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New Ideas in Psychology 33 (2014) 2134

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New Ideas in Psychology

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Positive psychology on character strengths and virtues. A

disquieting suggestionq
Konrad Banicki
Institute of Applied Psychology, Jagiellonian University, Ul. ojasiewicz 4, 30-348 Krakw, Poland

a b s t r a c t

Keywords: The Values in Action (VIA) classication of character strengths and virtues has been
Values in Action recently proposed by two leading positive psychologists, Christopher Peterson and Martin
Character strenghts Seligman as the social science equivalent of virtue ethics. The very possibility of devel-
oping this kind of an equivalent, however, is very doubtful in the light of the cogent
criticism that has been leveled at modern moral theory by Alasdair MacIntyre as well as
Unity of virtue
Fact/value distinction the well argued accusations that positive psychology, despite its ofcial normative
neutrality, is pervaded by specically Western individualism and instrumentalism. In order
to evaluate whether the VIA project can be considered as substantially rooted in virtue
ethical tradition, the classication was assessed against two fundamental features of the
classical version of the latter: (1) the substantial interconnectedness of individual virtues,
as expressed by the thesis of the unity of virtue, and (2) the constitutive character of the
relationship between virtue and happiness. It turned out, in result, that the two above
features are not only absent from but also contradicted by the VIA framework with the
latters: (10 ) construal of individual virtues and character strengths as independent vari-
ables and (20 ) ofcial endorsement of the fact/value distinction. As soon as the arguments
for the superiority of the classical virtue ethical perspective are provided, the potential
responses available to the VIAs proponents are discussed.
2014 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

1. From MacIntyres disquieting suggestion to however, the situation changes for better and some
Peterson and Seligmans classication of character enlightened people undertake the mission of reviving
strengths and virtues scientic knowledge.1
Their noble endeavor, however, is very deeply, if not
At the beginning of Alasdair MacIntyres After Virtue thoroughly, undermined by the fact that they have only
(MacIntyre, 2007; cf. MacIntyre, 1984), arguably one of the scarce remains of a once sophisticated system of thought
most inuential books in 20th century analytic philosophy, and practice. In fact, they have largely forgotten what it
the reader is asked to imagine that humanity has suffered a was (MacIntyre, 2007, p. 1, emphasis added): both the real
great catastrophe after which civilization has reverted to nature and the meaning of their predecessors achieve-
the Dark Ages. All natural sciences and technology have ments is obscure to them. The revived science turns out to
virtually vanished. Some time after this great disaster, be nothing more than a knowledge of experiments de-
tached from any knowledge of the theoretical context
which gave them signicance; parts of theories unrelated
q Christopher M. Peterson, one of the authors of the VIA classication
investigated in this paper, sadly passed away on 9 October 2012. The
obituaries of this great contributor to psychological studies of the good
life and virtuous character can be found in Park, Oates, and Schwarzer MacIntyres somewhat science-ctional piece of imagery is based on
(2013). the post-apocalyptic novel written by Walter Miller (1960): A Canticle for
E-mail address: Leibowitz.

0732-118X/$ see front matter 2014 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
22 K. Banicki / New Ideas in Psychology 33 (2014) 2134

either to the other bits and pieces of theory . or to Before conducting this particular analysis, however,
experiment; instruments whose use has been forgotten; some preparation will be needed. (1) First, recent criticism
half-chapters from books, single pages from articles, not of positive psychology will be briey summarized. Even
always fully legible because torn and charred. though this criticism is usually directed at the program
These ambitious restorers, importantly, are not only understood globally, rather than at the project of Peterson
ignorant of the real character science in the past but also and Seligman in particular, it still substantially shares
mostly unaware of their own ignorance. Working under the philosophical and theoretical perspectives with this paper
illusion that they are rebuilding real science they advertise and is applicable to the VIA classication as highly repre-
the return of physics, chemistry, and biology. They are sentative, for better or worse, of positive psychology. (2)
deeply wrong, however, because what they are doing is Second, the particular classication of character strengths
not natural science in any proper sense at all. The context and virtues will be briey delineated with a special focus on
that once used to provide meaning to their practice, its philosophical and theoretical underpinnings. This
including scientic standards of consistency and coher- preparation will enable us to assess whether the VIA clas-
ence, has been lost, perhaps irretrievably. sication has really provided the social science equivalent
The analysis of this imagined situation is only an of virtue ethics by evaluating this classication against
introduction to a deep and sophisticated investigation into two typical features of the classical virtue ethical perspec-
the condition of modernity. The striking and very inuen- tive: (3) the interconnectedness of individual virtues, as
tial thesis that comes to be founded on this investigation is embodied in the thesis of the unity of virtue, and (4) the
that in the actual world which we inhabit the language of constitutive relationship between virtue and happiness. What
morality is in the same state of grave disorder as the lan- will be investigated, importantly, is not just the faithful-
guage of natural science in the imaginary world (p. 2) ness of the psychological classication to its philosophical
described above. Modern so-called moral philosophy, ac- counterpart but also the validity of any ways in which it
cording to this disquieting suggestion, is not moral phi- may deviate. (5) Finally, there will be some concluding
losophy in any proper sense at all. remarks concerning potential responses available to the
The post-apocalyptic project of a scientic renaissance VIA classications proponents.3
foundered because of its lack of proper theoretical and
meta-theoretical context including forgotten genuinely 2. Positive psychology under re
scientic practices. Modern moral philosophy, analogously,
is inevitably entangled in endless and irresolvable disputes The classication of character strengths and virtues
because it has been torn from the context that used to proposed by Peterson and Seligman was developed as an
supply it with meaning and rational rules. This context integral part of the positive psychology movement, if not a
included the shared conception of human good, as char- trademark feature. In Authentic Happiness Seligman (2002),
acteristic of pre-modern societies as it has been unchar- till then known mainly for his theory of learned helpless-
acteristic of modern ones, as well as common beliefs, ness (Seligman, 1975), elaborated the project of a new
thoughts, feelings, and actions connected with the latter. psychological movement that would attempt to do justice
All of these have been to a large degree fragmented and to positive aspects of human functioning, which he
then in part destroyed (p. 5). This loss, however, is barely importantly believed had been neglected by psychological
recognized by the majority of moral philosophers who science hitherto. Seligmans call to develop a new positive
continue to use the language of morality, even though it psychology drew a broad range of responses, leading to the
currently lacks any external foundation or criteria and, creation of a new and very popular sub-eld (Seligman &
thus, can be justiably considered as subjective. Genuine Csikszentmihlyi, 2000; Snyder & Lopez, 2002).
morality, for MacIntyre at least, can be roughly identied At the same time positive psychology was subjected to
with the tradition of virtue ethics. In the contemporary extensive criticism, not only from mainstream psycholo-
world, however, we possess only simulacra (p. 2) or gists such as Lazarus (2003) but also from philosophers,
meagre substitutes (p. 243) for any moral system that including Annas (2004) and Nussbaum (2008). The diverse
could be justiably placed within this tradition. Our theo- sources of this criticism included insights taken from phi-
retical and practical understanding of its nature seems to losophy, history, psychological anthropology, cross-
have been irretrievably lost. cultural, and cultural psychology (Christopher &
The aim of this paper is to apply the MacIntyrean vision Hickinbottom, 2008; cf. Christopher, 1999) as well as the
as a metatheoretical perspective from which a recent ones offered by critical psychologists like Becker and
attempt at reintroducing the notion of virtuous character Marecek (2008). In the context of this paper, however, it
into scientic psychology will be investigated.2 More spe- is the criticism rooted in virtue ethics, especially of its
cically, it is the Values in Action (VIA) classication of Aristotelian and Neo-Aristotelian brand, as well as that
character strengths and virtues developed by two leading founded on philosophical hermeneutics that are crucial.
positive psychologists, Christopher Peterson and Martin
Seligman (2004, p. 89) and proclaimed as the social sci-
ence equivalent of virtue ethics that will be subjected to An argument formally parallel to the one proposed in this paper has
scrutiny. been recently made by Sugarman (2007) who claims that positive psy-
chology, as embedded in the modern ideology of technical and instru-
mental rationality, fails in its attempt to advance the neo-Aristotelian
notion of human fulllment. The theses put forward by Sugarman,
For a history of this notions banishment see Nicholson (1998). however, are never explicitly related to MacIntyres diagnosis.
K. Banicki / New Ideas in Psychology 33 (2014) 2134 23

