Virtues in Conflict: a Cross-Cultural Study of Virtue Dilemmas and their Resolution

Project: Research project

Project Details


Virtues in Conflict: a Cross-Cultural Study of Virtue Dilemmas and their Resolution Virtues in Conflict: a Cross-Cultural Study of Virtue Dilemmas and their Resolution Virtues regularly come into conflict. We may have dispositions to be both honest and kind, but in some cases we cannot be both. And even the compassionate may face tough choices between helping a stranger or a close friend. Aristotle proposed that a control system, phronesis or practical wisdom, helps us resolve such virtue dilemmas in daily life (1). While some studies suggest that people in different places and times broadly agree on a core set of virtues (2), what counts as appropriate practical wisdom can vary substantially across societies. Consider the "passenger's dilemma," a vignette in which someone is asked to lie under oath to protect a friend from prosecution for having hit a pedestrian. In one cross-cultural study of the dilemma, Venezuelan respondents were seven times more likely than Swiss respondents to say they would violate the virtue of honesty to protect the friend (3). How people resolve such dilemmas in daily life has implications for the functioning of society, including the perpetuation of corruption, the operation of the criminal system, and the organization of the welfare state. However, despite some cross-cultural research on what counts as a virtue (2), we know very little about the extent or root causes of variation in how people prioritize virtues in different societies. As opposed to most studies of social dilemmas in economics and psychology which focus on conflicts between narrow self-interest and virtuous action (4-8), many of the virtue dilemmas we face in daily life require tough choices between competing appeals to our goodwill. In short, many dilemmas are not between being naughty or nice, but rather between competing appeals to be nice. To build a foundation for studying such virtue dilemmas in cross-cultural perspective, the proposed project will bring together scholars in philosophy, anthropology, psychology, and economics to answer the following questions. 1. What virtue dilemmas are most commonly faced by people in different places and times? 2. How are such dilemmas resolved in diverse cultural contexts? 3. How do cultural and ecological conditions influence how people resolve such dilemmas? To answer these questions, the project will involve two complementary research phases-(1) a systematic cross-cultural review of virtue dilemmas in the ethnographic record and (2) a set of interdisciplinary working groups and field studies aimed at developing and implementing tools for cross-cultural comparison of actual behavior in virtue dilemmas. An important aim of the working groups will be to bring together scholars who study such dilemmas from both the humanities and the social sciences to understand how these diverse approaches can complement each other in the scientific study of virtues and virtue dilemmas. During the workshops, participants will hash out a common language for talking about virtue dilemmas, identify key questions about such dilemmas in different disciplines, and develop methods to study how people in a broad range of human societies think about and behave in such virtue dilemmas. The project will contribute to the academic study of virtue in several ways. It will provide a necessary cross-cultural perspective on how people resolve virtue dilemmas and more generally how people construct a "good life" in diverse societies (Keltner, pos. psych). It will contribute to current research on social preferences in economics, which has traditionally focused on conflicts between narrow self-interest and social preferences but is now beginning to approach the more general problem of virtue conflicts (4, 6-8). It will also start conversations between scholars in the humanities and sciences on how to study virtue dilemmas. The project aims to raise the public visibility of the science of virtues, through a museum exhibit and public symposium, and to improve our understanding of cross-societal differences in virtue conflicts as they relate to
Effective start/end date3/1/102/29/12


  • John Templeton Foundation: $215,868.00


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