That's what Randy Cohen seems to be saying in his farewell column on ethics for the New York Times Magazine:
Writing the column has not made me even slightly more virtuous. And I didn’t have to be: it was in my contract. O.K., it wasn’t. But it should have been. I wasn’t hired to personify virtue, to be a role model for the kids, but to write about virtue in a way readers might find engaging. Consider sports writers: not 2 in 20 can hit the curveball, and why should they? They’re meant to report on athletes, not be athletes. And that’s the self-serving rationalization I’d have clung to had the cops hauled me off in handcuffs.Consider Cohen's sports-writer analogy. Often when I present my work on the moral behavior of ethicists, people (not a majority, but maybe a majority of ethicists) will respond by tossing out half-baked analogies: Should we expect basketball coaches to be better at basketball? Epistemologists to have more knowledge? Sociology professors to be popular with their peers? The thought behind such analogies appears to be: obviously no, and so also not in the analogous ethics professors case.
What spending my workday thinking about ethics did do was make me acutely conscious of my own transgressions, of the times I fell short. It is deeply demoralizing. I presume it qualifies me for some sort of workers’ comp. This was a particular hazard of my job, but it is also something every adult endures — every self-aware adult — as was noted by my great hero, Samuel Johnson, the person I most quoted in the column: “He that in the latter part of his life too strictly inquires what he has done, can very seldom receive from his own heart such an account as will give him satisfaction.” To grow old is to grow remorseful, both on and off duty.
First: Is it so obviously no? I wouldn't expect sports writers to out-hit professional baseball players, but that's not the issue. The issue is whether writing about sports has *any* relationship to one's sports skills -- and it's not obvious that it wouldn't: We learn sports skills in part by watching; thinking about strategy is not entirely useless; and sports writers might have and sustain an interest in sports that has positive consequences for behavior. The relevant question isn't: Should we expect sports writers to be baseball stars, but rather should we expect sports writers to be a little bit better at sports, on average, than non-sports writers? Analogously, the question I have posed about ethicists, and that Cohen seems to be posing to himself is not: Should we expect ethicists to be saints -- the major-league sluggers of morality -- but rather should we expect them to be a little morally better behaved than others of similar social background, or (not entirely equivalently, of course) than they would have been had they not studied ethics.
Understood properly, this question is, I think, neither obvious nor trivial. And Cohen notes that his use of the sports-writer analogy is a rationalization -- suggesting, perhaps, that he thinks it might have been reasonable to expect some change for the better in him as a result of his reflections, a change that failed to materialize.
Cohen says his reflections have mainly left him feeling bad about himself. His tone here seems to me to be oddly defeatist. Johnson, in the passage Cohen cites, is expressing the inevitability of remorse about the past, which (being past) is unchangeable. But ethical reflection happens midstream. It is as though Cohen is saying that the only effect of reflecting ethically and discovering that one has done some bad thing is to feel bad about oneself, that it's not realistic to expect actual changes in one's behavior as a result of such reflections. Now, while it might not be realistic to expect Cohen-style applied ethical reflection in ordinary life to transform one overnight into a saint, perhaps we might hope that it would at least nudge one a little bit toward avoiding, in the future, the sort of behavior about which one now feels remorseful. To abandon such hope, to think that such reflection is necessarily behaviorally ineffectual -- isn't that quite a dark view of the relationship between moral reflection and moral behavior?