Friday, November 10, 2006

Moral Philosophy as Pathology?

Well, that title is a bit strong! But here's my thought (developed, in part, in conversation with someone at the Philosophy of Science Association meeting last week; I'll protect his privacy, though, unless he tells me he wants acknowledgement).

In psychology, there's a joke, which seems to have some truth in it (how much, exactly, is an interesting empirical question!), that the clinical psychologists are all crazy, the social psychologists are all socially awkward, the developmental psychologists act like children, etc. People are sometimes, it seems, drawn to fields that reflect something of their personal habits of thinking or problem areas in their lives. What about ethicists?

One way of developing the idea is this: Many philosophical ethicists like to approach ethics through explicit reasoning. That may reflect a durable habit or character trait that predates their choice of ethics as a field of study. And I'd wager, also, that there's a weakly negative correlation between being prone to reason in a cool, academic way about ethical matters and having strong gut reactions about such matters. Maybe if your gut doesn't tell you what to do morally, you're more prone to look toward explicit reasoning for moral guidance.

This raises the possibility -- I don't put this forward as a hypothesis, but merely as a possibility -- that a certain portion of those drawn to ethics as a discipline are so drawn because they're attracted to philosophical reasoning about ethical matters as compensation for weaker-than-average moral gut reactions. For them, moral philosophy is, perhaps, a sort of accommodation or crutch. We might then expect them to do morally well when faced with moral decisions of the sort fairly tractable to explicit reasoning and less well with other sorts of moral decisions.

I'd be interested to hear what you think, and also whether you think there's any way to cast empirical light on the matter.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

it would be interesting to look at the kind of work in ethics that the unethical ethicists do- do many try to explain our moral feelings away or argue that moral proclivities are irrational? Are they trying to figure out what all these other people around them could possibly mean when they talk about doing the "right" thing?

Michael Metzler said...

I think this is an insightful analysis, and I’d be happy to say your hypothesis is a good deal more than “possible.” I was at a conference recently, and a fellow who likes math and matrixes was offering us guidance on what to do with utilitarianism. The trouble was that he didn’t show the most charitable behavioral traits when responding to questions. A wise professor concluded the session by repeating something this ethicist and mathematician had already said: Don’t ask a mathematician about what to do.

In my own experience, it seems that those who lack the emotional grounding for good, stable moral decisions are those more likely to seek out moral theories for guidance (or else religious maxim).

I’d bet this pattern is ubiquitous enough to warrant a nice journalistic essay: the lives of the moral philosophers….

Michael Metzler

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks! "Lives of the moral philosophers" sounds interesting, and in fact I have been having some (possibly far-fetched) research ideas along those lines.

But I don't want to overplay the point. I'm not actually inclined to think that, on the whole, moral philosophers behave worse than the rest of us. It is sufficiently interesting, I think, to note that they don't behave any better.

Michael Metzler said...

Here’s perhaps one really simple empirical research program:

Take a random sampling of philosophers, 50 percent who do not do any research in ethics and 50 percent who work primarily in ethics, and ask the question:

“Do you consider the study of ethics a form of moral inquiry, something intended to lead the philosopher to greater virtue and moral wisdom?”

Speed times in answering the question might also have to be considered!

Michael Metzler

Brad C said...

Hi Eric,

This is only semi-on-topic, but...I just got the new APA newsletter and it has Jeffrie Murphy's Presidential address to the Pacific division - in it Murphy makes some interesting auto-biographical remarks about how and why he may have been drawn to retributivism as a result of his psychology.

Brad C said...

Another interesting thing to test:

You could test whether emotion-inducing prompts impact how well moral philosophers reason about moral scenarios.

I may have mentioned this before but...

One of my favorite experiments here is one where the experimenters show a scary clip from the movie psycho (fear inducer) and then have people answer questions about characters in a story (guess who is to blame). Subjects tend to respond in ways that depend more on sterotypes ("the cheerleader did not do it" "the outsider who wear black stole it", etc.) when they have had fear (or, interestingly pleasure) induced in them than when not.

If you prime the subjects by asking them to reflect on their emotional state before they take the test, then the effect are often reduced.

You could run these sorts of tests on moral philosophers to see if their reasoning skills are any more resilent (in various emotion inducing situations) than non-moral-philosophers. Of course it is near to impossible to control for the level of emotional response.

It would be interesting to compare these results with those on people who practice mindfulnes meditation.

Sorry if I have posted this before - just can't remember!

Justin Tiwald said...

Eric,

This is certainly an intriguing hypothesis. When you propose that some moral philosophers have weaker-than-normal gut reactions, do you mean "weak" in the sense that they are not reliable? Or are they "weak" in the sense that they lack strength of conviction? Or is it some combination of both: they are neither reliable nor accompanied by much conviction, which therefore makes academic philosophy seem appealing by comparison?

I ask because lack of reliability and lack of strength seem to be different kinds of moral pathology. My hunch is that many academic ethicists got into moral philosophy because they had strong gut reactions that somehow seemed out of sync with the mainstream, and may in retrospect have turned out to be unreliable. That might be true of me. But you seem to be more concerned with the sort of academic ethicist who is attracted to academic ways of thinking because her gut feelings lack strength or conviction. Is that right?

