I've been thinking a fair bit about the relationship between moral reflection and moral behavior -- especially in light of my findings suggesting that ethicists behave no better than non-ethicists of similar social background. I've been working with the default assumption that moral reflection can and often does improve moral behavior; but I'm also inclined to read the empirical evidence as suggesting that people who morally reflect a lot don't behave, on average, better than those who don't morally reflect very much.
Those two thoughts can be reconciled if, about as often as moral reflection is morally salutary, it goes wrong in one of the following ways:
* it leads to moral skepticism or nihilism or egotism,But all this is rather depressing, since it suggests that if my aim is to behave well, there's no point in morally reflecting -- the downside is as big as the upside. (Or it is, unless I can find a good way to avoid those risks, and I have no reason to think I'm a special talent.)
* it collapses into self-serving rationalization, or
* it reduces our ability to respond unreflectively in good ways.
But it occurs to me now that the following empirical claim might be true: The majority of our moral reflection concerns not what it would be morally good to do but rather whether it's permissible to do things that are not morally good. So, for example, most people would agree that donating to well-chosen charities and embracing vegetarianism would be morally good things to do. (On vegetarianism: Even if animals have no rights, eating meat causes more pollution.) When I'm reflecting morally about whether to eat the slightly less appealing vegetarian dish or to donate money to Oxfam -- or to kick back instead of helping my wife with the dishes -- I'm not thinking about whether it would be morally good to do those things. I take it for granted that it would be. Rather, I'm thinking about whether not doing those things is morally permissible.
So here, then, is a possibility: Those who reflect a lot about ethics have a better sense of which morally-less-than-ideal things really are permissible and which are not. This might make them behave morally worse in some cases -- for example, when most people do what is morally good but not morally required, mistakenly thinking it is required (e.g., voting? returning library books?); and it might make them behave morally better in others (e.g., vegetarianism?) On average, they might behave just about as well as non-ethicists, doing less that is supererogatory but better meeting their moral obligations. If so, then philosophical moral reflection might be succeeding quite well in its aim of regulating behavior without actually improving it, no skepticism or nihilism or rationalization or injury of spontaneous reactions required.