Friday, November 02, 2007

New Draft Essay: The Moral Behavior of Ethicists: Peer Opinion (with Joshua Rust)

is here. Josh and I went to a meeting of the American Philosophical Association last spring and distributed questionnaires asking philosophers their opinion about the moral behavior of ethicists compared to non-ethicist philosophers and compared to non-academics of similar social background. The summary result (announced previously here) is this: The majority opinion among philosophers is that ethicists do not behave better. Ethicists themselves were about evenly divided between saying that ethicists behave better and saying they behave the same. Non-ethicists were about evenly divided between saying that ethicists behave better, the same, and worse.

In conversation, I've found that most philosophers seem untroubled by the view that ethicists are not better behaved than non-ethicists. But I think that if this is true it should be troubling -- both normatively and empirically!

Normatively, because it seems that philosophical reflection about ethical matters should have an impact on one's actual morally behavior. And empirically because it seems that people who devote their careers to ethics should at least be more inclined than average to think that morality is important (and thus worth acting on) and should find violations of their favorite principles more salient than do non-ethicists.

Comments on the essay gratefully welcomed! Email me.


KenF said...

To state the obvious, human beings rarely act in ways that they consider unethical. When they do act unethically, they create a rationalization sufficient to assuage their consciences. Who better than an ethicists to construct such a rationalization for himself?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

It would be rather depressing, though, if that was all moral reflection was good for! Don't you think?

David Hunter said...

Eric just a thought off the top of my head, but why should ordinary philosopher's views about the moral behaviour of ethicists be taken as evidence of the actual ethical behaviour of ethicists. Posit that determining the ethically right/wrong action is a tough thing requiring considerable expertise and judgement, if this is the case then we shouldn't think that non-ethicists would be good judgers (note this isn't my view, I just think it is a possibility)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment, David! I do think that's an interesting possibility.

My own view, though, is that when you've been interacting with someone for a while you gain a roughly accurate sense of their moral character (at least in situations of the sort you generally see them in). In one's own department, for example, one generally gets an idea within a year or two who are the saints and who are the more self-serving. I don't think it takes any special expertise in ethics to ascertain this.

Though I say this, let me confess that if there are any self-serving creeps in the UCR Philosophy Department, I've failed to detect them so far. I actually suspect that graduate students and department staff have a better sense of the character of professors than do their peers. The view "from below" is probably more accurate!

Justin Tiwald said...

Great, Eric. The essay is quite thought-provoking. Here's a passing remark that I thought I might draw attention to:

"Implicit in the responses is a tendency for philosophers to think that philosophers behave morally better than non-academics. Philosophers ranked both ethicists and M&E specialists better in comparison to non-academics of similar social background than in comparison to other philosophers."

Apparently we're all full of ourselves!

Justin Tiwald said...

How about this as a way of salvaging academic ethics:

(1.) Moral reflection is part of a constellation of activities and dispositions that improve moral character.

(2.) As academics, most professional philosophers do not engage in the other relevant activities, and/or lack the other relevant dispositions.

I think (1) is uncontroversial. We need (2) in order to explain why moral reflection might have an appreciable effect on non-academics, even while it has little appreciable effect on academic ethicists. If it turned out that the other dispositions and activities were things like empathy and raising children (which are characteristic of academics and non-academics alike) we'd expect to find that academic ethicists would have better moral character. But if it turned out that something uncharacteristic of academics is required (I don't know, maybe weak career ambitions), then we would expect that moral reflection would make little difference for academics. This might be at odds with the suggestion I quoted above, but it doesn't have to be.

It's still depressing, but not quite as much, because at least we could help improve the moral character of others. We'd be the academic equivalent of Mencius' butchers, who work in the morally-corrupting kitchen so that others don't have to.

KenF said...

The question is whether morality (being ethical) is an intellectual exercise or not. I think it's not, it's an emotional one. We instinctively know what is right and wrong.

You can make a philosophical game out of it, which is ethics, but that game isn't necessarily helpful or illuminating.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Justin, for the delightful comments (as usual). The suggestion in your second comment is interesting. I *would* like to hold (1), so if (2) could be made plausible, that would be attractive! But how to make (2) plausible....

Funny thought that we're like Mencius's butchers! Mencius himself, perhaps, on this view, would be like his butcher but without realizing it?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Kenf, I do think the extent to which ethics becomes an empty intellectual game (a risk, for example, with trolley problems!), we shouldn't expect improvements in moral behavior. Emotion must surely come into it.

But I'm not attracted to the view that ethics is a choice between the intellectual and the emotional. I'd hope that the two can come together and support each other... and then you'd expect that people with a good command over the intellectual half would do better, on average. Yes?

KenF said...

The thing about doing the "right" thing is that it often is competing with the "wrong" thing that is viscerally compelling. It is not just an intellectual exercise of what to do.

To use the best example, let's say you are away on a business trip and have the opportunity for an extramarital fling. You believe that you can get away with this without any repercussions. Should you do it?

Even if you have a strong ethical opinion, honed by years of thought and research, that this is wrong, your strong desire to do this may take precedence over your ethical judgment.

It's not a logical decision, it's an emotional one. This contrasts with many other areas of philosophy, which concern themselves with purely intellectual questions.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

But why can't it be both emotional and logical -- either each in part or both in tandem?

KenF said...

I think the question is what is the magnitude of forces involved. Let's say:

EB=Emotional desire to do something "bad"
EG=Emotional force to do good (conscience)
IG=Intellectual force to do good (ethical reasoning)

If EB-EG-IG is greater than 0, you do the bad thing, if EG and IG are big enough to balance out the drive to do the bad thing, then you don't.

What I'm saying is that it seems to me both EB and EG are very large relative to IG. Even if IG is real, in most cases EB and EG far outweigh it.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Right, thanks! So let me express my view (or hope) with the idea that IG, over time, has an effect on EB and EG. For example, if you intellectually say "Kant was right about honesty" to your class of 300, then later that day you plan to lie to your spouse, that lie should have some kind of negative emotional resonance that it wouldn't have had if you hadn't just been going on about Kant.