Integrating Social Cognitive Theory and Virtue Ethics
David Cloutier (PI) (Religion & Theology, Mount St. Mary’s University)
Anthony Ahrens (Co-PI) (Psychology, American University)
How might we understand the relation of personality and morality? Many insights into this question can be found in careful synthesis of the disciplines of psychology and ethics, if the right resources are used. This project seeks to overcome limitations within each discipline to offer a synthesis that sheds considerable light on overall human well-being.
The idea of “personality” in psychology is often associated with trait theory, which emphasizes human consistency. While trait theory has been helpful in some ways it also has limits in understanding how individuals act inconsistently. An alternative view of human personality, social cognitive theory, emphasizes the complex interaction of people with their situations. This interaction can yield change as people view their situations differently, learn new competencies, and develop new values. In particular, social cognitive theory emphasizes the ways in which cognitive concepts - which ethicists would associate with the idea that moral action is intentional - shape a person.
In the past, theories of morality have also been limited, sometimes overemphasizing rational rule-following or non-rational intuition. The focus of ethics was on specific acts and dilemmas, rather than the development of a person’s overall character. Catholic theological ethics has in recent decades recovered the pre-modern language of the virtues as central for an adequate understanding of the moral life. The idea of a person possessing virtues has obvious overlap with psychological notions of personality.
However, there is little integration of work on virtues with social cognitive theory. The traditional understanding of virtue includes the idea that a moral person acts not automatically, but “for the right reasons.” Hence, social cognitive theory appears to be an ideal account of the idea of human personality implicit in virtue theory. For instance, consider someone in a Catholic community that regularly focuses on gratitude. Social cognitive theory emphasizes the person’s context, values, beliefs, and actions. It would anticipate change, if a person came more to value gratitude and interpret actions via a concept of gift rather than of contract. This change in values and interpretations would shape intentional activity in terms of “response to gift” rather than “seeking of gain.” Cognition is social, so this dynamic pattern of individual development reinforces the community’s focus on gratitude in a virtuous cycle. Thus, social cognitive theory will yield important insights into the development of virtues, as well as specifying how virtuous actions rely on cognitive schemas, not simply mindless repetitionBetter understanding of virtue is important for well-being. While some perspective on well-being emphasize the experience of positive emotion or life satisfaction, other perspectives on well-being emphasize living life well, that is, virtuously. For the latter, better understanding the acquisition and development of virtue is key; if virtue is understood to be not static but dynamic, as social cognitive theory would suggest, people would seem more likely to try to increase it and so live life more fully. Our project seeks to increase well-being by integrating social cognitive theory and virtue ethics, thereby facilitating the following of virtuous paths in life.