Passivity and Character: Proposing a Virtue Politics Beyond the Situationist Debates

Social psychology has multiply replicated experiments that small things outside our consciousness change our actions by changing our moods. Examples of this are, finding a dime or smelling cinnamon buns. This kind of passivity of our character formation goes further, because most of what we do in daily life is not paradigmatic deliberation, it is automatic, routine and habitual. Situationists wonder if we even have characters and even if we do, how do we engage in self-transformation and character change? I call this the micro-situationist challenge. I answer the micro-situationist challenge by first turning to Merleau-Ponty’s work on behaviour to talk about the inextricable intertwining of passivity and activity in all action. I do this in order to argue that virtue ethics cannot answer the situationist challenge because they assume that character resides only inside a person and that character is an intrinsic disposition. I illustrate this concretely with my work on automatic action from chapter one and by using anthropological work on Islamic female piety groups to show their strategies of reckoning with the automatic and passive side of our character through the affective and bodily habit training they use. Their use of Islamic virtue theory allows them to look at the deeply biological nature of habit but also that the environment or umwelt is constitutive of much of our action and so our senses must also be trained.