A good sampling of such virtue ethics- and goods which are distinctively valued by Western societies
hermeneutics-based criticism can be found in special issues (Fowers, 2012b; for the analysis of the values embedded in
of Theory & Psychology (Christopher, Richardson, & Slife, the notions of subjective and psychological well-being see
2008) and The Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psy- Christopher, 1999). The pervasiveness of specically Western
chology (Fowers, 2012a). Some other sources that offer not assumptions and values, signicantly, is usually either unac-
only a critical account of positive psychology but also well- knowledged or even ofcially denied. This, in turn, can be
argued proposals for alternatives include Virtue and Psy- seen as exemplary of the movements more general tendency
chology by Fowers (2005) and Practical Wisdom by to underestimate the cultural embeddedness of all human
Schwartz and Sharpe (2010; cf. Schwartz & Sharpe, 2006).4 phenomena.
The general aim is to uncover, articulate, and critically Without giving a full account of the positive psychol-
assess the key conceptual and moral underpinnings of ogys disguised ideology, there are two specic aspects
positive psychology as well as the ways in which these that deserve some closer attention here. The rst of these
underpinnings determine and narrow its theoretical po- aspects is the liberal individualism characteristic of Western
tential. These critics, signicantly, all consider themselves societies, and especially of American society. Kristjansson
sympathetic with many of the goals of positive psychol- (2010) explains this individualism as a conceptual, rather
ogy (Christopher et al., 2008, p. 556) and their arguments than a political, point of view. Positive psychology,
as ultimately constructive. accordingly, understands the self as a unique, self-
Positive psychology arose from criticism of mainstream contained, self-dening, and self-dependent unit substan-
psychological science and was proposed as a remedy to its tially separate from others and the world it inhabits
focus on the negative side of human functioning. The edi- (Christopher & Hickinbottom, 2008, p. 566). This notion of
tors of the Theory & Psychology special issue, however, the self, importantly, is far from universal. It belongs rather
believe that this criticism turned out to be too shallow and to a particular and historically situated conceptual
too unreective to let positive psychology escape some perspective of the independent (Western/liberal/individ-
essential shortcomings of the conventional psychology it ualist) self-concept (Kristjansson, 2010, p. 299).
intends to reform. The movement inspired by Seligman and The individualistic bias of positive psychology, however,
colleagues fails to detect and unreectively perpetuates cannot be explained away as a purely conceptual issue. In
some of the key assumptions of the very mainstream social fact, it entails a particular moral perspective combining
science they censure for being too negative (Richardson & ontological claims about the nature of the self with a
Guignon, 2008, p. 606). In large part these assumptions can normative image of the good or ideal person. The individual
be subsumed under the heading of scientism with its ideal self is considered metaphysically primary, whereas society
of a disengaged and supposedly objective observer. Scien- is conceived as a derivative, second-order level of reality
tism, however, is not the end of the story. that is simply a collection of individuals (Christopher,
The scientic ideal of contemporary social science, 1999, p. 142). All sources of meaning and value, respec-
namely, can be most revealingly read not as an isolated tively, are understood as ultimately subjective, which leads
entity, but rather as one emerging from and pervaded by to the belief that the specication of lifes purposes,
Western culture. Positive psychology overtly and enthusi- including the ideas of the good life and happiness, should
astically endorses this ideal, so despite its best intentions to be ceded to individual people on one condition only: that
become a culture-free, universally applicable, and norma- they wont interfere with one another (Christopher &
tively neutral science, turns out to be pervaded by Western Hickinbottom, 2008). The very content of the default
cultural values and assumptions (Christopher & normative system turns out to be substantially infected
Hickinbottom, 2008, p. 565). This fact, importantly, is with individualism. Individual goods and self-interest are
usually unacknowledged and remains hidden, not only treated as opposed to shared or communal values and to
from the general public view but also from the theoretical social motivation. They are believed, furthermore, to be
self-awareness of positive psychologists. It is for this reason metaphysically and normatively primary (Fowers, 2005).
that the cultural content underlying the movement is The second crucial aspect of positive psychologys
sometimes called, employing a term borrowed from disguised ideology is instrumentalism: a viewpoint that all
Bernstein (1978), a disguised ideology. human action is ultimately instrumental (Fowers, 2012b),
The particular content assigned to the disguised ideol- consisting of manipulative or instrumental efforts to gain
ogy of positive psychology can differ from one critic to control over the natural or social world (Richardson &
another. Some elements, however, are often repeated. Apart Guignon, 2008). In positive psychology, accordingly, it is the
from scientism, positive psychology is commonly accused of instrumental pursuit of external goals that constitutes the
being pervaded by conceptual and normative hedonism. The standard model of agency. Even the best-intended efforts to
hedonism is hidden in its attempts to dene the good life in investigate more intrinsically motivated activities are driven
mostly emotional terms (Richardson & Guignon, 2008), with by this model and, for this reason, ultimately hampered.5
pleasure being the prime contender . for the ultimate good
for humans (Fowers, 2005, p. 36). Among the specic goals
promoted by the movement are autonomy and efcacy, the Instrumentalism of this kind is connected with a specically modern
strategy of justifying moral values by trying to show that they contribute
to some nonmoral goods such as subjective happiness, physical health, or
longer life (Guignon, 2002). Exactly this kind of strategy has been
For a well-intended and thoughtful defense of positive psychology employed in studies connecting volunteering to with subjective well-
against this criticism one may consult Kristjansson (2010). being (see Haidt, 2006; Piliavin, 2003).
24 K. Banicki / New Ideas in Psychology 33 (2014) 2134

The instrumentalism and individualism hidden behind apply them to one of the leading theoretical and empirical
positive psychology, though separately explicable, are two contributions of positive psychology, the classication of
aspects of the same ideological stance. The former indicates character strengths and virtues developed by Peterson and
a default, or even exclusive, pattern of agency as one Seligman. Despite its overall importance within the
organized by means and ends. The latter, in turn, refers to movement and its employment a basis of an extensively
the way in which these ends are determined. It is the in- used inventory,6 the classication has not heretofore
dividual who subjectively denes his/her aims in order to attracted closer attention from positive psychologys critics.
subsequently select the best strategies, techniques, and Its aspiration to become the social science equivalent of
skills to attain them (Fowers, 2012a, p. 2). Psychological virtue ethics, is easily challenged from the MacIntyrean
research pervaded by this approach neatly separates point of view.
technical prowess, or effectiveness connected with
means, from ethical considerations, which are concerned
with aims (Fowers, 2005, p. 113). Goals, in particular, are 3. Character strengths and virtues: a handbook and
regarded as unproblematic and beyond the scope of in- classication
quiry (Fowers, 2012b, p. 13). This general perspective,
notably but not surprisingly, is common not only to positive The origins of the project can be found in Authentic
psychology and its business-as-usual counterparts but also Happiness, in which Seligman (2002) called for the resur-
to the historical and contingent ideology of the modern rection of character as a central concept to the scientic
West. study of human behavior (p. 128) and a core assumption
The reliance of positive psychology on the contemporary of Positive Psychology (p. 125). This call was responded by
ideals of individualism and instrumentalism is not in itself Peterson and the research program initiated and directed
surprising to the critics of the movement. Via references to by these two psychologists quite soon led to the develop-
philosophical hermeneutics they insist that cultural ment of the Values in Action classication of character
embeddedness of this or that kind is not only inescapable strengths and virtues (VIA; Peterson & Seligman, 2004; cf.
but also necessary for us to know anything at all or partici- Park, 2009; Park, Peterson & Seligman, 2004; Peterson,
pate meaningfully in human life and its struggles 2006; Peterson, Park, & Seligman, 2005; Seligman, 2002).
(Christopher, 1999, p. 150). By itself it is not a bad thing Because of its complex and multifaceted character the
(Christopher, 1999, p. 150); it is simply the nature of the project will be introduced in a stepwise way. First, we will
beast (Christopher & Hickinbottom, 2008, p. 580). consider its direct sources regarding (1) theoretical in-
What is problematic about culturally embedded positive spirations and (2) cross-cultural study. Then, in turn, (3) the
psychology, however, is acting as if we are not culturally conceptual structure underlying the classication and (4)
embedded (Christopher, 1999, p. 150). Such rejection of the organization of its content will be presented. Finally, it
cultural dependence, importantly, is a direct consequence will become possible to (5) evaluate the classications
of the mainstream philosophy of social science with its claims to be the social science equivalent of virtue ethics.
ideals of objectivity and neutrality and its attempts to put (1) The theoretical context from which the VIA project
all normative issues beyond scrutiny. Both positive psy- emerges is constituted by three elements: consists of pos-
chology and the business-as-usual kind lack a conceptual itive psychology, trait theory, and, most notably for the
framework for assessing the paradigmatic core of their purposes set in this paper, virtue ethics. (1.1) Classifying
theory, research, and practice, so they cannot explicitly character strengths instantiates positive psychologys effort
address their own ontological presumptions and normative to counteract mainstream psychology, with its alleged
commitments (Christopher & Hickinbottom, 2008). neglect of positive human functioning. The VIA classica-
Such incapacity has many non-negligible consequences. tion was specically proposed as a response to the most
Positive psychology, for instance, may unintentionally pro- popular psychiatric classication of mental disorders, the
mote specically Western values; it can perpetuate the sta- Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM; APA, 2000), and
tus quo, when applied locally, or become culturally the latters predominance in psychology and psycholog-
disrespectful, bordering on psychological imperialism ically informed culture. Peterson and Seligman (2004, p. 8)
(Richardson & Guignon, 2008, p. 608), when applied across hoped to do for the domain of moral excellence (character
cultures. Most important here is that the movements un- strengths and virtues) what the DSM does well for disor-
acknowledged adherence to particular conceptual, theoret- ders while avoiding what it does poorly.
ical, and normative biases seems to make it inadequate to (1.2) The second pillar is personality psychology or,
foster even its own best aims (Christopher et al., 2008, p. more specically, trait theory. The working assumption is
556). It is actually in providing this worrisome diagnosis that made that character is plural, which is followed by an
the criticism of positive psychology can be understood as attempt to unpack it by specifying the separate strengths
ultimately constructive program of providing an adequate and virtues and, then, by developing techniques that could
basis for positive psychology:a stronger foundation for measure them as individual differences (Peterson et al.,
research and theory on the brighter aspects of human
functioning (Christopher & Hickinbottom, 2008, p. 569).
The criticism of positive psychology summarized above, The Values in Action Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS) is devised to
measure an individuals prole of character strengths. The www.viame.
as well as the disquieting MacIntyrean vision recalled at the org website, where its versions for both adults and youths are available,
beginning, provide the framework for this article. The in- claims that the survey has been already taken more than 1.3 million times
vestigations that will follow take up these two threads and (as for 18th February 2013).
K. Banicki / New Ideas in Psychology 33 (2014) 2134 25

