Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Is Philosophical Moral Reflection Behaviorally Inert?

Regular readers of this blog will know that I'm interested in the moral behavior of ethics professors -- and why, in particular, it doesn't appear to be any better than that of non-ethicists of similar social background. One possibility is that philosophical moral reflection is behaviorally inert. In conversation, I've found that philosophers are often quick to endorse that idea.

Maybe I haven't done a very good job of articulating what I find unattractive in that view. Let me phrase my concern as a dilemma: Is philosophical reflection about ethics different in this respect from everyday moral deliberation about what to do?

If no, then the view being espoused is dark indeed: Moral deliberation, in general, is behaviorally inert. When we think morally about what we are obliged to do, the resulting judgments must either simply justify what we were going to do anyway, or if they don't match our prior inclinations they must be cast aside as we go ahead and act contrary to them. Of course such things sometimes happen -- maybe even the majority of the time -- but to think that such a result is inevitable undermines the very basis of reflection. We think we reflect morally so that we can figure out what's right and do it (or at least seriously consider doing it); but in fact that project is just a sham. If our aim is to do what's right, there's no point in reflecting about things, no point in trying to figure out what's right. Many of us build our lives as teachers around the falsity of that view.

If yes -- that is, if the philosopher who wants to deny the efficacy of philosophical moral reflection thinks the problem is with philosophical moral reflection specifically, not everyday moral reflection -- then some doubtful claims about philosophical ethics follow. While some parts of philosophical ethics are indeed far removed from everyday decision-making (e.g., abstruse metaethical discussions, puzzle cases about runaway trolleys), other parts are much more closely connected to everyday decision-making. Ethicists debate how much we should feel obliged to give to famine relief or other charities, whether we should eat meat, under what conditions it is permissible to lie, the nature and importance of courage. Even those ethicists who don't publish articles on such topics typically discuss them in undergraduate courses. It would be strange if everyday moral reflection about vegetarianism or charitable donation was causally efficacious but philosophical moral reflection about those same matters was not. It's hard, even, to see what the difference between the two is, other than that the latter may be more formal and detailed.

Maybe some of you can help me out: What's so attractive in the view that philosophical moral reflection is behaviorally inert? Why are so many philosophers seemingly attracted to this view, when confronted with my questions about the morality of ethicists?

24 comments:

JimPanzee said...

Just off the cuff--

Philosophical reflection is not about action per se, at least my understanding of it. Philosophical reflection focuses not on whether or not an argument is true but whether it is valid...whether it obtains internal consistency and if not, where does it fail and how?

There are no moral certitudes and so an ethical philosopher is more equipped to defend his seemingly unethical behavior by whichever internally consistent strategy validates the action--which is something like something you've said before.

What if ethical philosophers are so concerned with treating ethical arguments as puzzles to be solved or verbal architectures to be tweaked or rebuilt that they actually undervalue common moral reflection as naive and unworthy of attention?

KenF said...

The most charitable interpretation of most ethics is that deals with what "one" should do. I think, in fact, it mainly revolves around what "other people" should be doing. Actual moral reflection that would be likely to impact one's own life would have to be about one's own personal context. It's a very, very personal and intimate thing. That's far removed from philosophical ethics, which even in its most concrete concerns, is still abstract.

If professors got up in front of their classes, and said: "I am planning to cheat on my wife at the Eastern APA conference. I love my wife, but I think I can get away with it. What should I do? DISCUSS." Then it might have an impact. But discussing whether you should get an extra topping on your pizza or send the money to Bangladesh is not going to have much effect on the professor's real ethical problems.

Taylor said...

Philosophical moral reflection is an attempt to uncover the logic of our moral intuitions. Moral behavior is entirely intuitive. Deliberation only occurs outside of the intellectual arena when our intuitions conflict with one another. Then we can't comfortably go ahead without compromising at least one of our moral intuitions. So we may deliberate to resolve the conflict. Otherwise moral philosophical deliberation plays no role in behavior.

I don't see why this is dark. I think the real confusion here results in a hidden belief in strong free will. Without such a belief this reality is not difficult to accept.

Joshua Rust said...

I find myself among those who think your research does speak negatively about the link between moral reflection and behavior. But I would be reluctant to endorse the conclusion that moral reflection is behaviorally inert.

