Monday, May 01, 2006

The Problem of the Ethics Professors

Here's a question to consider: Why don't ethics professors behave better than they do?

The vast majority of philosophers I've polled think that ethics professors, on average, behave just about as ethically as their peers in logic, metaphysics, etc., and others of their socio-economic class generally, or they behave considerably worse. What might explain this fact, if it is a fact? The only explanations I can think of are either empirically implausible or disturbing in one way or another.

Here are some of the most obvious possible explanations:

(1.) Ethical reflection does not lead to ethical behavior. This might be because: (1a.) Ethical reflection reveals that moral behavior is not particularly advisable, or (1b.) Ethical reflection is impotent to effect one's general patterns of responding morally to the world.

(2.) Moral philosophers do not engage in ethical reflection -- or at least not the kind of ethical reflection relevant to everyday moral living. (This might seem plausible, in a way, since so much of ethics and moral philosophy is so abstract -- and yet still one might think or expect or at least hope that ethicists would be especially primed to see the moral dimensions in the everyday decisions they face.)

(3.) Ethical reflection does indeed lead to moral improvement, and the reason ethicists don't behave better than others is that they start out morally worse than the rest of us. They are, perhaps, drawn to ethics because morality is, as it were, a problem area in their lives. (There's something appealing in this thought -- and it harmonizes with the old joke that in psychology the crazy ones go into clinical psychology, the socially awkward ones into social psychology, etc., but really -- do you think we'll find patterns of, say, juvenile deliquency in the early behavior of ethics professors? Somehow I doubt it.)

Is there an appealing and plausible way out of this problem?

32 comments:

Craig Ewert said...

The question presupposes that people in general, and ethicists in less general, don't behave as ethically as they could. I find this an implausible supposition.

Looking about me, I find that people generally, as far as I can discover, behave just about correctly.

Perhaps you are expecting many ethicists to be performing more supererogatory acts? Since they are supererogatory, why would you expect ethicists to do more than the average?

Brad C said...

A related question might shed some light: why don't philosophers of language working on theories of truth have more true beliefs than their peers?

Many ethics professors are mainly interested in the nature of the concepts right, wrong, good, bad, etc. just as philosophers of language are interested in the concepts of truth, meaning, etc.

That might help explain the phenomenon you mention.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for your comments, Craig and Brad.

Craig: I think professors in general often behave less ethically than they should -- for example, in taking months to get back comments to a graduate student; in being unnecessarily cruel and dismissive in their comments as teachers, referees, and colloquium attendees; in neglecting appointments; in treating office staff callously and cavalierly; in playing politics in department meetings, etc.

Brad: Maybe even a better parallel would be epistemologists. Why don't they have better justified beliefs than the rest of us? You're right that it seems strange to think they would -- and maybe we should no more expect ethics professors to behave better than their peers?

I think there has to be something right in this response; yet I don't find it entirely satisfying. I suppose I am still drawn to the idea that reflection on the ethical dimensions of everyday life ought to be of moral value; and that ethicists will (as a matter of empirical fact) be more prone to such reflection than non-ethicists. I'm not as much attracted to either of those conjuncts with respect to philosophical reasoning about truth and justification.

Brad C said...

I agree with what you say, and was to some extent playing devil's advocate. I think you may share a worry I have about the focus of attention that many ethical theorists share (myself, a budding theory guy (I hope), included). There are interesting sociological questions about why this focus arose and persists.

Another supporting explanatory factor: learning to think better about ethical issues will improve behavior only if (a) you also have the disposition to notice the salient facts and (b) there is no "discord" between implicit and explicit reasoning processes.

Clarifying what I mean by the later would fill too much space, but I think that both problems could be in part overcome if people supplemented ethical theorizing with practices aimed at cultivating attention to one's psychological "states" and physical environment.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Your last idea, Brad, has a lot of appeal to me, and fits with several other ideas I've been toying with, regarding self-knowledge and self-cultivation. I'd be interested to see more details if you've written (or if you write in the future) these thoughts out more fully.

Justin Tiwald said...

Hello, Eric. I just discovered your blog and quite enjoyed your recent posts.

> I suppose I am still drawn to the idea
> that reflection on the ethical dimensions
> of everyday life ought to be of moral value

I am drawn to this idea as well (call me old fashioned). But how much does the prevalence of unethical ethics professors really threaten this claim? I can think of a reason why it might not.