2005, p. 94). Character, accordingly, is understood as being (3) The six core virtues belong to the most general
a family of widely-valued traits, each of which exists in conceptual level of the VIA classication. As such they are
degrees and are manifest in a range of thoughts, feelings, connected with more specic categories within so called
and behaviors (Park, 2009, p. 137).7 vertical classication scheme. This scheme distinguishes
(1.3) The nal theoretical component is virtue ethics. three levels of abstraction, which are all applicable to the
Peterson and Seligman (2004, pp. 910) explicitly state that issues of the good life.
their classication is grounded in a long philosophical (3.1) The rst or the highest conceptual level is consti-
tradition concerned with morality explained in terms of tuted by the virtues.: the most general and broad classi-
virtues, a tradition they connect with gures such as catory notions applied.
Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas. The au- (3.2) The second or middle level, in turn, involves
thors make an explicit reference to the ground-breaking character strengths understood as psychological processes
paper by Anscombe (1958) and claim that virtue ethics, or mechanisms dening a given virtue and constituting
for a psychologist at least, is much more interesting than distinguishable routes (Peterson & Seligman, 2004, p. 13)
alternatives based on the concept of moral law. The explicit along which it can be displayed. The virtue of courage as
rationale is unfortunately highly parsimonious; it seems to entailing the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the
come down to saying that virtues pertain to people and face of opposition (p. 199), for instance, can be expressed
the lives they lead (Peterson & Seligman, 2004, p. 10). As through the strengths of: bravery, integrity, vitality, or
such, one may presume, virtues are much more susceptible persistence. The last of these strengths, to give one
to straightforward and convincing psychological interpre- example, is dened as enabling voluntary continuation of
tation than moral laws.8 a goal-directed action in spite of obstacles, difculties, or
(2) Apart from these theoretical roots summarized discouragement (p. 229). Individual character strengths,
above there was also a more empirical, even if not strictly though considered to be ubiquitously recognized and
quantitative, source of the classication. While developing valued (p. 13), are not expected to universally display the
the VIA, namely, its authors conducted a thorough cross- same pattern within a respective virtue. No particular
cultural study focused on the most widely inuential tra- strength, furthermore, is necessary for the possession of
ditions of thought in human history. including those from the virtue.
China, South Asia (mostly India), and the West (p. 34). What (3.3) The lowest conceptual level, nally, is constituted
they chose, more concretely, was: Confucianism and by situational themes: specic habits that lead people to
Taoism for China, Buddhism and Hinduism for South Asia manifest given character strengths in given situations (p.
as well as ancient Greece, Judeo-Christianity, and Islam for 14). The particular habits that build the strength of
the West. Both primary and secondary sources concerning persistence, for instance, may substantially differ between
each of these traditions were investigated. occupational and relational contexts. The situational theme
The outcomes of the study conducted led the authors to level is crucial when responding to criticisms that
the conclusion that there wasa surprising amount of emphasize the sociocultural variability of virtuous char-
similarity across cultures (p. 36). They claimed, in partic- acter (cf. Footnote 8). For the present purposes, however, it
ular, to have found a historical and cross-cultural conver- can be safely put aside.
gence (p. 50) of six so-called core virtues: courage, justice, Of the three conceptual levels it is the middle level of
humanity, temperance, transcendence, and wisdom. It was character strengths that the authors consider most natu-
due to the surprising ubiquity of these character traits that rally suited to categorizing and discussing the good life.
the authors decided to treat them as ubiquitous or They believe, furthermore, that it can be relatively easily
endorsed across every major religious and cultural tradi- lled with psychological content and assessed by means of
tion (Seligman, 2002, p. 130).9 psychological trait theory and measurement techniques. As
such it is expected to provide an explanatory power out of
the realm and reach of philosophy (p. 13). It was for the
An attempt to dene character on the basis of trait theory presumes
above reasons that the level of character strengths was
that psychological structures constituting the former are more or less made central for the VIA project, a project of classifying the
consistent across time and situations. The validity of these presumptions strengths of virtuous character.
has been recently subjected to harsh criticism inspired by the results of (4) In order to develop such a classication the authors
social psychologists (Doris, 1998, 2005; Harman, 1999). In many cases
created a list of 10 criteria, most of which (p. 16) have to
these results have been understood as ultimately undermining the notion
of virtuous character as useful to empirically-oriented moral psychology. be met by a positive trait in order to qualify as a character
Some more sophisticated responses, however, still seem to be possible strength. The application of these criteria to the cross-
(see Miller, 2013). cultural survey summarized above yielded a list of 24
A similar, though more elaborated, argument has been presented by characteristics, all organized under the headings of six core
Becker (2004) who believes that eudaimonistic ethics is much more
virtues. It is the report of the current state of knowledge
useful for psychology than non-eudaimonistic ethical traditions such as
the various forms of rationalism, consequentialism, and perfectionism. concerning each of these character strengths that consti-
Both the results and the methodology of this cross-cultural study can tutes the second and the biggest part of Character Strengths
be are obviously a matter of for considerable dispute. Christopher and and Virtues more than 500 pages. Each of this parts 24
Hickinbottom (2008, p. 578), for example, note that world traditions chapters is divided into ten sections, which make the
were assessed against the predetermined list of virtues: But is it really so
surprising to nd commonality where one looks for it? After all, it is one
overall outcome a well-organized and rich handbook. The
thing to look at other cultures and to try to understand them on their own handbook will be undoubtedly very useful for any
terms, it is quite another to develop a list and then check off similarities. researcher or theoretician interested in psychological
26 K. Banicki / New Ideas in Psychology 33 (2014) 2134

