Opacity of Character: Virtue Ethics and the Legal Admissibility of Character Evidence

Philosophical Issues 31 (1):334-354 (2021)
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Many jurisdictions prohibit or severely restrict the use of evidence about a defendant’s character to prove legal culpability. Situationists, who argue that conduct is largely determined by situational features rather than by character, can easily defend this prohibition. According to situationism, character evidence is misleading or paltry. Proscriptions on character evidence seem harder to justify, however, on virtue ethical accounts. It appears that excluding character evidence either denies the centrality of character for explaining conduct—the situationist position—or omits probative evidence. Situationism is, after all, presented as antithetical to virtue ethics. This essay provides a virtue ethical defense of character evidence exclusion rules. We show that existing virtue ethical rebuttals to situationism themselves support prohibitions on character evidence; even if behavior arises from stable character traits, character evidence should be prohibited. In building our case, we provide a taxonomy of kinds of character judgment and reconcile the ubiquity and reasonableness of character judgments in ordinary life with the epistemic legitimacy of character evidence prohibitions in law.

Author Profiles

Georgi Gardiner
University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Jacob Smith
University of Virginia


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