Monday, June 11, 2007

Should Ethicists Behave Better? Should Epistemologists Think More Rationally?

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.


Asger Steffensen said...

>>Why does it seem reasonable -- to me, and to many undergraduates -- to think ethicists would behave better<<

I believe this is due to many undergraduates having the belief that ethics is a more practical subject than what it really is.

>>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 agree with you on this, but I also think this shows the flaw in your comparison of ethicists and epistemologists. The example you give here is unusual in the everyday sense. It is a highly specific case that fits the epistemologists profession "like a glove".
An equal ethicist example would be something like handing a specific abortion case to an ethicist and asking him to suggest the best action to perform.
In this case I would expect an ethicist to outperform a "normal" person.

This suggests, I believe, that moral reflection does not necessarily improve your manners in everyday situations. Why this is so, is the well known ethicist fact that you cannot "fill out the sheet" in everyday situations. You simply do not have the time.

A related issue is that two ethicist would disagree as to which is the best actions to perform even in the "easy" example mentioned above, whereas two epistemologists would probably agree on the most profitable model on your example.
This shows that the problematic assumption in your argument is (3). Ethicists will not necessarily behave better, they will simply behave more reflected. They can, if you will, still be general assholes.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Asger, for your helpful comment! You raise a good point. I do think it's plausible that in areas of applied ethics on which ethicists are actually writing or teaching and where the ethicist herself endorses a specific, concrete type of action (vegetarianism, donating to famine relief, abortion pro or con) -- it's plausible to expect that the ethicists would behave better, or at least in accord with majority opinion in ethics!

But I think this overshoots the target, and is more parellel to specific recommendations in decision theory (such as betting a particular way on a Monty Hall problem) than to more general strategies like Bayesian money maximization in gambling situations. But I don't know -- getting the comparison exactly right is tricky.

I continue to think, though, that Aristotelian treatments of virtues or Kantian discussions of maxims for action have more bearing on real-life behavior than JTB theories of knowledge, say. *Maybe* such reflections are ineffectual -- even though I, as a part-time ethicist sometimes find myself doing such reflection in my daily life -- and only very concrete recommendations have any effect. But that would already be giving up a lot!

Asger Steffensen said...

Hi Eric.
Thanks for an interesting article.

>>I continue to think, though, that Aristotelian treatments of virtues or Kantian discussions of maxims for action have more bearing on real-life behaviour…<<

I believe you are partly right here. Virtue ethics, I agree, will have a bearing on manners, which is considered “common ground” good manners. Furthermore, I think it’s an important claim because whatever metaethics or normative ethics you endorse, I believe you could agree on endorsing certain virtues.

Deontology, I believe, is too riddled with opposite directives/maxims to endorse a better mannered behaviour. Unless of course you meant exactly Kantian deontology, which will probably endorse certain behaviour. What is then more problematic is figuring out which actions Kantian deontology will endorse, and who will be able to conform to them..? (I lie on occasion)

So as ethicists we should all endorse virtue ethics. This will have an effect on general common ground good behaviour among ethicists, and what is more important among the general public.

Keyur said...
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ADHR said...


I think there's a hidden assumption in the ethics version of the argument, namely that moral philosophy is the only way to improve moral reasoning. That is, we can accept (1), (2) and (3), but still deny the conclusion, on the grounds that non-ethicists may have gained an equivalent ability to reason morally, but through some other method. If I'm right, that might account for why the epistemological version of the argument seems less plausible: it's quite doubtful that the only way to become more theoretically rational is by doing epistemology.

Of course, to really make my response here fly, I'd have to give at least a brief taxonomy of methods of improving moral reasoning. I don't have one -- sorry! Still, given that there are ways to improve theoretical rationality that don't involve epistemology, it seems to me at least prima facie plausible that there are ways to improve practical rationality, including moral reasoning, apart from doing moral philosophy.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Well, I'm not sure that we all need to go over to virtue ethics, Asger! (I'm inclined to think all the major metaethical approaches have merits and shortcomings.)

