Can you make a habit of morals? (PI)
Self-control is often heralded as the character strength that fuels all of the other character strengths. That is, current literature tends to assume that self-control is a prerequisite to being honest, selfless, or brave. But this assumption is at best a small part of, and at worst, at odds with classical theories of virtue ethics. Classically, virtues are regarded as regular tendencies and desires for goodness, as opposed to using self-control to overcome internal moral conflict.
In this project, participants reported virtuous thoughts, virtuous behaviors, and their self-control depletion several times per day for one week. Using unsupervised machine learning techniques will be used to examine patterns of relationships between within-person virtues and self-control. If classical theories of virtue ethics are correct, a pattern of "virtuous" individuals should emerge who are characterized as displaying character strengths consistently, regardless of self-control depletion. That is, there should be at least a small subset of individuals who have formed virtuous habits, and therefore do not need self-control to behave morally.
Can we honestly measure virtues? (PI)
Quantitative measures of virtues face a number of validity challenges. First, many measures appear to construe virtues as thin constructs which ignore situational nuances in the application of virtuous behavior. For instance, individuals who score very highly on measures of forgiveness are at greater risk of poor relationship outcomes-- a phenomenon researchers have dubbed the "doormat effect." Measures of virtues, such as forgiveness, often assume that a particular pattern of behavior (forgetting past transgressions, for instance) are good behavioral tendencies regardless of the circumstance (perhaps forgivness has a different look when a transgression is repeated over and over). Being a doormat does not intuitively sound like a character strength. Moreover, the overt face validity of virtues measures increases the vulnerability of such measures to social desirability bias. Few people are inclined to "strongly agree" with the statement "I lie to get ahead." And even if they did, would you trust that they were telling the truth? While researchers may statistically control for this issue using measures such as the CMSDS or the BIDR, researchers of character strengths have their hands tied. Many items on such scales are confounded with virtues becasuse virtues are presumably desirable behaviors. So it is unsurprising that virtue researchers typically opt not to control for desirable responding in their studies.
While informant-report and qualitative studies may correct these issues, quantitative self-report studies of character strengths are not going away any time soon. First, informant and qualitative studies tend to be resource-heavy in terms of time and finances. Second, individuals are likely the most knowledgeable source to ask questions about internal states such as emotions and thoughts (which are critical aspects of character strengths and virtues). I am currently working on two papers to address this problem. First, I am working to assess the most-widely used measures of virtues for what aspects of virtue they measure well, and what aspects of virtues they measure poorly. Ideally this will identify which measures are more robust to issues such as the indiscriminant application of forgiving behaviors. Second, I am also in the process of triangulating self-report, other-report, and implicit virtue data, alongside responses to social desirability scales in order to assess the magnitude of social desirability bias in self-reported virtues. This will also allow for first steps in identifying which social desirability items are the least confounded with virtues and may be useful for controlling bias in future literature.
Mapping the relationships between virtues and vices
A virtue in one context may become a vice in another context. For instance, bravery is generally not lauded when it serves a terrorist. Confidence can easily become close-mindedness, and honesty can become brusque. Aristotelian virtue ethics characterizes each virtue along a continuum from vices of defficiency to vices of excess. For instance, if one is deficient in courage, they may be cowardly, but if they are excessively corageous, they may be better described as foolish. Aristotelian virtue ethics also describes virtuous individuals as possessing practical wisdom when they practice all of the virtues appropriately.
My colleagues and I believe that virtues may provide checks and balances on one another in order to produce wise behaviors. For instance, courage and prudence may counterbalance one another. Contextual factors may indicate whether courage or prudence are most appropriate for a given situation, and will keep one another from becoming excessive to the point of vice (prudence keeps courage from becoming foolhardy, courage keeps prudence from becoming cowardly). My colleagues and I are constructing a theoretical map of these relationships, and are testing the theory by examining the co-occurance of virtues and vices among laypersons.