1. Ethical reflection's effect on one's patterns of moral response are individually modest but have the potential to be collectively profound.

Let's say that I am an ethics professor who decides on the basis of ethical reflection to stop eating meat that comes from factory farms. This isn't a particularly heroic sacrifice on my part. I happen to live in an affluent country at a time when there is plenty of good vegetarian food at little extra cost, and I never much liked meat anyway. Nevertheless, in most other areas of everyday life my love of moral reflection has had a negligible or even deleterious effect, and I succumb to the usual temptations to set aside my students' work for months at a time, etc. Even so, if everyone engaged in enough reflection to be moved to make this modest sacrifice, it would bear significantly on the way billions of animals are treated. Assuming that this is a morally valuable thing, ethical reflection would have considerable moral value after all.

I also wanted to add a fourth way to explain the phenomenon of unethical ethics professors:

(4.) Ethical reflection has a deleterious effect on moral character when pursued in the overwrought, self-conscious way that professors (necessarily?) tend to pursue it.

Here I have in mind the cluster of issues David Nivison raises when he talks about the "paradox of virtue" in Chinese thought (PJ Ivanhoe highlights it in a forthcoming paper on "unselfconsciousness"). When one worries too much about the moral goodness of one's own behavior, somehow this preoccupation with oneself invariably poisons one's deliberations, so that one is no longer capable of doing the right thing because it is the right thing and instead does it for less noble reasons (e.g., because it makes *me* more virtuous, which in turn gives me grounds for moral conceit and complacency). Moral reflection is thus valuable insofar as it instills a second, more moral nature in us, so long as it predisposes us to do the right thing because it is the right thing. But as a lifelong pursuit ethical reflection is detrimental. At some point we should stop worrying about whether our every move is morally permissible or admirable and just act.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Justin, your last thought also reminds me of some things Bernard Williams has said, and it seems there's some truth in it. But if that's the whole story, then perhaps we do a moral disservice when we teach ethics classes? That would be strange.

Of course, you don't think that's the whole story, as you make clear in the first part of your post. What you say there seems right (though it may underestimate the sacrifice required to be vegetarian!), but of course it doesn't touch the question of why the professor is still mistreating his graduate students.

I still think there's something a bit puzzling, and a bit disheartening, in the vicious behavior of many (not all!) ethics professors; and I suspect there's no way out of this puzzle that doesn't force something a bit unappealing on us.

Brad C said...

Justin,

Your fourth explantory option is interesting, but I have some doubts. Consider an analogy:

When I teach logic, I aim to teach my students to identify good and bad arguments and to understand the difference; I try to train their logical censor. I also suggest that students "bracket" that censor when writing a first draft (in order to e.g. let the imagination suggest associations).

Now I agree that neurotic worry about one's moral or ethical worth can be paralyzing, in a way that is similar to the way that the logical sensor can produce writer's block. In the ethical case, it might preclude our "awareness" of the salient features of a situation. As you put it, "At some point we should stop worrying about whether our every move is morally permissible or admirable and just act."

But I do not see why regular evaluation of one's character will lead to the other problem: "When one worries too much about the moral goodness of one's own behavior...one is no longer capable of doing the right thing because it is the right thing and instead does it for less noble reasonse e.g., because it makes *me* more virtuous, which in turn gives me grounds for moral conceit and complacency)."

Of course much hinges on what one thinks makes the best course of behavior best, but I do not see how complacency or conceit need set in.

Consider: Vicky cares about making logically sound arguments and having true beliefs but since she is human she often fails to do so. She regulary evaluates her beliefs, in hopes of improving them; she does so *in part* because she cares to be more epistemically virtuous. But there is no reason to think that will make her conceited or complacent about her beliefs - being human, she will likely continue to make, and discover, mistakes, so she will likely become more humble as a result of regular self-evaluation.

Her caring about being epistemically virtuous might help explain why she has more true beliefs (than a non-caring counterpart) but it need not compete with the (normative) reasons for adopting any particular belief.

Why shouldn't we think the analogous to be true of ethical reflection?

Justin Tiwald said...

