Monday, July 09, 2007

Big Things and Small Things in Morality

Hegel wrote that a great man's butler never thinks him great -- not, Hegel says, because the great man isn't great, but because the butler is a butler.

I don't really want to venture into the dark waters of Hegel interpretation, but the remark (besides being insulting to butlers and perhaps convenient for Hegel's self-image) suggests to me the following thought: Being good in small ways or accomplished in petty things -- in the kind of things a butler sees -- is unrelated, or maybe even negatively related, to being truly great. Einstein might not seem a genius to the man who handles his dry cleaning.

Does this apply to moral goodness or greatness? Is being good in small things -- civility with the cashier, not leaving one's coffee cup behind in the lecture hall -- much related to the big moral thngs, such as caring properly for one's children or doing good rather than harm to the world in one's chosen profession? Is it related to moral greatness of the sort seen in heroic rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust, such as Raoul Wallenberg, or moral visionaries such as Gandhi or Martin Luther King?

As far as I know, the question has not been systematically studied (although situationists might predict weak relationships among moral traits in general). Indeed, it's a somewhat daunting prospect, empirically. Although measuring small things the return of library books is easy, it's hard to get an accurate measure of broader moral life. People may have views about the daily character of King and Gandhi, but such views are almost inevitably distorted by politics, or by idolatry, or by the pleasure of bringing down a hero, so that it's hard to know what to make of them.

The issue troubles me particularly because of my interest in the moral behavior of ethics professors. Suppose I find (as it's generally looking so far) that on a number of small measures such as the failure to return library books, contribution to charities supporting needy students, etc., that ethicists look no better than the rest of us. How much can I draw from that? Are such little things simply too little to indicate anything of moral importance? (Or maybe, I wonder, is the moral life mostly composed of an accumulation of such little things...?)


Jim said...


The first thing you might be able to draw from this is to seriously question the assumption that ethics is a body of knowledge that once mastered by ethics professors leads to ethical behavior.

Rather than a body of knowledge ethics may be more of a continual doing, a king of striving, in which doing supplants knowing.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment, Jim! I certainly agree that ethics professors do not master a body of knowledge that leads to ethical behavior. What exactly the relationship is between philosophical moral reflection and moral behavior, though -- that's pretty tricky, and I've been beating my head against it for a while!

I'm not sure about your contrast between doing and knowing. I'm inclined to think that real knowing is just a kind of doing, or at least a set of dispositions to do -- that mere verbal assertion, if it's not backed by actual inclinations to do anything, isn't really belief or knowledge....

Jim said...


I'm the kind of guy who tends to get obsessive about getting at the truth about something but now, a part of me, quite reluctantly, is becoming increasingly skeptical about such an urge. My desire for knowledge has had a ruthlessness about it (as a young graduate student not returning books was the least of my crimes-- riping out esoteric journal articles from bound periodicals, which I thought could give me an advantage over my peers, was more my cup of tea).

I guess this is another way of saying that my pursuit of truth was and still is mired in and tainted by ego. This urge has been so intense that Nietzsche's insight that " all desire to know is a drop of cruelty," seems to me quite an understatement!

The pursuit of knowledge as a will to power might be in play in the behavior of ethics professors and library books.

dan haybron said...


My sense is that the small things say a lot about someone's character, usually more perhaps than the "big" things. The best people I've known had a pervasive sense of goodness and decency that affected many of their daily interactions with others--a perceptiveness and sensitivity to others that can't easily be confined just to the big things.

Whereas the big things that get so much attention tend to be fewer in number and more easily performed simply as a matter of willpower, obsessive concern, etc. I've seen many creeps who latched onto a good cause like a bulldog, doing much good but not convincing me that they're really better than most ordinary folks. By contrast, you can't fake or force pervasive decency.

The problem for your purposes is, which small things count? You have to be a jerk to (regularly?) treat the hotel cleaning lady like dirt, say, but why couldn't a really honest, thoughtful, wonderful person snitch the occasional hotel towel? I think one problem for your project is that conventional standards of character appraisal aren't very good...

Regarding philosophers, my guess is that we tend to be worse than average in some respects--eg, immature, whiny, and not so dependable--and better in others, particularly issues of some complexity--eg, less likely to succumb to mass idiocy like the wars on drugs and terror...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, Jim and Dan!

I agree, Jim, that there's much in Nietzsche's idea of will to power and its relationship to knowledge. But one thing I wonder about in what you say is whether one would expect ethicists to show more of this type of behavior than non-ethicist philosophers. I don't see why that should be so....

I'm very much in sympathy with your thoughtful and articulate comment, Dan! I agree with your assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of philosophy professors, though I also wonder whether that particular coupling of virtues and vices among philosophers is culturally local. It would be very interesting to see a good study of the attitudes of German philosophers toward Nazism.

Jim said...


Your last comment to me relates back to the issue you previously raised of understanding the relationship between philosophical moral reflection and moral behavior.

For me, reflection largely involves creating a distance between my impulses to act and my actions. In that space, it seems for me, are some of the origins of my moral behavior. To obseerve impulses(often expressed as internal thoughts) in my stream of consciousness, but then not act on them, has made me increasingly sensitive to my brain's definition of me. That definition, much to my suprise, is not necessarily all there is.

I chose automatically, as a young graduate student, to go with my impulse to rip an article out of a journal, because it was experienced by me as a natural gut-level internaL instruction in my best interest, with this impulse being perhaps analogous, in a small way, to Nietzche's pursuit of knowledge as the will to power.

I would assume that philosophers including ethics professors are not immune to such a will to power, as perhaps evidenced by your findings on the little things like failure to return library books, donations to charities or supporting needy students etc.

My reflection, through practice, has starkly revealed my arrogance. The "little" things were not important since I was about saving the world. Dan is certainly correct when he states that the little things say alot about one's character. Unfortunately arrogance knows no ideological boundaries.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I'm also attracted to the idea that there is something morally profitable in pausing to reflect before acting on one's impulses. Philosophy, it would seem, should encourage that, which is partly why I find the poor morals of many ethicists and philosophers a bit puzzling.

Part of the answer may indeed be to think about our arrogance: Thinking one is more important than others and one's time more valuable is the root of much evil -- and a vice to which professors may be especially subject.

Jared said...

"As far as I know, the question has not been systematically studied..."

A few dissertations at UChicago are edging towards these questions, esp. with considerations of Wittgenstein and Cavell. I don't know the students' progress, but chatting with them it seemed that there are studies out there.

By the way, it seems like Nietzsche is the wrong way to go on this question. Brushing one's teeth, or tipping the barista w/ loose change, doesn't really fall under Nietzschean virtue much the same way it wouldn't be a big issue for Kant's categorical imperative (arguable, but that's my reading). Nietzsche might have a cursory application, see his comments on habit, but the will to power is far too sweeping to provide for particular maxims of conduct (actually, isn't that the point of the will to power?). After all, we know both Nietzsche and Kant to be rather cordial men--especially if we compare them to Wittgenstein!

So could you rephrase the question? Make it more of a recognition of problems in action than behavioral guidance. This is especially true of Cavell, who looks to pinpoint problems in the everyday lives of moral agents without having to recourse to macrocosmic concerns. Ask: "what do I do now?" and not: "what do I do in general.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the tip, Jared. I'll keep an eye out for those dissertations!

I'm not sure I get your point in the last paragraph. As for Nietzsche, I agree that it's hard to extract particular maxims from him....