Interrogating Gilbert Harman about traits
By John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.) -- March, 2004
In all my writing, I make the normal assumption that there are such things as traits. To the normal person, it seems obvious that people can be described as (for instance) kind, honest, foolish, neurotic, trusting etc. There are in fact a very large number of ways in which people can be so categorized. What seems obvious to most people, however, does not always seem obvious to intellectuals, and the existence of traits is one of the things that some philosophers and psychologists do call into question. If they could succeed in convincing people that traits do not exist, it would certainly put a sock in my calling Leftists egotistical, psychopathic etc. So I think I should shoot down that particular nonsense.
There is a much-linked article on moral philosophy by Prof. Gilbert Harman of the Philosophy Dept. at Princeton -- titled "Moral Philosophy Meets Social Psychology" which espouses that claim. Judging by his publication list, Harman is one of the eminences of American moral philosophy so I am sorry to say that in my view his article is straight out of cloud-cuckoo land (with apologies to Aristophanes). I have no idea of Harman's general political orientation but his argument on this subject is classic Leftist stuff. To oversimplify a little, he claims that there is no such thing as a stable personality trait in anybody and that "It's all situational". It is only people's environment that dictates how they behave. So there is no barrier to creating a "new Soviet man", for instance. He claims, in other words, that there is no such thing as a "kind" man, a "dominant" man a "selfish" man etc. etc. His reasoning seems to be the completely fallacious: "Because nobody is kind all the time, therefore nobody is kind most of the time".
His article is deceptive from the outset. He claims that his view is "widespread" among social psychologists. If one psychologist in half a dozen countries around the world held such a view, I suppose the view could indeed be described as "widespread" but that would not at all mean that it is a majority view. And to my knowledge it is in fact the view of only a small minority of psychologists. Such a view had some vogue in response to a paper by Mischel (Mischel, W. (1977) "On the future of personality measurement" American Psychologist 32, 246-254) but the vast majority of psychologists continued to talk of traits nonetheless.
Where Harman appears to have gone wrong is in his narrow view of social psychology. There are two strands of social psychology -- the experimental and the correlational. The typical method of the first is to tell lies to your students and see what happens next while the typical method of the second is simply to ask people what they think about a variety of topics. Almost all my papers are in the latter tradition. And the reason why I and many others do the sort of psychology we do is that we find the totally unknowable generalizability of the experimental work to be deeply unsatisfactory. Neither people nor situations are normally sampled in any way in such work so any attempt to draw general conclusions from its results is faith, not science. And it is the "faith-based" work that Harman relies on.
The more soundly-based correlational work, on the other hand, almost automatically has the means of examining the sort of assertion made by Harman. It has the data to tell (via factor analysis etc.) whether there is any trait-like consistency in what people report about themselves. And there is. People do report considerable consistency in how they behave from situation to situation. And not only that, but the consistency can usually be readily summarized by normal trait adjectives, and OTHER PEOPLE agree that the self-described consistencies of behaviour do exist in the individual concerned (e.g. here). Harman has simply not attempted to look at the evidence most relevant to his assertion. But unconcern about the evidence is of course hardly new among Leftists. I would even describe it as one of their "traits"!
I sent a copy of the above critique to Prof. Harman. He emailed me a brief reply, the key sentence of which was "My article was intended only to point to certain developments in social psychology" -- a much more modest claim than he in fact originally made. For instance, he originally said "Character based virtue ethics may offer a reasonable account of ordinary moral views. But to that extent, these ordinary views rest on error". A climbdown from "error" to "certain developments" is quite a plummet. Given the way he had ignored half the evidence on his topic, a backdown was of course all that was available to him.
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