Brad C,

I like the way you break this down. I think the best thing to say is that the concern with epistemic virtue isn't relevantly similar, and that your analogy brings out the relevant *dissimilarity* in an informative way. Your analogy makes it sound as though the concern is that the impetus to improve oneself competes with the disposition to believe things for the right reasons. But I am more concerned about the effect that such an impetus has on the reasons to act. Presumably we can believe that we should work at being better people for the right reasons but still go about the business of improving ourselves for the wrong ones, as when we recognize that we have more wealth than we really need or deserve but go to the charity dinner fantasizing about all of the praise that will be lavished on us and hoping to be seen and admired by others. The classical Chinese thinkers were particularly concerned with these sorts of scenarios because they saw virtue as having a kind of charismatic effect on others. This made it easy to notice (and then become enticed by) the benefits that accrue to the virtuous, so that for all of one's well-grounded reasoning the benefits prevail upon our motivational structure in the end.

I have to admit, though, that this is just one slice of what I see as a complex array of overlapping worries that various Chinese thinkers (of various periods) have about the relentless drive for moral perfection. It's clear to me what some of the slices are, but it's not clear to me what they amount to as a whole. In this sense Eric's comparison to Bernard Williams is quite apt, since Williams also raises a number of similar concerns without saying a great deal about how they all hang together. So, for the Confucians, there are worries about an undue concern with impartiality (as with Williams' "one thought too many"), worries that one's moral reasons for being virtuous will be motivationally insignificant compared to one's self-interested reasons for *becoming* virtuous, and more general worries that too much deliberation tends to create just enough uncertainty to allow one's selfish heart to pick and choose the more advantageous justifications and conclusions. What's striking about so many of the Chinese thinkers is how they all seem to agree in upholding a sage figure who acts fairly spontaneously, as in the case of the Daoist sage who practices non-action or Confucius himself who at the age of 70 was supposedly able to follow the desires of his heart without crossing any moral lines. I really think that this points to some of the richest material in Chinese moral psychology, but it has yet to be sorted out. The later (Neo-Confucian) figures that I study became even more obsessed with these sorts of worries as they began to combine Daoist and Buddhist ideals of spontaneity (which rules out much moral reflection) with the rigorous Confucian demands of moral self-cultivation (which requires a great deal of moral reflection).

Eric, I agree that some ethics professors are astonishingly unethical, and that there must be some very unappealing psychological insight to be taken from this.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Justin, I agree with you completely that the worries you raise are near the heart of this question, and there's a need for more work to sort them out, and that that work could profit from a look at the Chinese tradition.

If you're writing on this stuff, please feel free to send me something! (Kwong-loi Shun has recently convinced me that I should take a longer look at Wang Yangming and Zhu Xi, but I confess that I haven't spent much time with them yet.)

Justin Tiwald said...

I'm thinking about it and I'd be happy to take you up on your offer. My dissertation doesn't deeply engage these issues but I'm hoping to write something about it next year.

Zhu Xi and Wang Yangming are fascinating, systematic thinkers with very nuanced views, but we have a lot of work to do in order to make them more accessible. The best translations of Zhu are by Daniel Gardner, and PJ has some unpublished translations of Wang that he's always happy to share. The problem with many of the other translations isn't just that they are misleading (that seems to be inevitable in translating classical Chinese) but that they aren't very lucid. There is a powerful temptation to closely follow the classical syntax, even at the risk of obscurity, since it's easiest to judge their accuracy by comparing them to the original. I'm sure there are a few other translators who are less smitten by classical syntax.

Genius said...

Peoples behaviour tends to be shaped less by theoretical concerns than by the day to day incentives of their environment (good for enatural selection I guess).
In a community where high morals are rewarded (maybe budist monks? maybe a very relationship oriented type of business?) you might find high morals and where low morals have high rewards (maybe weapons manufacturing? or worse yet small business where certain types of lying almost never gets found out) you will find low morals.
I would tend to say much of academia is a litle towards the low morals side (ie trying to get tennure is baised on others oppinions of you and so forth and so there are many temptations to fudge figures or lie or backstab)

Jennifer M said...

Hi Eric,

I think that there are two levels of moral reflection a) the reflection one does outside of moral contexts, and b) moral reflection that takes place in the context of action. The moral implications of most actions are probably not well thought out before one acts, and so b) is often absent altogether.

Moral reflection of type a) may have consequences for moral reflection of type b). In most cases however, people may act based on habit- and morally relevant habits are probably developed at a very early age, much earlier than moral reflection of the first sort begins.