On the contrary, I fully expect that students of ethics would act with more competence in situations which most resemble the moral conundrums that they are used to addressing--situations that naturally prompt careful deliberation or a studied fairness such as bioethical questions, policy matters, the distribution of resources and perks.

But the sphere of the ethical is not always so dramatic: returning library books, voting in off-elections, remembering not to slam doors, responding to a college's email, respectfully listening to a speaker, maintaining eye contact during a conversation, etc.

These are cases where there is either wide agreement among the various ethical theories (no one writes journal articles on the permissibility of door-slamming!), or else the behavior is subtle enough so as to escape scrutiny of the theoretical eye. Either way, they are far removed from the cases which ethicists are thinking about.

It's not that moral reflection is behaviorally inert. Rather I worry that ethicist's emphasis on the deliberative might undermine the full scope of possible moral competences.

Hallq said...

I suspect that few beliefs are behaviorally inert, but when we lack the power to put them into practice in the normal way, the consequences become weird. I immediately jump to Hume's (and more recently Dennett's) comments on how people fail to act on their religious beliefs. Even if they don't take them into serious consideration in say, military planning, or reflection on the end of life, those beliefs may have a big effect on who they're willing to associate with socially. When academic discourse becomes detached from reason and evidence (a problem in philosophy, though it doesn't seem as bad as in cultural studies) beliefs can lose their normal practical function and serve as shibboleths instead.

This, though, is more about the nature of non-reflection than reflection. In philosophy, though, there may be problems of pseudo-reflection: going through the motions because its socially expected, but not really approaching things as you would a really important issue.

Roman Altshuler said...

I agree with you that there seems to be something odd going on in the idea that philosophical moral reflection is inert, whereas everyday moral reflection is efficacious. One way of addressing the issue is to take the approach Taylor suggests: we act on our intuitions, and deliberate only in cases of conflict. If so, then deliberation would make very little difference to behavior in everyday life, since we very rarely deliberate--we almost always act intuitively; explicitly philosophical deliberation, then, would have virtually no observable effect, since it would be a tiny subset of a tiny influence on behavior. (One point to add to Taylor's: Kohlberg's research did suggest that we deliberate and reach new moral conclusions when we run into conflicts; but the research also indicated that the resulting progress in moral deliberation was not followed by a progress in behavior. If anything, this seems to suggest that moral reflection is more or less inert.)

And I suspect there are two big reasons why many philosophers think moral deliberation is inert:
1. The various research that suggests that deliberation plays only a negligible role, if any, in our behavior.
2. Self-observation: To be honest, I can think of only rare cases, occurring maybe once a year if that, where I enter into explicitly moral deliberation about what to do. And even there, my decision may be informed by my deliberation, but I doubt any non-Deity being could observe this fact. If I am at all typical, perhaps this is another grounds for skepticism.

But I'd suggest one way of making the picture brighter, though I'm not too happy with this: Call it the Hume-Strawson model. Perhaps moral deliberation makes no difference to our behavior directly. But maybe it does make a difference to how we judge others. If moral reflection does structure our reactive attitudes, and the reactive attitudes of others does have some effect on our behavior, then moral deliberation is not entirely inert. It is simply that its effects on behavior occur through very indirect mechanisms.

So: we have reason to go on teaching ethics, even if it doesn't seem to make our students better people.

Anibal said...

I think all is related to the way our mind/brain continuum evolve over the eons and the nested estructure of cognitve functions.

Linguistic systems and verbal reasoning based on linguaform represntational-routes then used by our moral reflection competence, came after other systems evolve before, particularly, our behavioural outputs in responses to reinforment learning or stimuli in the enviroment (e.g. a threat, anger face, attempt to harm...)

In this sense there is an assymetry as those researchers in theory of agency explicitely state.

In everyday moral decison making we are commanded by gut feelings and unconcious shortcuts (moral heuristics we might say) but we judged others by reason based moral principles about the events and situations they are involved, and only few times, we are engaged in moral reasoning about our own actions.

I applaud you for this insight, Eric, because is very accurate, and Taylor and Altshuler comments as well.

Anonymous said...

Hi Eric, I'm enjoying this line of inquiry.

You ask, "What's so attractive in the view that philosophical moral reflection is behaviorally inert?"

In my judgment, intelligent people find the thesis attractive because intelligent people haven't the foggiest notion under what conditions moral reflection is effective, period.

