Situationism, Responsibility, and Fair Opportunity

Social Philosophy & Policy (Forthcoming)

San Diego Legal Studies Paper No. 13-130

25 Pages Posted: 19 Jul 2013 Last revised: 27 Aug 2013

See all articles by David O. Brink

David O. Brink

University of California, San Diego; University of San Diego School of Law

Date Written: July 18, 2013


The situationist literature in psychology claims that conduct is not determined by character and reflects the operation of the agent’s situation or environment. For instance, due to situational factors, compassionate behavior is much less common than we might have expected from people we believe to be compassionate. This article focuses on whether situationism should revise our beliefs about moral responsibility. It assesses situationism’s implications against the backdrop of a conception of responsibility that is grounded in norms about the fair opportunity to avoid wrongdoing that require that agents be normatively competent and possess situational control. Despite the low incidence of compassionate behavior revealed in situationist studies, situationism threatens neither situational control nor normative competence. Somewhat surprisingly, situationist studies are more relevant to normative competence than to situational control. However, they reveal imperfect performance but do not threaten normative competence. Even if situationism is not generally excusing, it may force revision in our views about responsibility in particular contexts, such as wartime wrongdoing. Whereas a good case can be made that the heat of battle can create situational pressures that significantly impair normative competence and thus sometimes provide a full or partial excuse, there is reason to be skeptical of attempts to generalize this excuse to other contexts of wartime wrongdoing. If so, moral responsibility can take situationism on board without capsizing the boat.

Keywords: character, competence, excuse, normative competence, performance, responsibility, situational control, situationism, virtue, wartime wrongdoing

JEL Classification: K14

Suggested Citation

Brink, David O., Situationism, Responsibility, and Fair Opportunity (July 18, 2013). Social Philosophy & Policy (Forthcoming), San Diego Legal Studies Paper No. 13-130, Available at SSRN: or

David O. Brink (Contact Author)

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University of San Diego School of Law ( email )

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