Last week I talked about the phenomenon that what people do is influenced by the situation they are in in the sense that the situation determines what they do and that it is not their values and attitudes that make them act in a certain way. The latter is what we should expect and it is also what many people consider desirable. This view that actions are situation-dependent is called situationism.
I have talked about situationism in my blogs before, although I didn’t call it that way. For instance, maybe some long-time followers of these blogs remember that people with a warm cup of coffee in their hands are more positive towards strangers than people holding a cold pad. In several other blogs I discussed the view of the psychologist Phillip Zimbardo who developed the theory (based on his research) that it is the situation that makes you a devil or a hero. Not psychological dispositions make people behave in an evil way but the situation brings people that far, so Zimbardo. Actually it is also what Hannah Arendt defends in her book on the Eichmann trial, just as Stanley Milgram does in his famous study Obedience to Authority.
If situationism were true in its strict sense, the question presents itself whether people can still be considered responsible for their behaviour. For isn’t it so that they can say then “I can’t help that I acted that way; the situation made me do so and I couldn’t resist”? And indeed, that is in fact what people do when they appeal to an order given to them by someone above them. In the end strict situationism means that we cannot be held responsible for what we do and also the idea that we have a free will is at stake.
Although I don’t want to deny that a situation can have a large influence on our behaviour and that it is often difficult to resist the “pressure of the situation”, I think that there is much to say against the idea of strict situationism. (In what follows for a part I follow the argumentation by Pauline Kleingeld in her article referred to below). For isn’t it so that we can often chose the situation that fits us best? To give a banal example: Don’t be surprised that we’ll play football if we have joined a football club, for if we had preferred to skate, we would have joined a skating club. And so it often goes. Another approach is trying to manipulate a situation. Again a simple example: If you don’t want to be asked for a task but you know that you’ll not refuse, hide yourself behind the backs of the others present; if you just want to be asked, seat yourself in the first row. A third way to confront conceivable situations is to train for it. That’s what soldiers do, when they train for war, so that they don’t run away when the shootings start. All these possibilities – and there are certainly more - are forms of situation management: conscious ways to make yourself prepared to what can happen or to influence what will happen.
But if we can make the situation so that it makes us do what we do want to do – and often it is possible – we can no longer hold the view that we are not the responsible agents that we denied we are. Although situations often happen to us, we are free to prepare ourselves for the possibility that they will happen and that we will be “pressed” to take a stand we actually do not want to take. “Why do I do now what I do?” is a question we have to learn to ask as much as possible. By preparing ourselves “[our] behavior is no longer just due to ‘the power of the situation’ and ‘without intentional direction’ ”, as Kleingeld says it (p. 357; italics K.). This doesn’t mean that we can always follow our preferences, but it makes us conscious of what we do by our own volitions and what we do “because we can’t help” and what is beyond our control. By doing so, we make ourselves the responsible persons we are, but we are also ready to take the responsibility that others ascribe to us (and with right). Then we don’t need to refer to the situation as an unjustifiable excuse. If you want to be free, prepare yourself.