Maybe this can be seen as adding another option to your 1, 2, and 3. Ethical reflection (of my sorts a and b) does lead to ethical behavior. But where it doesn't, it isn't due to either (1a.) Ethical reflection revealing that moral behavior is not particularly advisable, or (1b.) Ethical reflection being impotent to effect one's general patterns of responding morally to the world- because sometimes it works. I suspect that other conditions are inhibiting it from working more frequently. Also, it may still be the case, if my proposal is true, that moral philosophers do engage the kind of ethical reflection relevant to everyday moral living and also that ethicists don't start out morally worse than the rest of us.

I am in agreement with something else that I see to be an implication of one of your more recent blog entries- implicit beliefs (bigotry, protective deceptive beliefs about the self) likely cloud the very foundations upon which people make morally relevant decisions- and moral reflection does not necessarily make one more likely to be a more 'self-cultivated' individual. Without the right foundation, even the most just moral laws will not lead to moral outcomes. If I cannot clearly, accurately or fairly interpret moral contexts because I hold false or poorly formulated implicit beliefs about myself, others or some aspect of the world, it is difficult to see how I will be able to reliably perform moral actions, even where I apply a moral rule in a way that seems to me to be correct.

-JM

marco said...

Very interesting post! I puzzled about something very closely related recently. As you point out, one explanation is that the ethical reflection that is necessary to become a better person is not the the reflection that goes on in moral philosophy. What baffles me is how can this be possible. It seems to me that moral epistemology comes apart from justification. But how is that possible?

Stentor said...

To a cynic like myself, this isn't a hard question at all. Every work of ethical philosophy I've ever read starts by positing certain actions as right or wrong, then works backward to a justification of those views. So there's no room in ethics for coming to the conclusion that one's intuitive beliefs (which preexisted becoming an ethicist) are wrong and therefore no motivation for ever changing one's behavior.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the new comments, everyone! Here are some reactions:

to Genius: That's an interesting suggestion. Would it follow that priests should be ethically upstanding? I'm not sure they are. (I'm also not sure they're not.) Another issue is to what extent the reward undermines the moral value of the behavior. To the extent one is *motivated* by the the reward, one is probably not as praiseworthy one who is virtuous with no expectation of reward. So there may be more laudable behavior but no more moral merit?

to Jennifer: What you're saying resonates with me, definitely. That's almost exactly what I'd like to be able to say. But doesn't it follow that ethicists *are* morally better than their peers -- even if not hugely so or reliably so? If they do more moral reflection, and if moral reflection helps somewhat in some cases, and they don't start out worse, then shouldn't they end up better? Maybe I'm missing something....

to Marco: Thanks for pointing me to your own blog entry on some of these issues. Unfortunately, I don't understand metaethics well enough to see how moral justification works. I have the same problem with metaphysics: How could intuitions possibly gain us privileged access to a realm of non-empirical facts? I can't seem to shake Carnap.

to Stentor: Cynicism about moral reflection is definitely a possibility. Maybe that's the way to go. But I think it's quite a depressing possibility if one takes it seriously, cognizant of its full impact. It's easy to embrace casually, sophomorically, but it's a difficult, disabling position if one really thinks it through and tries to live by it. It might resemble radical skepticism or relativism in this respect. (I'm not saying that *you're* embracing the position casually or sophomorically, of course.)

Jennifer M said...

Hi Eric,

I’m not sure that the conclusion you draw out from my proposal is necessarily implied.
Here are three alternatives.

1. Professional abstract ethical reflection may (in some cases) lead to complacency about contextual moral reflection- (what is the right thing to do here and now- level b reflection). Perhaps this is caused by #2 below

2. Professional ethical reflection may encourage the development of an inflated sense of one's own ethical-ness. This may make one less likely to consider that one is required to deliberate before behaving in actual moral contexts. (I think someone may have mentioned this?) This seems to be a species of #3 below:

3. Abstract ethical reflection is important (so not impotent) but it won't necessarily be helpful with respect to ethical behavior unless additional conditions are also met. These include, a) the ability to apply abstract principles to concrete contexts reliably and morally well. This requires b) the ability to see and interpret contexts clearly and reliably. If I have an implicit belief that dogs are vicious, I may just interpret their behaviors to confirm that belief of mine. My cat on the other hand is so perfect, that when he bites me it just confirms how terribly endearing he his. Or, I believe that I am an ultra-ethical moralist and habitually behave quite ethically- this belief could make me complacent and less likely to engage in deliberation in actual ethically relevant behavioral contexts (moreover, I am also good at rationalizing my behaviors in a way that confirms this belief of mine.)