dimension of virtuous character. Is this enough to make VIA relationship between virtue and happiness usually formu-
the social science equivalent of virtue ethics, then? lated in the form of the thesis of the unity of virtue. (2) The
(5) Certainly, there are some indications of an afrma- second is a very specic way in which the ancients related
tive answer Not only is the projects subject matter the issues of fact and value to each other one that has no
explicitly identied with a life well lived (p. 12) but it is modern counterpart. These are not just fundamental to the
also approached with an emphasis on the stable and gen- virtue ethics; they can be easily brought into the criticism
eral features of psychological functioning, including of positive psychology.
extensive employment of trait-like variables and discussion (1) The thesis of the unity of virtue, in different forms, can be
of the relationship between virtuous character and habit found in most ancient virtue ethical systems (see Irwin,1996;
(cf. the developmental section in the description of each McDowell,1998; Wolf, 2007). Its strongest version, as held for
character strength). All of these points the VIA classication example by Socrates and Plato, states that Virtue is One, and
shares with classical approaches to virtuous character. that our names for all the apparently different virtues refer to
More particularly, one may add, some of the character different aspects of the same single property (Wolf, 2007, p.
strength criteria can be read as directly conveying the 145). Its weaker, and apparently much more common, alter-
traditional insights of ancient virtue ethics. Criterion 1, for native, in turn, is the belief that nominally distinct virtues are
instance, according to which the character strength con- so deeply integrated with each other that none of them can
tributes to various fulllments that constitute the good life be fully possessed except by a possessor of all of them, that is,
(p. 17) refers explicitly to Aristotles discussion of eudai- a possessor of virtue in general (McDowell, 1998, p. 53). To
monia and is said to allow the possibility that some of have one virtue, in Susan Wolfs (2007, p. 145) concise
character strengths outcomes (fulllments) are its phrase, is to have them all.
inherent aspects rather than separable consequences. As central as such a thesis was for classical virtue ethics
Criteria 2 and 4, which make a character strength morally it is absent from the VIA classication. Schwartz and Sharpe
valued in its own right (p. 19) and its opposite something (2006, 2010) note that both virtues and character strengths
that cannot be phrased in a felicitous way can also be easily are treated by Peterson and Seligman as logically inde-
related to the ancient discussion of the independent value pendent of one another. Individual virtues and strengths
of virtuous life. The similarities between the VIA project may or may not be correlated. It is a purely empirical
and classical virtue ethics are evident and non-accidental. question whether they are and, if so, to what extent. As far
as the theoretical and conceptual structure is concerned,
4. From the multiplicity of character strengths to the respectively, there is no normative suggestion that they
unity of virtue should be correlated . nor is there a claim that it is very
difcult to exercise one strength effectively without many
Both the most general features of the VIA classication of the others (Schwartz & Sharpe, 2006, p. 380). The in-
and its more particular content may make one believe that dependence of character strengths can be read as a formal
its authors have revitalized an important aspect of ancient equivalent of the independence of individual human be-
virtue ethics, the psychological dimension of virtuous ings. Individual selves, we may recall, are treated by posi-
character. The authors of the VIA classication may seem to tive psychology as metaphysically primary in relation to
have contributed to contemporary virtue ethics by family or society. Individual character strengths, similarly,
providing the moral psychology of which the latter stands turn out to be more fundamental than moral character as a
in need. whole. What is common to both of these viewpoints is
But the MacIntyrean vision of the substantial difculty, formal atomism.
if not impossibility, of any contemporary revival of a The thesis of the unity of virtue, importantly, is not only
genuinely virtue-ethical framework and the criticism of absent from the VIA classication but effectively contra-
positive psychology as deeply pervaded by modern liberal dicted by it. It is explicitly stated that some individuals
individualism, would suggest a more cautious approach. may be creative and authentic but are neither brave nor
The critics of positive psychology, for instance, although kind, or vice versa (Park, 2009, p. 139). The classications
generally afrmative of its references to Aristotle and other authors, furthermore, actively encourage people to identify
virtue ethicists, warn that the movement overall has only a their signature strengths and to cultivate them as
rudimentary and fragmented understanding of the rich frequently as you can and in as many settings (Seligman,
theory available on virtue and the good life (Fowers, 2002, p. 161). And it is necessarily made at the expense of
2012a, p. 5). A common reaction of these critics is to cultivating some other, non-signature strengths that may
dismiss the alleged Aristotelian connection as lip-service not be the aptitudes you want to deploy in work, love, play,
and to suggest that positive psychologists either do not and parenting (p. 161). At the same time, no attempts
understand what Aristotle really meant . or . deliber- directed at the entire set of virtues or character as a whole
ately use him as a ventriloquists dummy to air their own are suggested. In fact, it does not seem to be an accident
philosophical and psychological preconceptions that the VIA conceptual scheme involves virtues and
(Kristjansson, 2010, p. 297). character strengths but does not explicitly identify any
In order to assess whether, or to what extent, the above unied virtuous character. The only weak trace of the unity
worries apply to the VIA classication and its claims to be of virtue thesis seems to be the authors speculation that all
the social science equivalent of virtue ethics, two key the core virtues must be present at above-threshold values
features must be accounted for and compared with Peter- for an individual to be deemed of good character (Peterson
son and Seligmans project. (1) The rst is the constitutive & Seligman, 2004, p. 13).
K. Banicki / New Ideas in Psychology 33 (2014) 2134 27

Having admitted this, however, one may still claim that attached (p. 381). In many of them it may be far from
the VIA approach, i.e. the one that species virtues and obvious whether they require one to exhibit courage,
character strengths as more or less independent, is valid, temperance, justice, or this or that combination of these
not its ancient counterpart emphasizing their interdepen- virtues. (3) The last of the problems is conict. Virtues tend
dence. The thesis of the unity of virtue, after all, is far from to be applicable simultaneously and to compete with each
being intuitive and, actually, it was not only usually other. A judge, for example, should primarily be just. A good
considered paradoxical outside the strictly virtue ethical mate, similarly, is expected to be friendly rst of all. What
framework, but also gave rise to an intense debate within about a teacher or a parent? Should they be just even at the
it.10 Why then should this thesis or, more modestly, any cost of being friendly, or another way round? The three
kind of non-accidental connection between individual vir- kinds of problems enumerated above, importantly, are not
tues, be given serious consideration? rare. Rather, they are pervasive in everyday experience (p.
Some relatively brief remarks on this question have 383) and inevitably arise whenever a virtuous character is
been made by Becker (2004) and Fowers (2005). Becker to be expressed in a concrete situation.
claims that some of the VIAs assumptions the require- The theoretical and practical stance of the VIA are both
ment of possessing all the core virtues at above-threshold completely unable to satisfactorily respond to the above
values in order to be classied as possessing good char- problems. The strategy of identifying and cultivating
acter (cf. above) and the tenet that some minimal level and signature strengths (often at the cost of non-signature
number of character strengths under each virtue-heading strengths) can make the problem of relevance invisible
are necessary to warrant a claim that the person pos- . If one cultivates ones signature strengths, one may not
sesses the virtue (Becker, 2004)11 cannot be properly even realize that more than one strength might be called
addressed without showing how the six core virtues relate for in a given situation (p. 382). Some cases of conict,
to each other. In turn, this question requires an additional arising when one of the strengths called for is non-
level of analysis for the general concept of virtue and signature, could become invisible as well. The results of
competing accounts of it. such an invisibility may be terrible: you may want, for
Fowers (2005, pp. 1011) maintains that Peterson and example, to cultivate your signature strength of honesty,
Seligmans strong focus on cataloguing specic virtues led when you tell your friend how fat she looks in . [her
them to neglect development of an adequate general wedding, author] dress (p. 392) a few hours before the
concept of virtue. Virtues, as he explains, cannot be un- very ceremony.
derstood in a piecemeal fashion. Their full import can Schwartz and Sharpe conclude that virtues and char-
become vivid only in connection with a persons life as a acter strengths are ineffective when displayed indepen-
whole and the unifying concept of integrated character. dently and that they should be treated as substantially
What one needs, according to Fowers, is a concept of connected to each other. With an explicit reference to
virtuous character (singular), not of individual virtues or Aristotle, furthermore, they propose that the proper coor-
strengths (plural). dination of individual virtues and strengths requires the
Becker remakes that the lack of a unifying conceptual possession of a master virtue without which other virtues
level may lead to serious difculties when obvious or character strengths fail to produce effective action (p.
second-order questions arise. Two examples of such 379). The virtue they nominate for this awarded position is
questions are How are we to resolve conicts between the Aristotelian practical wisdom (phronesis). It is this trait,
virtues and How much character strength of a given sort importantly, that the authors consider as essential to
is optimal, not only in terms of the virtue it serves directly, solving problems of specicity, relevance, and conict (p.
but in terms of how that virtue is integrated with others 377; cf. Fowers, 2005, p. 108).
(Becker, 2004). Beckers questions can be interestingly The virtue of phronesis famously depicted in Book 6 of
addressed using Schwartz and Sharpes (2006, 2010) Nicomachean Ethics (NE, Aristotle, 1999) is an intellectual
critique of the VIA. virtue (dianoia) strictly connected with practical life and its
Schwartz and Sharpe (2006, p. 377) discuss three kinds particularity. In opposition to theoretical wisdom (sophia),
of second-order problems that inevitably arise whenever it is not about universals only. It must also acquire
character strengths must be translated into action in con- knowledge of particulars, since it is concerned with action
crete situations. (1) The rst of these problems is that and action is about particulars (NE, Book VI, Chapter 7,
virtues or strengths lack the specicity required for 1141b, 1517). What is of crucial importance here is the
translation into action (p. 381, italics added). It is much mutual entailment of phronesis and moral virtues or virtues
easier to say that one should implement a just social order of character (ethike aretai): we cannot be fully good
than to specify how this order would look like in the without prudence, or prudent without the virtue of char-
particular community with which one is concerned. (2) The acter (NE, Book VI, Chapter 13, 1144b, 3132). Without
second difculty is relevance. Real life situations, namely, practical wisdom, as it entails, none of the moral virtues can
do not come labeled with the needed virtues or strengths accord with the correct reason (NE, Book VI, Chapter 1,
1138b, 25).
A practically wise person (phronimos) is exceptionally
able at exercising good judgment in individual cases and at
It is especially evident in Stoicism and in the criticism of this school.
In fact, Peterson and Seligman (2004, p. 13) are comfortable saying
responding at the right times, about the right things, to-
that someone is of good character if he or she displays but 1 or 2 ward the right people, for the right end, and in the right
strengths within a virtue group. way (NE, Book II, Chapter 6, 1106b, 2223). In order to
28 K. Banicki / New Ideas in Psychology 33 (2014) 2134

