Thursday, I'll be presenting some of my work on the moral behavior of ethics professors at the meeting of the Society for Philosophy and Psychology. In his comments, Jonathan Weinberg tells me he'll ask this: Why should we think ethicists will be morally better behaved, any more than we would think epistemologists would be better thinkers (or have more knowledge, or better justified beliefs)?
My argument that ethicists will behave better is this:
(1.) Philosophical ethics improves (or selects for) moral reasoning.
(2.) Improved (or professional habits of) moral reasoning tends to lead either to (a.) better moral knowledge, or (at least) (b.) more frequent moral reflection.
(3.) (a) and (b) tend to cause better moral behavior.
Therefore, ethicists will behave better than non-ethicists.
The problem, as I see it, is that ethicists don't behave better. So we need to jettison (1), (2), or (3). But the premises are all empirically plausible, unless one has a cynical view of moral reasoning; and I myself don't find a cynical view very attractive.
But maybe there's a flaw in the argument that can be revealed by the comparison to epistemologists. Consider the parallel:
(1'.) Philosophical epistemology improves (or selects for) rationality.
(2'.) Improved (or professional habits of) rationality tends to lead to more knowledge and better justified beliefs.
Therefore, epistemologists will be more rational and have more knowledge and better justified beliefs than non-epistemologists.
The argument is shorter, since no behavioral predictions are involved. (We could generate some -- e.g., they will act in ways that better satisfy their goals? -- but then the conclusion would be even more of a reach.)
Why does it seem reasonable -- to me, and to many undergraduates -- to think ethicists would behave better, while we're not so sure about the additional rationality of epistemologists? (I do think undergraduates tend to expect more from ethicists. Though it seems strange to me now, I recall being disappointed as a sophomore when I discovered that my philosophy professor didn't live a live of sagelike austerity!)
Here's my thought, then: Ethics (except maybe metaethics) is more directly practical than epistemology. We wouldn't often expect to profit from considering the nature of knowledge or of justification, or the other sorts of things epistemologists tend to worry about, in forming our opinions about everyday matters. On the other hand, it does seem -- barring cynical views! -- that reflection on honesty, justice, maximizing happiness, acting on universalizable maxims, and the kinds of things ethicists tend to worry about should improve our everyday moral decisions.
Furthermore, when epistemology is directly practical, I would expect epistemologists to think more rationally. For example, I'd expect experts on Bayesian decision theory to do a better job of maximizing their money in situations that can helpfully be modeled as gambling scenarios. I'd expect experts on fallacies in human reasoning to be better than others in seeing quickly through bad arguments on talk shows, if the errors are subtle enough to slip by many of us yet fall into patterns that someone attuned to fallacies will have labels for.
I remain perplexed. I continue to believe that those of us who value moral reasoning should be troubled by the apparent failure of professional ethicists to behave any better than those of similar socio-economic background.