The non-academic partakes in ethical reflection as well- or at least has moral principles that she applies in various contexts in ways that she thinks are right. For ethical reflection to lead to behaving more ethically, one must also be more likely to a) see behavioral contexts as moral contexts, b) see moral contexts accurately, and c) apply whatever ethical principles seem fit to concrete deliberations. For the ethicist's behaviors to be more morally right than the non-academic's, the ethical principles that the ethicist derives from moral reflection must be better than the non-ethicist’s. But I can see the non-academic easily adopting the same principles on her own (perhaps becoming a sort of utilitarian), or by virtue of her religion (a Kantian maybe), or maybe she tries to perfect the Virtues because she lives in ancient Greece and this is what her broader culture places value on- and maybe they have Aristotle's reflection to thank for that.

Not all branches or theories of ethics help one to cultivate a, b and c....

-JM

Genius said...

> Would it follow that priests should be ethically upstanding?

The question I guess is to what extent in day to day behavior they are rewarded for being ethical (by whatever reasonable standards we choose to use) and to what extent they are punished for acting unethically.
I might say that social expectations of them might be higher and thus they might be slightly more ethical - but it depends on all sorts of situational factors it would be more appropriate for that to be something for experiments to determine not for me to just presume knowledge (I’m not a priest!).

> To the extent one is *motivated* by the the reward, one is probably not as praiseworthy one who is virtuous with no expectation of reward. So there may be more laudable behavior but no more moral merit?

I think if you do moral things enough times those moral things will become habits and you will start doing them regardless of the situation.
Morality at a social level is about encouraging good behaviour so maybe more encouragement (and thus reward) should be directed to those palces where people may not be recieving enough reward to perpetuiate the behaviour.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for clarifying your thoughts, Jennifer. I guess the basic point is this: If philosophical ethical reflection sometimes helps it must also sometimes be harmful, if ethicists are to average out the same as non-ethicists. Your points about complacency and inflated self-image may help address that.

On the face of it, those factors might not seem enough overall to counterbalance habits of ethical reflection (though of course this is a judgment call) -- but if you're right in your second point, that ethical reflection is only helpful if certain other factors are present, that further supports your claims. Those factors may not often be present, so there mightn't be much to counterbalance.

I do find something roughly along these lines appealing. Thanks for helping me think it through!

Genius: What you say in your last comment seems right to me.

(I would, however, mention the standard psychological finding that if you pay someone to do something they previously found fun and did for free, they no longer do it after you stop paying them. So there are some dangers to certain sorts of reward systems. I'm sure you know this already.)

Karl said...

1) There is an (I believe) apocryphal story about a famous
philosopher and philanderer who was once asked why, if he was such
an expert on ethics, was he not more ethical. To which he replied
that he was also an expert on geometry, but sadly was not a
triangle.

This illustrates nothing, but is funny.

2) More seriously, it is odd to gerrymander philosophers in the
way you did. Any competent philosopher (at least those educated in
the US where we tend to educate more broadly) who went through
graduate school in philosophy or has taught some philosophy has
has some non-trivial amount of ethical training, and was forced to
be in an environment where he or she studied, discussed, and wrote
some papers on a real amount of ethics. Certainly any philosophy
department has people who sit around all day and talk about
ethics. Even the most isolated epistemologists or logicians are
familiar with the basics of deontological, utilitarian, and
virtue, ethics, and have have given some thought to the ethics of
belief. They will also be aware of Nozikian, Rawlsian, and Marxist
notions of distributive justice, at a minimum. So this kind of
comparison where philosophers are ethicists or not is odd. People
who study ethics tend to look at some theory and refine it,
critique it, not so much qua ethics, but qua philosophical theory.
So it would be odd indeed to find that ethicists are SO MUCH more
ethical than other philosophers.