respond appropriately to a situation at hand, signicantly, theoretical range of the VIA project. The reasons for this
he/she needs to possess not only purely cognitive abilities signicant fact will become clear in the next section.
but also more perceptual and imaginative skills. These skills
are necessary for the essentially non-mechanical applica-
tion of every general principles or rule to a particular 5. Positive psychology and the fact/value distinction
context at hand.12,13
The rst thing one should do in order to refer the above We have shown how the thesis of the unity of virtue,
remarks to the VIA project is to admit that the virtue of which was present and central in ancient virtue ethics, is
practical wisdom is to some extent present in the VIA. absent from the contemporary VIA project. The same is true
Wisdom and knowledge, more particularly, are said to of the ancient account of the relationship between factual
include the character strengths of: creativity, curiosity, and normative issues. The two most important and central
open-mindedness, love of learning, and perspective (wis- concepts in ancient ethical theory (Annas, 1998, p. 37)
dom in a narrow sense). The strengths of social intelligence were virtue (arete) and happiness (eudaimonia). The two
(under the rubric of humanity) and prudence (under the were usually understood to be strongly and non-
rubric of temperance),14 as one may add, are also connected accidentally connected. Even though there were non-
with the trait famously investigated by Aristotle. negligible differences between philosophical schools in its
But wisdom is not in any sense singled out. As a virtue it specication,16 all Greek philosophers agreed on an
is placed at exactly the same level as its remaining ve eudaimonist constraint on virtue: a position that
counterparts. The relationships between the virtues are virtuous people must improve their degree of happiness
fully symmetrical and no hierarchy is present. The wisdom- by being virtuous, and that no one can improve their de-
related character strengths, in turn, are only items within gree of happiness as much by any other course of action
on the list of 24 formally analogous properties. The authors (Irwin, 1996, p. 42).
of the VIA classication, one should admit, are fully aware It is because of the essential character of this connection
of the fact that philosophers such as Aristotle, Confucius, that MacIntyre (2007, p. 148) specied virtues as precisely
Cicero, and Aquinas have not hesitated to deem some those qualities the possession of which will enable an in-
strengths of character more important than others and dividual to achieve eudaimonia and the lack of which will
provided explicit arguments that one or another character frustrate his movement toward that telos. The author of
strength (virtue) is the master or queen that organizes After Virtue emphasizes that the way in which virtues
others and adjudicates conicts among them (Park et al., enable an individual to achieve eudaimonia is usually not
2004, p. 607). But they argue in response that no a matter of contingent fact (p. 149). The virtues are not
consensus has emerged among philosophers concerning means, which can be adequately described without any
the most fullling of the character strengths (p. 607) and reference to their goal and which are only one of many
seem to consider the issue as at least partly empirical.15 possible routes to the latter. They are, rather, a necessary
The reasons hidden behind the reluctance to assign any and central component of eudaimonia and the life worth
special status to practical wisdom, however, may be even being chosen. Within this kind of framework, importantly,
deeper. It seems, namely, that positive psychology as it is the suggestion . that there might be some means to
usually conceived is devoid of conceptual and theoretical achieve the good for man without the exercise of the vir-
means which would be sufcient to do the full justice to the tues makes no sense (p. 149).
notion of phronesis. One should recall, in particular, that it is The relationship between virtue and happiness, espe-
not only the case that we cannot be fully good without cially when it is read along Aristotelian lines (see Footnote
prudence but also we cannot be prudent without being 17), can be understood as constitutive: the one existing
good (NE, Book VI, Chapter 13, 1144b, 3132 & 1). Any between a constituent and the whole (rather than between
character strength or virtue that, by the very denition, is means and an end). Its nature, accordingly, can be easily
so overtly normative, seems to be far beyond the exemplied by constitutive activities, in which there is no
separation between the means and the ends because the
activity partly constitutes the ends (Fowers, 2012b, p. 12)
and the ends of acting are intrinsic to the action, not
In fact, one may argue that these are habits and skill, rather than external rewards that might be obtainable without per-
rules, that are central to Aristotelian ethics. forming this action (Guignon, 2002, p. 98). Constitutive
For more thorough and psychologically informed account of practical
activities cannot be specied by reference to their behav-
wisdom see especially Fowers (2005) and Schwartz and Sharpe (2010).
These two books, importantly, argue for the universal applicability of ioral content only. The same overt behavior, in particular,
phronesis. The extensively provided examples and discussions refer both can belong either to the means-ends or the constituent-
to the private lives and the professional activities of such diverse groups whole structure. There is an important qualitative differ-
as: psychologists, psychotherapists, physicians, teachers, lawyers, and
ence between these two cases, however, like the one be-
even bankers.
The VIAs prudence, importantly, is identied with a relatively narrow
tween helping others in order to feel good, and helping
conception of practical reasoning and self-management that helps to
achieve the individuals long-term goals effectively, (Peterson &
Seligman, 2004, p. 478) rather than with a very complex phenomenon Virtue, respectively, could have been understood as: (1) a means to
of Aristotelian phronesis. happiness (the Cyrenaics), (2) a constitutive part (only a part) of happi-
A very cautious discussion of the ways in which normative and ness (Aristotle), and (3) a property both necessary and sufcient for
empirical issues are deeply, and sometimes perplexingly, entangled in the eudaimonia, or even one that constitutes it (the Socratic tradition
thesis of the unity of virtue can be found in Wolf (2007). including the Stoics) (see Annas, 1993).
K. Banicki / New Ideas in Psychology 33 (2014) 2134 29

