairly. We also expect the situational conditions to affect kindness and fairness and for the situation and the traits to jointly affect kind and fair behavior. These three studies comprise the most stringent and intensive study of fairness and kindness to date. Our results will provide the strongest available reasons to acknowledge or question the existence of these virtues.