The indeterminacy paradox: Character evaluations and human psychology

Noûs 39 (1):1–42 (2005)
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Abstract

You may not know me well enough to evaluate me in terms of my moral character, but I take it you believe I can be evaluated: it sounds strange to say that I am indeterminate, neither good nor bad nor intermediate. Yet I argue that the claim that most people are indeterminate is the conclusion of a sound argument—the indeterminacy paradox—with two premises: (1) most people are fragmented (they would behave deplorably in many and admirably in many other situations); (2) fragmentation entails indeterminacy. I support (1) by examining psychological experiments in which most participants behave deplorably (e.g., by maltreating “prisoners” in a simulated prison) or admirably (e.g., by intervening in a simulated theft). I support (2) by arguing that, according to certain plausible conceptions, character evaluations presuppose behavioral consistency (lack of fragmentation). Possible reactions to the paradox include: (a) denying that the experiments are relevant to character; (b) upholding conceptions according to which character evaluations do not presuppose consistency; (c) granting that most people are indeterminate and explaining why it appears otherwise. I defend (c) against (a) and (b).

Author's Profile

Peter Vranas
University of Wisconsin, Madison

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