So really the thesis is a thinking person's shortcut that camouflages a gap in knowledge.

If I were an enterprising philosophy grad student, I'd build a research program around the question, "Under what conditions is moral deliberation effective?"

Best,
Kevin

Marcin Miłkowski said...

I think that the claim that the moral reflection is behaviorally inert is simply false: there are many cases where it was philosophical reflection that motivated people to behave morally. For example, no Kantian ethics professor in Germany have ever joined NSDAP, whereas proponents of other ethical theories did (famously, Heidegger, for example). The difference is even statistically detectable.

Anyway, as Leszek Kołakowski once said, an ornithologist doesn't have to fly.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Wow, thanks for all the great comments!

Jimpanzee: It does seem likely that if moral philosophy encourages rationalization and the disparagement of everyday moral reflection, moral philosophers won't profit morally from their study. But then, I'd say, it's likely that they would behave worse. I doubt they do, overall (though the evidence is still pending!). So one possibility is what I call a bivalent view: Sometime philosophical moral reflection helps and sometimes it makes things worse. Of course, that's not the same as saying it's inert.

Kenf: I wonder if implicit in your statement is the idea that ethicists would be more likely to be vegetarians and donate to famine relief. I'm inclined to think so, but I think it's an open empirical question. The tiny bit of evidence I have suggests that they may be more likely to do these things but that their commitments to such things may exist prior to their ethical training. I'd love to get some better data on that! If teaching ethics increases the likelihood of donating to famine relief, then there's at least one respect in which philosophical ethical reflection (or discussion, or at least public stance-taking) is not inert.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Hallq: I like the comparison to failing to act on religious beliefs. That has always puzzled me. With eternal bliss or damnation at stake, you'd think people would toe the line! But in fact, religious folks behave pretty much the same as everyone else -- at best only a smidgen better. (There's a fair bit of empirical literature on this.) Pseudo-reflection is another interesting idea. One challenge is how to distinguish that from genuine reflection -- which maybe we is morally improving. Nick Baiamonte, a student of mine, is working on a dissertation on exactly that topic, in fact! A good topic for a future post....

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Josh: I couldn't agree with you more. Very nicely put! Well, let me temper that a bit. What you say seems a very reasonable potential explanation of what I take to be the bivalence of ethics; but whether it will break down in exactly the way you say is still in my mind an open empirical question. I've been toying with the closely-related but not identical idea that maybe it's where the conventional behavior is good that ethicists are worse and where the conventional behavior is bad that ethicists are better.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Taylor and Roman: I think you're probably right that we do very little moral reflection in our everyday life, but only act intuitively. But of course that's consistent with saying that moral reflection is causally efficacious when it occurs. Maybe it's so rare as to make a practically invisible effect -- but it's not my inclination to think so. Fairly often, I find myself thinking about the ethics of zooming to the front of a line or cars (would I be acting on a universalizable maxim?), ducking out early from office hours, letting a student's essay languish a while longer without comments while I get some reading done for my own research, etc. But probably I mean less by "moral reflection" than you do (or at least than Roman does). But even if this is a fairly weak sense of moral reflection, I suspect there's reason to think that ethicists would do it on average more often than non-ethicists; and I think it's unintuitive and disappointing to think that it could not improve our behavior.

That's a nice point at the end, Roman. Even if ethical reflection doesn't improve one's own behavior, it might improve the behavior of those around you!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anibal: Yes, I think something like that has to be right. Haidt develops a similar view. The question is how much power does the evolutionarily deep unconscious stuff yield over to the later, lingaform stuff? Maybe not so much; but I'd hope more than none!

Kevin: I agree. My sense is that it's often a shortcut answer that allows my interlocutors to cover their ignorance and avoid serious reflection about the issue. I wouldn't mind a student or two working on the question you describe. Actually, I do already have one, whom I mentioned in one of my comments above!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Marcin, do you have data on that? I'd love to see it! At the Pacific APA last year, I ran into one fellow who told me almost exactly the opposite.

Brandon said...

But even if this is a fairly weak sense of moral reflection, I suspect there's reason to think that ethicists would do it on average more often than non-ethicists; and I think it's unintuitive and disappointing to think that it could not improve our behavior.