3) Given (2), I happen to think that your main premise might not
be that true. philosophers I think do happen to be more ethical
than others. No so much in the sense that philosophers have more
self-restraint than anyone else, and they are less likely to give
in to some particular ethically dubious desire, but in the sense
that I suspect that they are more likely to take principled stands
on issues. (That is not to say they took the correct stance, but
that they felt it was the right thing to do to take it.) Those who
spend a lot of time thinking about ethics, and instinctively look
at issues from an ethical standpoint first, as opposed to a
financial, or nationalist, or religious standpoint, are probably
more likely to have views motivated by ethical principles.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, Karl! In the questionnaire I'm designing (see here), I'll compare ethicisists both with other philosophers and with non-academics of similar social background, so that might shed some light on your second comment. As for your third comment -- I'll agree that philosophers in general are probably more likely to think about general ethical principles; but as to whether this is actually salutary to their behavior, I'm not so sure! Again, perhaps the questionnaire I'm designing will shed some light on that -- or at least reveal what the majority opinion of philosophers is on that question!

Anonymous said...

There's another option of course. Perhaps ethicists really do behave in a morally superior way than the rest of their collegues, only this goes un-noticed because their collegues lack the appropriate moral sensitivity to be aware of it!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Right! -- though I'm not quite ready to buy that yet.

Dale said...

As I often tell my students, "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach. I teach ethics..."

As a more serious contribution, I'd point out that moral philosophers doing first-order theory tend to concentrate on controversial questions where there is no consensus about what is "right." So it might very well be the case in individual instances that their reflection informs their practice and leads them to act differently than they would have otherwise, without its being the case that their behavior is generally recognized as better. Philosopher X might stop eating meat on philosophical grounds, for instance, without its being the case that this new pattern of behavior is widely recognized as any better than X's earlier omnivorism. Some people will think it is, but many others won't.

What you really seem to be picking up on is the fact that philosophical reflection is not any kind of antidote to akrasia. In cases where it is easy enough to tell what is right, ethicists are as prone as anyone to do something wrong. I don't find this too suprising, though; I'm not sure why we should expect reflection on what is right in "hard cases" to make people any more motivated to do what is right. Upbringing seems much more important there.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, Dale. I do try to keep up with comments on my old posts!

I like your point about the reflections of ethicists generally being on issues of dispute, and that it's not clear how much such reflections transfer to obvious cases.

I'm less convinced by your comment about weakness of will, or akrasia. Of course akrasia can be a factor, but only if there's *always* akrasia when improved moral awareness reveals ethical aspects of a situation that would otherwise go unattended would you expect those with improved moral awareness to behave no better than those without it; so I don't think the existence of akrasia can be the primary explanation, unless there's some reason we'd expect ethicists to exhibit *more* akrasia.

Dale said...

About akrasia, my thought was just that moral philosophers might well exhibit the same level of akrasia as everyone else in cass in which it is perfectly obvious what one should do, cases in which improved moral awareness is not really a factor because everyone is aware of all of the pertinent factors already. If that is true, then there is no reason to expect moral philosophers to do any better in this class of cases than anyone else does.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

You *may* be right about this. Now I find it helpful to think not just about knowing moral truths, as it were, but also about the *saliency* of those truths; and maybe ethicists would be prone to find those truths more salient. Jonathan Ichikawa, Justin Tiwald, and I have a length (and to me helpful) exchange about this here.

thecitychicken said...

You wrote, "...for example, in taking months to get back comments to a graduate student; in being unnecessarily cruel and dismissive in their comments as teachers, referees, and colloquium attendees; in neglecting appointments; in treating office staff callously and cavalierly; in playing politics in department meetings, etc."

Are these examples of ethics--the person operating from a particular value--or just bad manners, or even social ineptitude? They probably don't "believe" in being callous or "believe" in rude answers or "believe" in procrastination. They probably just are ill-mannered.

Joseph Knecht said...

I know this is a very old thread, but I wanted to add my take.

I would not have expected ethicists to be more ethical for a couple of reasons.

First, the study of ethics is so very abstract and removed from the small day-to-day ethical choices one makes that I would expect the ethicist to relate the one to the other only very rarely. I would thus expect any such difference to be insignificant.

If a professor went through a month-long course (by his own choice) in which his every action were analyzed (and the unconscious were brought to the level of consciousness), and if he already had a strong desire to be a more ethical person, then I would certainly expect to see some real change. But even so, change is difficult, and staying the same will always be easier and be the default behavior.

Secondly, and most importantly, a superior knowledge about ethics does not in and of itself translate into altered desires, and it is desires and emotions rather than intellectual knowledge that govern behavior. I believe with Hume that reason is slave to the passions and largely impotent to effect change unless there is an underlying passion for change.

How many philosophers went into ethics because they wanted to learn how to become better human beings or how to act more ethically? How many went into it because they thought the issues were intellectually interesting? I'd wager much more of the latter than the former.