One approach would be not to worry too much about what is controversial among ethicists and think about behavior that is straightforwardly ethical or not, if one pauses to think about it. (You mention "common ground good behavior".) My hope is that ethicists would (a.) be more likely to pause and think about it, and thus (b.) be less likely to do it. But then the question is: Is (a) true and does (b) follow from (a)?

ADHR, I agree that there is something like that assumption in the argument. The conclusion only follows ceteris paribus or "all else being equal". And if there are other ways to become moral AND if ethicists are LESS likely to practice those other approaches, then rational moral reflection can be efficacious and yet ethicists not be any better. So one way out of the puzzle is to say that ethicsts are less likely than others to partake in the other methods of improving one's moral behavior. Maybe so....

Asger Steffensen said...

I guess I overshot my point a bit by saying ’virtue ethics’ and not just ‘virtues’.

I did not mean we should all start to endorse virtue ethics, as in the metaethical approach, but simply start endorsing virtues, as an ethical rule of thumb to follow in our everyday lives.
Now, as I tried to say before, I believe certain virtues could be endorsed by most ethicist regardless of their metaethical or normative positions, as a kind of practical “rule of thumb ethics”, and I believe this could have the wanted ‘better manners effect’ on even ethics professors ;)

I really do believe you are right in both (a) and (b). Where my concerns are directed is to that no two ethicists will agree on what one should >>be less likely to do<<. This is where my rule of thumb virtues come in handy.

Now if it is even possible to endorse virtues without being stuck with virtue ethics metaethical short comings I do not know. I’m currently studying for an exam so I don’t have the time to catch up on the virtue ethical metaethical approach ;)

Brad C said...

Hi Eric,

Have you asked whether people think that ethicists are better at giving advice (or helping one think through a practical problem) than non-ethicists?

I can't remember if you have, but it seems like one area where I would share your worry about the study and teaching of ethics not leading to improvement.


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

You may be right, Asger, that the thing to do is to think about virtues. Would it follow that to the extent virtue ethicists do this more than utilitarians or Kantians their behavior would be morally better?

I certainly don't want to give up on the idea of moral improvement. The question, then, is what role moral reflection plays in moral improvement, and what kinds of moral reflection are effective.

Brad, that's a great question. I've only surveyed opinions about the moral behavior of ethicists, not the quality of their moral advice. That would be interesting to do! (Unfortunately, I don't think I can do any more questionnaires of this type at APAs. I've polluted the subject pool and too many people know what I'm up to.)

Dan Cavedon-Taylor said...

Hi Eric,

Here's another way of pressing Weinberg's point. Consider a parallel with aesthetics, rather than epistemology. I think aestheticians are a somewhat better target for comparison with ethicists since both are traditionally conceived of as inquiring into the nature of value, whereas this is not (as) true of epistemologists (though I recognise discussion of the value turn in epistemology).

So let's ask Weinberg's question again: Why should we think ethicists will be morally better behaved, any more than we would think aestheticians would be aesthetically better behaved (i.e. be better dressed than their colleagues, or decorate their homes in more aesthetically pleasing colour schemes)?

I'm not sure this is what we expect of aestheticians. Moreover, is there something puzzling about an aesthetician who doesn't dress better than their colleagues or whose home is decorated equally as well as their colleagues' homes? I'm not so sure that there is.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Nice thought, Dan. In fact Jonathan raised that very point in his commentary yesterday! However, he did say that he thought philosophers specializing in aesthetics had better taste. (I would agree with this, based on my limited experience.) He thought it might be a selection effect, rather than causal: Philosophical aesthetics doesn't improve one's taste, but people with good taste tend to go into aesthetics.

That might be right, but it's not inconsistent with my hypothesis, as it is accounted for in the parenthetical remark in premise (1).

So I guess I disagree with you a bit. Although individual aestheticists may have poor taste, it would be surprising to me, both empirically and on general plausibility considerations, if ceteris paribus and on average aestheticists didn't have more tasteful art in their homes.