It occurs to me that one reason why people might be so quick to accept the position you've noted is that they may think of the relation between (professional) ethics and actual moral thinking to be like the relation between physics and sports. You can write papers about the physics of the perfect golf swing, argue it out in conferences, analyze the precise details of the best way to approach a hole if it has such-and-such features, and so forth, and it will not, on its own, bring you one step closer to a perfect golf game. And this is because the skills are just plain different skills. You could, to be sure, use the physics skills while doing golf. If you just tried to apply them on their own, maybe you'd do a little better;maybe it would have no effect at all; you might even do worse, due to overthinking. If the physics skills can improve your golf game, though, it could only be by an interrelated system of intermediate skills (e.g., those involving practices helping you to develop the muscle memory for the sorts of shots the analysis identifies as optimal, methods of self-review, and so forth). If one were to think of ethics & moral behavior as analogous to such a situation, then the view that the former is morally inert becomes much more plausible -- perhaps, depending on the details, needing some qualifications here and there, perhaps not wholly unproblematic, but in general reasonably plausible.

MT said...

We're talking about professional academic theorists of ethics, right? So it's academic and theoretical, by definition. It's not like this work is being done in the schools of engineering or education or psychology. Even if it were, would you expect a difference? Tech transfer and corporate-academic partnerships are only recent cultural inventions, I would say, because university research is traditionally supposed "pure." I suppose that's the pleasing part of the stance. That you're work has no application is evidence that it's pure. "Pure" means being free to shoot the moon, like Einstein. It means you are a member of the creative class. The more pure your work, the closer you are to being paid for nothing, and the greater the confidence that society and the economy shows in you with each dollar of remuneration. It's about prestige. And that ought to be no surprise.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Oh, Brandon and MT, I don't think it's so pure as that! I do agree that if it were, there would be no reason to expect any relationship between moral theory and moral behavior.

Marcin Miłkowski said...

Yes, there is a very interesting paper by Gereon Wolters from Konstanz about political involvement of German philosophers in Third Reich: "Der 'Führer' und seine 'Denker'. Zur Philosophie des 'Dritten Reichs'", Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie 47 (1999), 223-251.

Genius said...

I think in general how we were going to act anyway (which is a complex sum of our genetics and all those vague influences on us that don't make it into our conscious) easily dominate our reflection in controlling our behavior.
So Philosophical reflection can spread meme's that might change behaviour of society as a whole but it's direct effect is small. That means it would be easy to miss it in a study.

I also think that there is a sorting algorythm of morality in a normal group of people. Certain people will make themselves the most moral in a room and others will make themselves marginally the least moral.

So a change to your moral status due to reading a book (which will probably be marginal anyway) may well not change your moral ranking in the group at all (as everyone takes cues from you and adjusts their behavior marginally).

Anyway overall I favour arguments that accept that there are multiple effects. So I suppose that is your bivalent view. I.e in some cases people would become more moral in others they would become less moral.

I can see the latter happening for example where the person has to think about possibilities that average people don't think about - where those people might have gut reactions taught from childhood that shield them with a sort of lie about the nature of the immoral act.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Genius. I'm inclined to agree with pretty much everything you've said. The sorting algorithm idea is an especially interesting one! Hm, how could that be tested...?

MT said...

how could that be tested...?

With very good looking 18- to 28 year-olds, weekly, at prime time and between commercials.

MT said...

I think Hana Arendt offers an answer to the title question with her famous phrase about the "banality of evil." The evils she's talking about, I believe, are systematic behavior s based on principled positions, morally erroneous positions, most of us now believe. I suspect the perpetrators strike us as banal precisely in so far as they are principled and predictable in how they conduct themselves generally--temperamentally predisposed to principle (perhaps related to "seeing things in black and white"). Being an ideologue is banal, and being an unlucky or stupid ideologue in a position to harm others by acting on your ideological positions means behaving badly.

MT said...

i.e. by "bad luck" in ideology I mean having had excellent grounds for a conviction that turns out to be critically flawed; and by "stupidity" in ideology I mean having held a similar conviction on obviously incoherent or fallacious grounds and/or despite grounds obviously urging skepticism.

I'm assuming the best principles/theories/rules are doomed to be no better than rules of thumb, so that to be "a stickler" (a person committed to principle) is to be predisposed to evil, depending on the circumstances in which you find yourself. If you're lucky, you'll never find yourself in the exceptional case in which acting on principle will cause others to judge you to be lacking humanity or "evil."