Friday, January 19, 2007

Evil and Failure to Reflect

Today I'd like to consider a view somewhat in tension with my series of posts on what I call the "problem of the ethics professors" -- the problem being that they don't seem to be any more virtuous than the rest of us. (Empirical data here and here.)

It's tempting, perhaps, to suppose in light of ethicists' remarkably ordinary blend of virtue and vice, that philosophical moral reflection is of no use to moral development. But that conclusion is troublingly cynical. If philosophical reflection about ethics -- which is, really, often nothing more than just thoughtful consideration of what's right and wrong -- yields no moral benefit, what's the point? Just to know better our wickedness? It's pretty darkly pessimistic to suppose that reflection, and consideration of the best historical and contemporary writing on virtue, duty, and justice, is powerless to produce moral improvement.

It's appealingly worldly, perhaps, to think poorly of the morality of ethicists; but then, I think, you owe yourself a story about how and why philosophical reflection fails. And I doubt the easiest stories here ("the problem with ethicists is that they ignore the Bible" or "philosophical ethics suppresses moral emotion") will work, at least not without considerable supplementation.

Here are two further thoughts that incline me not to dismiss the value of moral reflection so lightly.

First, there's the remarkable lack of moral reflection common among the perpetrators of great crimes. I'm struck by this, especially, in reading Holocaust literature. It's a famous theme, of course, in Hannah Arendt's portrayal of Eichmann, an expert in the logistics of shipping Jews to death. Albert Speer's well-known book Inside the Third Reich -- conceived while serving prison time for his role as an architect in Hitler's inner circle -- is to my mind amazingly unreflective about the moral dimensions of his activity, focusing instead on such issues as Hitler's movie-watching habits and how the Allies should have attacked ball-bearing factories. I can't help but wonder whether more morally reflective people would be less likely to be swept up in such evil. (Of course, there's the case of Heidegger....)

And second: In the famous Milgram experiment, subjects are persuaded to shock (they think) a screaming, protesting (and eventually eerily silent) man in an adjoining room for the sake of an experiment on learning. They begin by giving a mild shock as "punishment" for a wrong answer, with instructions to increase the level of shock with each wrong answer. Eventually, they believe they are delivering shocks of 300 and even 450 volts (marked "danger" and "xxx" on the instrumentation) to the victim. When subjects protest, they are placidly told, by a man in a lab coat, that they are to continue and that the shocks cause no permanent tissue damage. It's hard to know for sure, but I suspect that most subjects who paused for a while to genuinely reflect, in a philosophical way (why am I shocking this man? do we have any right to keep him here despite his protests? might there be some real risk to his life or health that his experiment doesn't justify?), would refuse to continue to shock the victim. No?

Philosophical moral reflection, powerless to improve behavior? We should not adopt that view lightly. But then we're left again with the problem of the ethics professors.


Anonymous said...

Why should the causal connection between moral reflection and effects on behavior have to be so direct? I would think the main impact of moral reflection is a kind of trickle down effect. Let's say immoral Ethics Professor X's ideas about the foundations of right and wrong, justice and injustice, are widely influential. Immoral Ethics Professor X's ideas are so influential that they have an effect on discourse outside of philosophy (law schools and public policy programs, for example). As a result of immoral Ethics Professor X's ideas gaining wide currency (albeit in inevitably watered down and popularized form), better or more just decisions are made in people's everday day lives or at a public policy level. Is the fact that immoral Ethics Professor X's behavior doesn't match his own considered judgments about what is right or wrong such a bad thing, when balanced against what his moral reflection is capable of doing for the culture at large?

Isn't the idea of someone who has a deep understanding of right and wrong, justice and injustice, but has trouble living up to his or her own standards almost a stock character from literature and life (e.g., Martin Luther King Jr. or Reverend Dimmesdale, from the "Scarlet Letter")?

Clark Goble said...
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Clark Goble said...

It seems to me that the underlying issue is that moral reflection tends to take place on a very abstract level. Moving from abstraction to particulars is hard for many reasons. But most of all because it isn't our natural method of thinking.

