Monday, March 05, 2007

The Motivation of Ethicists: A Seven-Year-Old's Thought

Regular visitors will know I post quite a bit on what I call The Problem of the Ethics Professors -- the fact (if it is a fact) that ethicists seem to behave no better than non-ethicists. Does this suggest that philosophical moral reflection is largely impotent to improve behavior? I hope not, but I'm not entirely comfortable with any of the obvious resolutions.

A couple weeks ago, I posed the question to my seven-year-old son Davy. I told him that there's some evidence that people who talk a lot about the importance of behaving in good, moral ways don't seem to behave any better than anyone else. What did he think of that? Did that sound right to him?

Davy said that he has noticed that the kids who talk most about about being nice and sharing are the ones who want you to be nice to them and share with them. We then agreed that these kids might not themselves be any better behaved than other kids when the tables are turned, and may even in some cases be more greedy and demanding than average.

It's an obvious thought, in a way; and it may well be too cheap a shot -- not really true, or even if true of seven-year-olds, not very well connected with the motivations for studying ethics among adults. But I was at least struck by Davy's insightfulness. I can't say that exactly that thought had occurred to me before, either on my own or in any of my many conversations with other philosophers about the matter. (Maybe someone raised it, but Davy's way of putting it stuck with me better?)

Let me emphasize that I don't think this is very plausible as a full explanation of the motivations of professional ethicists. I think most ethicists genuinely want to turn their standards on themselves and maybe even do so as their first and primary sort of ethical reflection, outside the abstract context of argumentative philosophy. Yet I wonder: What makes us turn to ethics in the first place? What makes it the case that some of us are fascinated with right and wrong, fair and unfair, praise and blame, while others are left comparatively cold by such issues? Ontogenetically, I wonder if Davy mightn't actually be so far off....


James Alan Gibson said...

Hi Eric.

First, thanks for the series of posts on the issue of ethics professors and their good & bad behavior. I think there's good value that comes out of reflection on the questions you ask.

You ask two questions: "What makes us turn to ethics in the first place? What makes it the case that some of us are fascinated with right and wrong, fair and unfair, praise and blame, while others are left comparatively cold by such issues?" With respect to the first, I'd think the answer for many people, though I don't have the study to back this up, is that people believe that by studying ethics we can have a more informed guide to questions like, "what is the appropriate thing for S to do in this or that circumstance." Or depending on the kind of ethics we are doing, what sort of ethical theories should a society adopt to be a well-formed and flourishing society? I recognize that trying to answer those questions may lead one to be less confident about all their answers after philosophizing than before.

With respect to the second question, I suppose it depends on the particular issue addressed and the person that is fascinated. For me, I find the fascination with issues surrounding praise and blame - e.g. finding what the nec and suff conditions are for being an apt candidate for those attitudes - because I want to be more systematic and less ad hoc in who I am blaming and praising, that I am doing those for the right reasons, supposing there are right reasons. But I take it that your question is more about why someone like me would care about that and *others do not.* For my friends that don't care about philosophy, at least to the same degree as I do, I take their unconcern to stem from the abstractness of some of the questions and by virtue of that, they do not feel motivated to act on whatever principles philosophers come up with. Perhaps this has to do with the way in which the ethical principles are taught. I have in mind something like this: it might be more profitable to show some of my high school students a movie like "Crash" to see the wrongs of racism and to motivate them to treat others with differences better than they do, than to lay out an argument in the form of premises on the board. Through the movie, perhaps, they can apply their attitudes about something concrete in the movie to concrete examples in their lives in order to avoid the pains associated with racism. Some students might be able to apply whatever principles I put on the board to concrete examples; but it seems that there might be something better about using narratives to motivate them to right action.

So, others might not care about ethics because of the way ethics is typically done (or how I am familiar with it, anyway). I'm not sure, but there's a guess.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, James, for your interesting comment! Surely you're right that there's something to the idea that we are all interested in praise and blame, right and wrong, but some of us are more tolerant of abstract approaches to those questions -- and those are the ones attracted to philosophical ethics.

At the same time, though, I think this can only be part of the answer -- and probably not the part that separates *philosophers* interested in ethics from those less interested in it, since presumably all philosophers have a high tolerance of abstraction.

When I think of myself, for example, compared to friends and colleagues, I think I'm probably slightly below average in my interest in affixing blame, on myself or others, when things go wrong. Issues of the proper allocation of praise and blame don't move me as much as they do some others. Some of the others who have high interest in praise and blame are ethicists. And then the question arises: What is the origin of this in their personalities?

And just to be clear: I don't hold that ethicists behave worse than the rest of us, or that there is anything wrong with studying ethics, or that ethicists are hypocrites, or anything like that. I'm simply, as a philosopher of psychology, puzzled by the phenomenon of what seems (to me) to be the weak relationship between a predisposition to moral reflection and a tendency to engage in morally praiseworthy behavior.

Lester Hunt said...


Thanks for the interesting thread! I sometimes shock my students by telling them that if I were to come up with a brilliant, all-but-unanswerable argument to the conclusion that picking pockets is a good thing to do, not only could I for sure get it published, but it would considerably enhance my reputation as a moral philosopher.

What this shows is that there is no necessary connection between "moral philosophy," as currently understood, and actually being moral. Moral philosophy, like any other kind of philosophy, is about coming up with well-presented, non-obvious ideas about things. Whether this will lead to becoming a better person probably depends on, among other things, what these ideas are!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Lester. I always enjoy your comments on these ethics professors posts.

Among the possible resolutions to the problem, I think, is that the best ethical reflection reveals that moral behavior isn't particularly advisable. I take it that's more or less what you have in mind in your comment.

All the potential resolutions I know of are either somewhat cynical or empirically dubious (or a little of both, like Davy's). I'd classify the idea above as on the cynical side. I don't mean "cynical" insultingly here, but rather to suggest that it results in a less glowing assessment of moral philosophy than is mainstream among moral philosophers.

I myself am troubled by this fact (if it is a fact) because I myself am not particularly drawn to cynical views of ethics and ethicists and because I take empirical evidence very seriously. I guess that why, for me, it's the "problem" of the ethics professors, rather than just "the straightforward fact" about ethics professors!

Lester Hunt said...

I wouldn't call my position cynical. Note that it is perfectly consistent with the idea that believing the right ethical theories (whatever they might be) makes you morally better. In that case I would only point out the practicing moral philosophy does not guarantee (short-term) that you believe the right theories.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

But if practicing philosophy increases the likelihood of accepting the right moral theories in the longish term (say, over the course of 20 years), and if believing the right moral theories tends to make you morally better, then (though it doesn't strictly follow) it seems reasonable to expect ethicists to behave better, no? -- or at least to be surprised if they don't and feel that something needs explaining?