others for the sake of being a caring, decent person The avoidance of the normative as well as the strict
(Guignon, 2002, p. 98).17 attachment to the fact/value distinction are readily
The constitutive relationship between virtue and happi- discernible in the empirical research that is conducted
ness is as characteristic of classical virtue ethics as it is alien to within positive psychology. It is especially the case of the
the VIA project. The latter classication, in particular, takes a investigation into so called virtue hypothesis that: Culti-
specically modern position directly contradictory to the vating virtue will make you happy (Haidt, 2006, p. 158) or,
ancient perspective: it afrms the fact/value distinction more precisely, that cultivating virtue tends to contribute
(Brinkmann, 2009; Davydova & Sharrock, 2003; Putnam, to our happiness . even though it does not guarantee it
2002). The distinction in question, originally stemming (Martin, 2007, p. 92). This thesis, importantly, although
from certain famous remarks in David Humes (1978) Treatise presumed by all major ancient schools, is considerably
of Human Nature, can be identied with the claim that no weaker than most of its classical counterparts. The main
valid argument can move from entirely factual premises to difference is that virtue hypothesis does not specify the
any moral or evaluative conclusion (MacIntyre, 2007, p. 56). relationship between cultivating virtue and being happy. It
An important consequence of such a claim is modern sci- certainly never suggest that this will be the relationship the
ences attempt at building a systematic account of the factual one between the constituent and the whole.
domain, considered uniquely susceptible to objective inves- The most common empirical approach applied to the
tigation, without any reference to normative issues under- virtue hypothesis is correlational (see Haidt, 2006; Piliavin,
stood as inevitably subjective and unsettlable.18 2003). For instance, a cross-sectional study conducted on
The majority of psychologists, importantly, fully identify the Internet sample of 5299 adults (Park et al., 2004) has
with this perspective. Any commitment to a particular shown that the VIA character strengths which are most
normative stance sounds risky to them, because they are strongly related to life satisfaction are hope, zest, gratitude,
concerned about prescribing how individuals should live . love, and curiosity. The strengths with the weakest con-
about bias, ideological distortion, and value imposition nections, on the other hand, turned out to be modesty,
(Fowers, 2008, p. 636). Any open discussion of the normative, appreciation of beauty, creativity, judgment, and the love of
respectively, challenges one of the most powerful taboos in learning.
psychology (p. 632) and some psychologists not only beware Martin (2007) has undertaken a careful investigation of
of becoming crypto-missionaries (Meehl, 1959, as cited in: the theoretical and conceptual background of this kind of
Slife, Smith, & Burcheld, 2003) but are also averse to the researches. Apart from the simple fact that correlational
very word morality with its connotations of a holier-than- data are insufcient to reveal any substantive or causal
thou attitude (Kristjansson, 2010, p. 308). relationship between virtue-related and happiness-related
The VIA project adopts this traditional mainstream variables, Martin emphasizes that they are equally inap-
approach. Its proponents, accordingly, unblushingly confess propriate to support any stronger or more specic hy-
that as scientists rst (Seligman & Csikszentmihlyi, 2001, as potheses such as the one that only virtue tends to
cited in: Christopher & Hickinbottom, 2008, p. 564) they are promote happiness, and that vice tends to promote un-
not able to prescribe the morally good life, but . well happiness (p. 92). Measures of virtuous conduct validated
equipped to describe the what, how, and why of good char- by the reference to social consensus, furthermore, leave
acter (Park, 2009, p. 136). Positive psychology, accordingly, is undecided whether societys view of the virtues is
proclaimed as descriptive and not prescriptive. It is not its reasonable, how virtues do and should interact with each
task to tell you that you should be optimistic, or spiritual, or other to create morally desirable conduct in specic situ-
kind or good-humored; it is rather to describe the conse- ations, and which forms of happiness are morally desir-
quences of these traits . What you do with that information able (p. 102).
depends on your own values and goals (Seligman, 2002, Martins nal point is that any study of the virtue hy-
p. 129).19 pothesis makes clear empirical sense only to the extent that
happiness is dened in value-neutral terms, such as those
of life satisfaction or predominantly positive affect.
Cf. dialectical activities in Brewer (2009), intrinsic activities in Fowers Without such a neutrality i.e. whenever some normative
(2005), and practices in MacIntyre (2007). terms are included in the very denition of happiness the
The fact/value distinction can be considered as providing a very virtue hypothesis is dangerously transformed into at least a
favorable environment for contemporary instrumentalism. Only when
partial tautology: cultivating virtue brings forms of
the distinction is presupposed can one draw an apparently neat distinc-
tion between objective facts concerning the efciency of means and an
happiness dened by exercising virtues (2007, p. 93).
ultimately arbitrary evaluation of outcomes. Martins results are far from surprising in light of the
This ofcial position of the VIAs authors is obviously not the end of VIAs general attempt to take the position of empirical and
the story. The criticisms of positive psychology summarized above, in objective science. The studies of the virtue hypothesis, as a
particular, have argued forcefully that the movement through formula-
matter of fact, are completely in accord with the dominant
tions that have the ring of detached objectivity (Fowers, 2012b) covertly
promotes particular human goods proper to the Western instrumental psychological paradigm. A closer look at the empirical
individualism. Its proponents are often seen as visibly torn . between design applied, however, yields two crucial results. (1) Such
their personal views on happiness and the caveats that they believe their designs cannot be validly applied to any moral psychology
scientic stance forces them to enter (Kristjansson, 2010, p. 303) or as substantially based on virtue ethics. (2) The second point,
sending conicting messages (Martin, 2007, p. 90). It does not come as a
surprise, in consequence, that Woolfolk and Wasserman (2005, pp. 88
in turn, is that even without any attempt at revitalizing the
89) ironically compare positive psychology to the culinary science that ancient ethical framework the design applied is doubtful in
claims it doesnt care whether people eat. the light of the very latest philosophical results.
30 K. Banicki / New Ideas in Psychology 33 (2014) 2134

(1) The rst point is directly connected with the limi- useful, was made absolute and changed into an inescap-
tations characteristic of the methodology used. Methodo- able truth or a dichotomy by the philosophers whose
logically, a correlational design is insufcient to establish a culture possesses only the impoverished moral vocabulary
causal relationship between virtue and happiness. And it is (MacIntyre, 2007, p. 59). The impoverishment resulted
completely inappropriate, what is more, for addressing any from their rejection of the pre-modern, mostly Aristotelian,
non-contingent and constitutive connection. And it is teleological perspective, a perspective which used to pro-
exactly this kind of a relationship which ancient virtue vide a context in which evaluative claims functioned as a
ethics usually believed to exist between arete and eudai- particular kind of factual claim (p. 77).
monia. It is, in fact, hardly conceivable how the formal For example, from the factual premises that This watch
property of being a larger wholes constituent could be is grossly inaccurate and irregular in time-keeping and
detected by any quantitative paradigm. Similarly, it is hard that This watch is too heavy to carry about comfortably,
to imagine how the VIA project could be understood as we feel completely safe to entail awe have no trouble
substantially based on the ancient virtue ethics unless it accepting the normative conclusion that This is a bad
gave up its value-neutral denition of happiness. watch (pp. 5758). This transition is possible and perfectly
The constitutive character of the relationship between valid because watch is a functional concept denoting an
virtue and happiness, as one may remember, was funda- item which has an essential nature and an essential pur-
mental to classical virtue ethics, especially to Aristotle. The pose or function (p. 58). It is this kind of functionality that
VIAs inability to come to grips with it, consequently, is allows a move from the description of a things function
indicative of a general and serious problem. Virtue ethics is being fullled (or not) to the normative conclusion that it is
one of those systems which are unabashedly normative in a good (or bad) thing at hand.
the sense that they evaluate the world of description rather The argument employing functional concepts to un-
than merely describe the world of evaluation dermine the absolute version of the fact/value distinction
(Kristjansson, 2010, p. 303). The very concept of virtue or becomes especially important as soon as one realizes that
character strength, in particular, is dependent on the notion the very concept of a human being was considered as
of the good life (see MacIntyres denition above), making functional in the ancient virtue ethical tradition. In this
the latter absolutely central (Fowers, 2008, p. 630) to tradition, to be a man is to ll a set of roles each of which
comprehending the former. The VIA project, with no has its own point and purpose: member of a family, citizen,
explicitly normative theoretical content, in result, has few soldier, philosopher, servant of God (p. 59). With such a
resources for understanding or applying any genuinely concept of human being, it is easy to see how one can
virtue-ethical framework and for applying it in social sci- conclude about somebody being a good or bad human
ence terms. being from the a description of the extend extent to which
(2) The fact that the VIA project cannot be considered as the person in question fullls his/her natural end. And this
to properly address the ancient account of virtues character very conclusion, importantly, becomes a kind of a factual
and happiness is very important in the present context. statement that can be called true or false in precisely the
Even if the VIA classications proponents ofcially gave up way in which all other factual statements can be so called
the claim that their project is the social science equiva- (p. 59).
lent of the classical virtue ethics, this would not be the end MacIntyres argument is clear and understandable. But
of the story, however. The approach that it has adopted, it dependence depends on the notion of human end or
namely, seems to be inadequate not only in ancient terms function. Such teleological perspective could would have
but also in the wake of the very recent philosophical dis- been obvious for Aristotle but its obviousness has virtually
cussions. Such an inadequacy cannot be put aside without nearly vanished during all the ages that divide us from the
risking the accusation of theoretical self-delusion. Philosopher. And without any easy way to bring it back, one
The fact/value distinction, which is paradigmatic to the may add.20 Because of the fact that it would be especially
VIA project in particular and scientic psychology in gen- difcult to reconcile any teleological notion of human na-
eral has been recently subjected to serious philosophical ture with contemporary ideal of science, the argument of
critique. And not just only within a general philosophical MacIntyres argument turns out to be insufcient to deci-
framework (for reviews see Brinkmann, 2009; Davydova & sively settle the issue. With this is mind, it may be useful to
Sharrock, 2003), but also with direct regard to positive turn to the factvalue entanglement argument as proposed
psychology (cf. Fowers, 2012a, 2012b; Richardson, 2012). Of by Putnam (2002).
many different arguments that may be used to undermine (2.2) This American philosopher, in particular, provides
the fact/value distinction the most important here are (2.1) rich and convincing arguments against the extreme version
Aristotles (1999) function argument as utilized by MacIn- of the fact/value distinction, according to which all value
tyre and (2.2) the factvalue entanglement argument pro- judgments are completely outside the sphere of reason
vided by Putnam (2002). These arguments do not merely (Putnam, 2002, p. 1). A distinction that is by itself innocent
possess independent merits and applicability to virtue and may be useful in some particular contexts has . been
ethics; they have been also formulated within the broadly inated into a dichotomy (p. 7) or even a metaphysical
analytic philosophical tradition, the same tradition from
which the Humean distinction originally spring. Here the
criticisms are coming from within. 20
For an attempt to rebuild this kind of perspective within evolutionary
(2.1) The author of After Virtue, at rst, argues that the psychology see Foot (2001), MacIntyre (1999), and Fowers (2012b). For
fact/value distinction, which by itself may be occasionally some skeptical remarks see Aho (2012).
K. Banicki / New Ideas in Psychology 33 (2014) 2134 31