Brad C,

> Murphy makes some interesting auto-biographical
> remarks about how and why he may have been
> drawn to retributivism as a result of his psychology.

I'd love to see a study of the way that philosophers "overdetermine" their moral convictions by simultaneously invoking both personal psychology and what they regard as sound reasons and justifications. It seems like quite a few moral philosophers premise their views with a little psychological autobiography. The literature on punishment seems to be especially rife with this. But surely they don't mean to suggest that they've come to their conclusions simply because of certain psychological foibles. They usually think they have good reasons for their views as well. But if that's the case, then why mention the psychological stuff?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

kboughan has also posted an interesting comment on this post, but at http://schwitzsplinters.blogspot.com/2006/11/best-guess-phenomenon-and-degree-of.html

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for all the interesting and thoughtful comments, folks!

Michael: That's an interesting question, which I have posed to ethicists informally. But my sense is that it doesn't get honest answers. My feeling is that a question of that sort makes the ethicist feel either defensive or like she's being asked to boast about her own moral virtue -- either way, leading her to underplay the extent to which they think moral inquiry leads to moral improvement. So then I wonder, is there a better way to get to their true attitudes?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

That would be very interesting to test, Brad! So many experiments, so little time.... Although I'm not sure moral philosophy leads to moral improvement in general, I wouldn't be surprised if it did lead to more resilient moral judgments, which is interesting in itself.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Another interesting comment, Justin. I was thinking of lack of strength rather than lack of reliability, but you give an interesting account of how the latter might also lead to moral philosophy. I'd bet both are operative -- in different people, and perhaps even negatively correlated with each other. Some moral philosophers (like me, perhaps, if I'm frank with myself) have weaker-than-average moral emotional reactions and are drawn to philosophical ethical thinking as a kind of compensation for that. Others (like you) might have very strong but non-standard gut convictions and be drawn to philosophical ethics as a way to explore or defend those reactions.

The psychology of philosophy....

eric sotnak said...

Here's a salient consideration: Many people end up in ethics because that's where the jobs are. In many departments, ethics courses are the most heavily enrolled, so virtually everyone in the department may end up teaching ethics. Well, once you are teaching a subject, it is often quite natural to cultivate an interest in it. No pathology there, I don't think.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting thought, Eric. One cultivates an interest in ethics after falling into teaching it, rather than the other way around. Surely that sometimes occurs.

There will be no monolithic explanation of why people go into ethics, of course....

Tom said...

A third kind of weakness that it might be interesting to think about is weakness of will. I've often had the hardly original or unusual impression that philosophers to some extent in general, but ethicists in particular, have strong convictions first (reliable or otherwise) and philosophical arguments for them either second or not yet at all (hence, frequently, the choice of research interest). And yet it's not obvious that these strong convictions translate into highly ethical behaviour (by the ethicists' own lights, not just by mine). So one might wonder: is there a gap between these philosophers' convictions and their motivations which isn't there for non-ethicists? Is it that others have less strong convictions or stronger motivation? Or is it (as seems to me more likely) that a philosophical inclination tends to dilute the connection between any strong ethical conviction and the normally associated motivation to act on it--so that the convictions are marooned, as it were, in a sea of scepticism about their validity? In which case what's interesting is that it's not the convictions that are weakened, but the motivation that one would ordinarily expect them to engender.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

That's an interesting thought, Tom! I wonder about whether one's convictions can be "marooned in a sea of skepticism" without, however, their being "weakened". Although that sounds strange on its face, I'm actually somewhat sympathetic to the idea. Maybe simplying calling something into question, even if one then affirms it as strongly as before it was called into question, somehow dissipates some of its motivational force...?

Anonymous said...

It's an interesting (and amusing!) thought, but speaking personally (and at the risk of invoking the unreliable demon of introspection) the main reason I'm drawn to moral philosophy is that I have particularly strong gut instincts, and the fact that most ethical theories seem to disagree with them just gets me riled up. It's because I put such a high premium on morality that (for example) I get so furious with utilitarian theories that say I'm morally wrong for not e.g. giving away all my money to starving orphans in Africa. The fact that this completely disagrees with how I experience the notions of rightness and wrongness (or virtue and vice, as might be more accurate) and particularly because that experience is so salient for me makes me want to get into the ring and bust some heads, as it were.

If you were extending your theory to logicians, here's a thought that occured to me the other day: with the exception of a few particular noteables, and the explicity religious ones (father so-and-so), most catholics I know that do philosophy are logicians (think Kenny, Dummett, Wittgenstein etc). What's the connection?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment, anon! I can certainly see what you say as being a motivation for entering ethics -- though (without prejudging the issue) one might wonder whether if your strong moral intuitions are outside the mainstream of ethical theories they might be misleading you about the ethical truth (if there is such a thing). That would cohere with Justin's remark above....

No idea about Catholics and logic. Might have something to do with the Catholic respect for a certain kind of tradition in philosophy (incl. ontological proof, etc.); but also, it's a pretty small sample size.

Mildred Ratched said...

Michael Metzler says, "In my own experience, it seems that those who lack the emotional grounding for good, stable moral decisions are those more likely to seek out moral theories for guidance (or else religious maxim)."

Pretty good observation (for an NPD). Could it also be introspection speaking? Nawww.