On Situationism And Public Policy

Situationism, broadly, is the view that human beings are influenced by the situation they find themselves in. ‘The situation’ is understood to be to “causally significant features around us and within us that we do not notice or believe are relevant in explaining human behavior.” Situationism gets its insights from social psychology and other areas of study. Empirically based, situationism poses threats to things like the idea that human beings are primarily rational agents and virtue theory.

There are many ways in which situationism has been established as a legitimate area of study, posing threats to our established beliefs about humans.

When I was an undergraduate in psychology, I was very interested in social psychology. I learned of countless studies in which the situation determined the beliefs and course of action people took. I understand, then, that situationsim to be, at least, partly true. We are not rational agents the way we suppose we are.

One issue I’ve been concerned with, however, is the implications of situationism in public policy. Many situationists propose what turn out to be illiberal and awkward policies. I want to make the case here that even though we may be irrational agents subject to the whims of our environment, we should still honor the individual with policies that assume the uniqueness of the agent. I want to do this even though situationism may show us that we all generally respond similarly to situations, are influenced by the people (and number of people) around us and, even, minor things like the smells around us.

I come to the conclusion of liberalism, partly, due to the fact that policies we have had in the past (and many we still have now) violate the dignity of the individual human being. These policies, like slavery, have had detrimental effects on individual human beings, their physical and emotional health, and their overall flourishing.

We can assume, I take it, that each individual has a dignity which should not be violated while also taking into account situationism. And that may be the wise thing to do. If we learn from the past, what we learn is that each person has, at least, some sort of psyche, some sort of general direction and motive in life. Each of us strive for something. What illiberal policies have done is violate the direction, psyche and striving in the lives affected.

We don’t have to assume that each individual is a wholly rational agent in order to suppose liberalism. We simply need to grant that each of us has, say, a body and that bodily integrity is political value that should be enshrined in our policies.

Whether and to what extent we are rational or not—and just how much we are effected by ‘the situation’ remains to be seen. But in our search, we needn’t suppose the leap from situationism to illiberal policies.

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