dualism (p. 11). The main argument of Putnam is twofold. notions of virtue in the VIA. All such notions are thick,
Putnam rst shows the fact/value dichotomy to have been which is implicitly conceded when the point is made that
based on a narrow empiricist psychology of ideas and we cannot make any full sense of a virtue or a character
impressions and a narrowly scientic notion of the fact strength without ultimately referring to normative con-
(p. 26), both of which are completely indefensible within cepts such as eudaimonia or various fulllments that
the context of contemporary philosophy of science. Then he constitute the good life (Peterson & Seligman, 2004, p. 17;
undermines the distinctions universality by pointing cf. MacIntyres denition of virtue discussed above and
entanglement of fact and value referring to the ways in Fowers, 2008). It turns out, in consequence, that neither the
which factual description and valuation can and must be understanding of human action in general nor any attempt
entangled (p. 27). at applying a virtue virtue-ethical conceptual framework to
This factvalue entanglement is instantiated by so- this understanding cannot do without the entanglement of
called thick ethical concepts such as, for instance, the ones fact and value embodied in the presence of substantially
of cruelty or courage (Williams, 1985, p. 129). These notions value-laden notions. The merits and the prospects of the
are not purely descriptive; their application is not only present version of the VIA project, accordingly, turn out to
determined by what the world is like (for instance, by how be very seriously undermined.
someone has behaved) but also at the same time .
usually involves a certain valuation of the situation, of 6. Concluding remarks
persons or action. Whats more, it seems to be impossible
to sharply separate the descriptive and normative aspects Our purpose has been to apply MacIntyres disquieting
of their content. The content of courage, in other words, is suggestion to the VIA classication of character strengths
not a conjunction of a descriptive quality referring to a and virtues. The aspirational social science equivalent of
particular disposition and a positive evaluation of that virtue ethics, in particular, was assessed against two
disposition. Rather, it expresses a union of fact and value fundamental aspects of the classical virtue ethical frame-
(Williams, 1985, p. 129): its normative element is inextri- work: (1) the interdependence and mutual entailment of
cable from the description of the content of the disposition individual virtues, as expressed in the thesis of the unity of
and goes all the way down (Wolf, 2007, p. 166). It is virtue and (2) the constitutive relationship between
exactly for this reason that the proper application of the virtuous character and happiness. We have found that
notion of a cruel or courageous person, even when it ap- these features are not only merely absent from the VIA
pears to be done for purely descriptive purposes, requires framework but also are explicitly contradicted by (10 ) the
one to be able to identify imaginatively with an evaluative latters construal of individual virtues and character
point of view (Putnam, 2002, p. 39). The very existence of strengths as independent variables without any general
this kind of fact/value entanglement, as Putnam concludes, concept that unies or harmonizes them and (20 ) its ofcial
undermines the whole idea of an omnipresent and all- endorsement of the fact/value distinction. The VIA classi-
important gulf between value judgments and so-called cation turned out to be not only alien to its ancient pre-
statements of fact (p. 8). The fact/value distinction, in decessors but also, and more importantly, questionable in
other words, cannot be reliably inated into a sharp and the light of the most recent philosophical and theoretical
universal dichotomy. There is nothing fundamental or analyzes. Consequently, it becomes a central pressing
metaphysical about it. question, whether there are any ways for proponents of the
Turning back to the social sciences it should be VIA classication to respond to above criticism.
emphasized that they cannot dispense of thick ethical The rst approach that could be adopted is in a sense
concepts.21 And it is not only because of the normative local or tactical. One could address, in particular, two
commitment necessarily, and rightly, guiding their theory, running threads of this paper, i.e. the interconnectedness of
research, and practice (for psychology see Fowers, 2005), character strengths and the entanglement of fact and value,
but also because of the very nature of their subject matter. separately and try to solve them as independent problems.
The latter point is very clearly made by Brinkmann (2009, With regard to interconnectedness, one may admit that the
p. 12) who insists that the sharp distinction between facts problems of specicity, relevance, and conict raised by
and values seems unduly sterile and unhelpful if we want Schwartz and Sharpe (2006) conclusively undermine any
to understand the particulars of human action. When ac- atomistic approach to positive character traits and try to
tions and intentions are concerned, rather than sheer modify the VIA vertical classication scheme by imple-
physiology of the movements, value-laden concepts are menting some interdependence between character
inevitable (cf. Christopher & Campbell, 2008, on the values strengths. It doesnt, importantly, have to be the strong
inevitably embedded in all social practices). thesis of the unity of virtue; some weaker and less counter-
The VIA writings are no exception to this critique. intuitive accounts of virtuous characters unity such as the
Woolfolk and Wasserman (2005, p. 88) point out how they thesis of the unity of evaluative knowledge offered by Wolf
are replete with thick ethical concepts. And for a good (2007; cf. Badhwar, 1996), also address this problem.
reason, one should add! Courage, after all, is one of the A serious concern would necessarily arise, however,
about how such an implementation would exactly look like.
Would virtues interdependence be introduced as a theo-
The examples from psychology could involve the notions of: devel-
retical presumption or as a conceptual convention? How
opment, maturity, mental health, or subjective well-being (cf. would it be reconciled with empirical data and everyday
Christopher, 1999). observations seemingly inconsistent with it? And nally,
32 K. Banicki / New Ideas in Psychology 33 (2014) 2134