On the topic of the ethical lapses of ethics professors, like putting of writing a student's recommendation letter until the very last minute, or perhaps much later, I don't think the professor gives it much thought. And I don't think his strongest passions relate to helping his students in whatever way he can.

In that situation, I don't believe the ethics professor consciously reasons and deliberates over whether to write the student's letter of recommendation today or not. He doesn't put himself in the student's position, considering all the troubles it causes if it is left too late and how he might feel if the situation were reversed (or how he did feel when he was on the receiving end). He doesn't consider the ethical tones of what he considers 'everyday life'. He merely doesn't feel like writing the letter at the moment. Again, and again. Likewise, the way he treats the department secretary or a clerk at the supermarket are no more objects for ethical consideration for him than for the rest of us.

Most people live life mostly on auto-pilot. There is a quality of conscientiousness and self-reflection that appears in most of us only infrequently. The rest of the time we are on auto-pilot doing things mostly by instinct, just as we drive a car without thinking about it or do any thorougly ingrained habitual behavior effortlessly.

If the professor were one of those unique people who is naturally very self-reflective and empathetic, and a frequent and strong passion for him were 'being ethically exemplary', then I would definitely expect knowledge to translate into altered behavior. But we call those people 'saints', not 'ethics professors'. ;-)

rivereddy said...

To continue Justin thoughts on rationalizing vegan behavior. Treating animals better is the intended result, but what if another outcome occurred. If the value of meat went down then farmers may treat their animals worst because they are valued less. What if pigs had no monetary value and they were set free. Some may die slow painful deaths while others become feral and cause the downfall of native plant and animal species. What if we find out plants have feelings? Rationalizing has limited usefulness. I believe instead we should consider all possible effects (and their probabilities) of our actions and mitigate against the undesirable outcomes. This is called risk management.

Regarding the paradox of virtue in Chinese thought, this reminds me of the phrase holier than thou.

windwheel said...

Consider
Ross's Paradox (Ross 1941):
1) It is obligatory that the letter is mailed.
(2) It is obligatory that the letter is mailed or the letter is burned.

From the imperative point of view, (2) adds something to (1), it makes it stronger, more urgent, more memorable. It taps into the essential ambiguity of visceral urges. It adds emotional valency to a choice situation in a manner that de-emphasizes the outcome.
The problem is that, in the eagerness deontic logics share with alethic logics to find a concrete model, Ethics is too willing to provide 'proofs' for all ad captum vulgi intuitions and to subsume every illogical norm that exists under its own burgeoning idiocy.

The temptation is to 'deduce' more and more bizarre propositions to make your own mark as an Ethical thinker. Solomon Maimon- though a Rabbinical prodigy himself- fled his native Lithuania because he came to equate the 'Golden Liberties' of the riotous Polish aristocracy, which ruined his country, with the license enjoyed by the scholars of Halachah to display their virtuosity by adding more and more burdensome refinements to the Ark of the Law.
Maimon's own ethical degeneration- he became a drunken sponger- sadly can't be correlated with his interaction with, the monster, Kant. But then he wasn't tenured as a Professor of Ethics.

I recall asking an Iranian scholar whether it was really true that Prof.Zaehner had persuaded Teheran University's Professor of Ethics to invite Mossadegh's Security Chief to dinner only to quietly bump him off. Without answering the question, the scholar drew my attention to Nasirudin Tusi, the author of the Akhlaq-e-Nasiri, the most important book on Ethics in Persia, who was a double dyed traitor- betraying his Spiritual Master to the infidel Mongols. In other words, the Spalding Professor of Ethics & Eastern Religion, R.C. Zaehner had sent the Iranian elites a message which was not just witty but erudite.
The puzzling thing is why Ethics Professors display such 'frontal' behavior. After all, it is in their own professional interest to dissimulate their sociopathy or poor impulse control and wear the mask of rectitude.
Perhaps, the answer is that whereas in other fields one needs good (that is critical) students and colleagues to carry forward the Research Program associated with your name, in Ethics the reverse is the case because imperative logic hypertrophies in a bizarre and cancerous manner unless brought firmly under the control of the personality of its Professor. After all, an imperative statement- unlike an alethic statement- gains force entirely by the answer to the question 'who is saying this?'.
In India, though dharma (Eusebia)becomes the central concern, once both Ontology and Epistemology came to be seen as empty, it is interesting to note how any noble character pre-occupied with Ethics- like Lord Rama or King Yuddhishtra- is depicted as ending up breaking all his own rules and inheriting futility and despair.
Krishna, contrary to Matilal, Sen, et al, is actually a dharmic guy because he performs a humble function at the Kurukshetra War. His elder brother, on the other hand, cries fie upon both parties and goes off to get drunk.
Interestingly, the Sufis who spread Islam in the Indian sub=continent, affirm precisely this antinomian 'Malamati' (blame-worthy) theory whereby the price for professing Ethics is an ironic plunge into infamy.

