In light of Fritz’s talk at the conference, I wanted to take a moment to think through the distinction that is fundamental to the situationist camp in social psychology. This is of course the distinction between local and global character traits. Roughly speaking, local character traits are a function of particular situations, whereas global character traits are invariant from situation to situation.
In order for the central claim of the situationist to be interesting, we ought to be able to clearly discern between character traits that are local and those that are global. But I find myself wondering just how easily these two might collapse into one another. The point can be approached from two directions. First, consider a putatively global character trait – for example, being cordial. It’s altogether too easy to conjure up a situation in which even the most cordial person grows peevish (e.g., subject them to torture). Thus it seems we were rash in calling this a global character trait to begin with, for we took certain aspects of the situation for granted. We are then forced to qualify the trait (thereby making it local) by augmenting it to being cordial-when-not-being-tortured. I suspect that similar stories can be told for any putatively global trait. Thus we might conclude that any global character trait can be rendered local by considering a wider and wider array of possible situations.
Or, in the other direction, consider a putatively local character trait – for example, being helpful-immediately-after-finding-money. The string of qualifications after ‘helpful’ is supposedly what makes this character trait local. But nevertheless, if a person possessed the local character trait of being helpful-immediately-after-finding-money, I submit that it would be globally (i.e. categorically, unrestrictedly) true of that person that they are helpful immediately after finding money. Here I am thinking of ‘it is globally true that…’ as a sentential operator, akin to the box and diamond of modal logic. In the same way that ☐ P implies ☐ ☐ P in most modal logics (which in turn implies that ☐ ☐ ☐ P, ad infinitum), I’m suggesting that for any local character trait a person has, it will be true of them that in any situation (i.e., globally) they have that local trait.
The natural move at this point would be to fall back on the idea that one character trait can be more local (or more global) than another, but that it might not make sense to speak of absolutely local or absolutely global character traits. I’m not sure if this makes the situationist’s claim too banal to be worth examining.