how would it be justied and explained? Some support for either their own values or the mandate of society. The
addressing these problems could be provided by nomi- authors, in fact, even admit that their very subject matter of
nating a master virtue, such as practical wisdom, or by the living well is an unabashedly prescriptive matter, which
addition of a unifying conceptual level of virtuous character involve value-laden constructs that may cause discomfort
or the good life (cf. Backer, 2004). But any such additions, among some psychologists.
however promising, would make a deeper and more These insights are certainly very remarkable. They still,
fundamental issue evident. stop short, however, of doing complete justice to the phe-
Any careful analysis of the interconnectedness of vir- nomenon of the fact/value entanglement and of making
tues, in particular, will inevitably reveal their substantially sense of it. Despite declaring that we must go beyond
normative character. Identifying the virtue which is rele- these old ways of thinking about psychology, in particular,
vant to the situation at hand, translating this virtue into they seem to be devoid of the theoretical and conceptual
specic action, and solving of any conicts that arise are all resources needed for such an attempt. The old ways of
issues which cannot be formulated in purely factual terms. thinking about psychology, as a matter of fact, are nothing
The standards for a virtue relevancy and for the appropri- less than the essential part of the mainstream neo-
ateness of its expression are determined by the goods at positivist philosophy of psychology which puts nearly
stake. Potential clashes between virtues, similarly, arise not exclusive reliance on value-neutral empirical research. This
because of any particular facts about the natural world but paradigm, importantly, is not only unable to place current
because of the substantial link existing between the virtues theory, research, and practice in historical and cross-
and the heterogeneous normative domain. cultural perspective but also, and more broadly, leaves
As far as the VIA classication is concerned, it is the very psychology unable to engage in critical self-reection
rst criterion of the character strength, i.e. the tenet that beyond examining aws in methodology and statistics
any strength contributes to various fulllments that (Christopher & Hickinbottom, 2008, p. 580). What critical
constitute the good life (Peterson & Seligman, 2004, p. 17), self-reection of this kind as well as more positive meta-
that sufces to make the point. Not only does it illustrate theoretical and normative investigation would require is a
that the very subject matter of the classication cannot be philosophy of social science that is both aware of the limits
fully specied without an account of the good life but of empirical methods and well equipped with techniques of
also, and explicitly, claims that the fulllments in ques- another kind, a philosophy which is robust enough to
tion are various. The virtues and character strengths handle ontological, epistemological, and ethical/moral is-
directed at these multiple fulllments, in consequence, can sues and move beyond both objectivism and relativism
and often will clash with each other. The conicts that (Christopher & Hickinbottom, 2008, p. 582).
emerge will obviously be normative. One will need, The inevitability of dependence on this kind of a broad
accordingly, to resort to normative resources, such as the philosophical project marks the collapse of the any local
account of the good life, not just to solve but also even to approach to the two central issues raised in this article. If the
properly specify them. proponents of the VIA, accordingly, still want to make full
This inevitably normative fate of any serious discussion sense of the above criticism and offer a convincing response
of the relationships between individual character strengths to it, they have to turn to more global or strategic solutions. In
is not an isolated issue. Rather, it is one more expression of such an effort they may be able to count on the helping hand
all the normativity hidden beneath the surface of positive of positive psychologys critics. Some authors from the Theory
psychology. A thoughtful proponent of the positive psy- & Psychology special issue (Christopher & Campbell, 2008;
chology movement, in result, will necessarily have, sooner Fowers, 2008; Richardson & Guignon, 2008; Slife &
or later, to face the dubious character of his/her ofcial Richardson, 2008; Sundararajan, 2008; cf. Fowers, 2012a,
endorsement of the fact/value distinction and the ideal of 2012b; Richardson, 2012), in particular, have offered a
value-neutral science. Such a confrontation, in fact, seems more adequate theoretical foundation for inquiry into the
to have already occurred in some places, albeit not the most questions positive psychologists have raised about psychol-
conspicuous. ogy and the good life (Christopher et al., 2008; pp. 557558).
Park and Peterson (2009; cf. parallel remarks in This foundation, importantly, not only enables one to engage
Peterson, 2006) in particular have recently undertaken a in the needed task of uncovering and critiquing positive
brief examination of the relationship between descrip- psychologys disguised ideology and to move beyond this
tiveness and prescriptiveness in psychology, which displays necessary work in order to construct more adequate social
greater subtlety than the ofcial declarations cited in the science equivalents of virtue ethics (for a well-conceived and
section above. Though only a sketch, their analysis deserves thorough proposal, see especially Fowers, 2005, 2008, 2012a,
closer attention because of its considerable novelty and the 2012b; cf. Aho, 2012; Richardson, 2012), but also provides
fact that it has not been noticed by the critics of positive conceptual tools necessary for addressing the two main is-
psychology heretofore. Park and Peterson propose that sues of this article.
psychology be regarded as both descriptive and prescrip- The proposal made by Slife and Richardson (2008, pp.
tive (Park & Peterson, 2009, p. 423). Their justication, 700701) exemplies this latter point. The vast distinction
interestingly, is fully in accord with the standard critiques between two large categories of ontology named as
of positive psychology. Not only do they claim that all abstractionism and relationality made by these authors, in
sciences are infused by the beliefs and values of scientists particular, provides a convenient conceptual framework for
but also acknowledge that psychologists choose certain elucidating the VIAs previously noted problems and sug-
topics as most deserving of study, in which they follow gesting some promising solutions to them.
K. Banicki / New Ideas in Psychology 33 (2014) 2134 33

Abstractionist ontology, to begin with, assumes that all to the realm of virtues and character strengths, not only
things, including the self, are the most real and the best making the virtuous character as a whole substantially
understood when they are abstracted or separated from the connected with our culture and history, but also specifying
situations in which they occur (p. 701). This is the ontology the elements of character as essentially interdependent on
behind contemporary individualism, with its conception of each other. Such a broadly relational construal of character
the separated and self-contained self, it also underlies most strengths and virtues, obviously, will not sufce to solve all
of the natural and social sciences including positive psy- of the problems connected with the unity of virtue. Still,
chology as an exemplar of an abstractionist approach (p. however, it seems to be the sole general framework in
705). Abstractionism spawns (p. 700) a myriad of which these problems can be seriously addressed.
fundamental problems for positive psychology, among The interconnectedness of the virtues, in its turn, inev-
them: (1) the ideal of the disinterested observer, (2) itably draw the researcher into fact/value entanglement.
emotional satisfaction as a major criterion of positive out- Here again he/she can benet from a relational view.
comes, and (3) the decontextualization of human Relationally, any account of the good life or the qualities
phenomena. that seems to be associated with it is situated and cannot
Both the VIAs construal of individual virtues and char- be both abstracted and rich enough to be truly meaning-
acter strengths as independent variables and its ofcial ful (p. 718). The qualities of the good life, in particular, are
endorsement of the fact/value distinction are derivable not only mutually situated with regard to each other and to
from the abstractionist roots of the classication. Rejecting the agents subjective well-being, but are also substantially
the unity of virtues, to begin with, is as an instance of more related to the contexts of historically- and culturally-
general contextlessness. The focus and the energies of changing social practices. For them, the subjective cannot
positive psychologists, as Slife and Richardson (2008, p. be divorced from objective (p. 717).
715) claim, are largely directed toward constructs, ethical The contextual character of values and the inevitably
qualities, and beliefs that are abstracted from the contexts normative character of all social practices, importantly, have
in which they occur. The neglected contexts are usually major consequences for the VIA project and positive psy-
external to the person and include culture, history, or even chology in general. They entail that the subject matter of
the current physical situation. With the VIAs particular these scientic projects cannot be dened and reliably
character strengths, however, even the very intrapersonal addressed within the framework of the fact/value distinction
environment, i.e. the context of virtuous character as a and that their proponents cannot pretend to remain disin-
whole, seems to be have been ignored. terested and disengaged observers of the good life. Positive
The VIAs version of the fact/value distinction, in turn, is psychology is itself nothing less than a morally imbued social
related to the ideal of the disinterested observer of a world practice and, as such, is inevitably connected with the
that is taking place quite separately from the observer and culturally situated values . always present in all human
his or her observations (p. 706). Among the ontological functioning (Christopher & Campbell, 2008, p. 691).
claims presupposed by this ideal one nds a particular This hermeneutic perspective, nally, not only makes
dualism, in which the subjective and the objective realms the VIA projects unsuccessful attempt at keeping faith with
of being are sharply distinguished, with the subjective the fact/value distinction comprehensible, but also pro-
realm containing values, opinions, feelings, and beliefs that vides a framework to cope with such understanding
occur independently of the objective realm of all events without giving up any of the substantial purposes and
outside the observers skin. In the objective, natural world, values either of positive psychology or of social science in
respectively, there is nothing . that is inherently more general. Positive psychology and the VIA classication, for
valuable or meaningful than anything else (p. 706). What instance, could drop their pretensions to value-neutrality
turns out to be presumed by this epistemological image, in and redene themselves as an interpretive and self-
result, is probably the most straightforward specication of interpretive moral inquiry (Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan,
the fact/value distinction. Swidler, & Tipton, 1985), which would be free not only
A diagnosis tracing the two central problems of the VIA to employ all of the resources of science, both empirical
classication to the tenets of abstractionist ontology not only and theoretical but also to prescribe, so long as the pre-
reveals the deeper character of these difculties but also scriptions are identied as such and the reasons for them
suggest a general direction in which the solution may be are open to inspection (Christopher & Campbell, 2008, p.
sought for. The maladies of abstractionism, in particular, can 692). The details of such an approach still remain to be
be remedied by replacing this ontology with a more relational worked out, but the efforts needed are denitely worth-
perspective based on the claim that it is impossible to un- while and potentially highly fruitful.
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