I wonder whether you have any observations as to the degree of sociopathy associated with various different types of Ethics Professors. I'd imagine, Virtue Ethicists to be the worst especially if they started off as analytic Philosophers debauched by Rawls.
Followers of Levinas, on the other hand, might actually be quite nice- which just goes to show Levinas was never doing Ethics.
Do post more on this absorbing topic.

windwheel said...

Consider
Ross's Paradox (Ross 1941):
1) It is obligatory that the letter is mailed.
(2) It is obligatory that the letter is mailed or the letter is burned.

From the imperative point of view, (2) adds something to (1), it makes it stronger, more urgent, more memorable. It taps into the essential ambiguity of visceral urges. It adds emotional valency to a choice situation in a manner that de-emphasizes the outcome.
The problem is that, in the eagerness deontic logics share with alethic logics to find a concrete model, Ethics is too willing to provide 'proofs' for all ad captum vulgi intuitions and to subsume every illogical norm that exists under its own burgeoning idiocy.

The temptation is to 'deduce' more and more bizarre propositions to make your own mark as an Ethical thinker. Solomon Maimon- though a Rabbinical prodigy himself- fled his native Lithuania because he came to equate the 'Golden Liberties' of the riotous Polish aristocracy, which ruined his country, with the license enjoyed by the scholars of Halachah to display their virtuosity by adding more and more burdensome refinements to the Ark of the Law.
Maimon's own ethical degeneration- he became a drunken sponger- sadly can't be correlated with his interaction with, the monster, Kant. But then he wasn't tenured as a Professor of Ethics.

I recall asking an Iranian scholar whether it was really true that Prof.Zaehner had persuaded Teheran University's Professor of Ethics to invite Mossadegh's Security Chief to dinner only to quietly bump him off. Without answering the question, the scholar drew my attention to Nasirudin Tusi, the author of the Akhlaq-e-Nasiri, the most important book on Ethics in Persia, who was a double dyed traitor- betraying his Spiritual Master to the infidel Mongols. In other words, the Spalding Professor of Ethics & Eastern Religion, R.C. Zaehner had sent the Iranian elites a message which was not just witty but erudite.
The puzzling thing is why Ethics Professors display such 'frontal' behavior. After all, it is in their own professional interest to dissimulate their sociopathy or poor impulse control and wear the mask of rectitude.
Perhaps, the answer is that whereas in other fields one needs good (that is critical) students and colleagues to carry forward the Research Program associated with your name, in Ethics the reverse is the case because imperative logic hypertrophies in a bizarre and cancerous manner unless brought firmly under the control of the personality of its Professor. After all, an imperative statement- unlike an alethic statement- gains force entirely by the answer to the question 'who is saying this?'.
In India, though dharma (Eusebia)becomes the central concern, once both Ontology and Epistemology came to be seen as empty, it is interesting to note how any noble character pre-occupied with Ethics- like Lord Rama or King Yuddhishtra- is depicted as ending up breaking all his own rules and inheriting futility and despair.
Krishna, contrary to Matilal, Sen, et al, is actually a dharmic guy because he performs a humble function at the Kurukshetra War. His elder brother, on the other hand, cries fie upon both parties and goes off to get drunk.
Interestingly, the Sufis who spread Islam in the Indian sub=continent, affirm precisely this antinomian 'Malamati' (blame-worthy) theory whereby the price for professing Ethics is an ironic plunge into infamy.

I wonder whether you have any observations as to the degree of sociopathy associated with various different types of Ethics Professors. I'd imagine, Virtue Ethicists to be the worst especially if they started off as analytic Philosophers debauched by Rawls.
Followers of Levinas, on the other hand, might actually be quite nice- which just goes to show Levinas was never doing Ethics.
Do post more on this absorbing topic.