In the same way a microbiologist might be acutely aware of microbes yet have a very dirty kitchen. The move from the abstract to the practical isn't there. It could be, but it seems to me that how we make that move isn't obvious always. Further it requires great diligence and habit building that is quite indepedent of reflection.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, Ignacio and Clark!

I agree with you entirely, Ignacio. If an immoral ethics professor can write things that generate moral improvement in others, I'm all for it. But if her writings have no positive effect on her or on other professional ethicists, that remains, I think, puzzling.

Clark, I do think what you say must be part of the story. And my impression is that when philosophical moral reflection concerns matters with very straightforward application such as vegetarianism and maybe donation to famine relief, there's a bit of a tighter connection between the words and the behavior. My tentative impression is that ethicists are more likely to be vegetarians than are philosophers not specializing in ethics.

But I'm not entirely happy with simply saying that the problem is that philosophical ethics is too abstract for two reasons: First, much of it is really not very abstract. And second, even fairly abstract reflection about morality, about the virtues, about the respect due to people, etc., ought -- I'd have thought -- have some impact on behavior via such mechanisms as reminding us of the value of such things and making the moral dimension of life more salient.

(P.S.: You seem to have uploaded two identical comments, Clark. I hope you don't mind that I've deleted one.)

Anonymous said...

Great discussion.

I’m wondering how effective abstract discussion is in really reminding us of the value of the virtues—at least in the way needed. I know there is appreciation for the emotions elsewhere on this blog; and here emotion seems salient too. (I’m still getting up to speed with this series, so please forgive if I’m repeating something here.)

Here’s my thought: I can’t just come to the propositional judgment again (occurent belief upon reminder) about the value of certain virtues, but must train my dispositions to have the correct affective response to virtuous scenarios. My assumption that our affections are generative of our moral judgments might be a contentious, but it seems there is some parallel here to Dr. Schwitzgebel’s work on belief. Ultimately, I’d argue for the need of literature and the arts, or something comparable, in the ethics classroom and the ethicist’s own life; this seems the most straightforward way to train the moral imagination and emotions.

Second best would be discussion that at least helped put the teacher and students in experientially simulated, concrete moral scenarios – and this in fact likely happens a good deal automatically even in the more abstract discussions, this post an example. And as far as I can tell, this is not an unpopular opinion these days. Or perhaps I’m missing something. . . .

Michael Metzler

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting comment, Michael. I'd like to think more about the role of imagination and literature in moral development. This has been a bit of a hot topic in moral psychology recently (thanks in part to Martha Nussbaum). On the face of it, it seems plausible to suppose that a moral imagination trained with concrete examples might be of value -- but so also it seems plausible that good reasoning about ethics would be of value!

On the value of abstract reminders about the worth and importance of morality (and of particular types of moral acts and virtues), I'm drawn to this analogy. Every month, I read a health newsletter that reminds me of what I already know: That it's good to eat lots of fruits and vegetables and fewer processed foods, saturated fats, and sugars. I get told in new ways, every month, with new twists and examples; but the mere reminder itself seems useful, and I'd guess has a positive impact on my eating habits.

I wonder: Do writers of health newsletters eat any better (on average) than the rest of us, and get more exercise? I'd guess probably yes; so how is the case different? Is it just that the advice is more concrete and specific?

Clark Goble said...

By abstract I don't necessarily mean abstract the way physics is abstract relative to say playing ice hockey. Rather I mean abstract in the sense that how we think about abstractions (i.e. representations) seems fundamentally different from how we think about actions. This is just true in general.

While we can and do reflect and then use this to affect our actions, it seems somewhat unnatural in a sense. Skills with the one need not entail skills with the other. Further, and perhaps this is just anecdotal bias at work, it seems researchers and university professors are selected due to their abilities with this representational thought. Often they are very good at those but perhaps, to put it politely, less skilled with more practical pursuits.

This isn't a completely fair generalization. (I know plenty of exceptions to the rule) But at minimum Asperger's Syndrome is much more common at universities for sure.

My only point is that three are three skills. Abstract (or representational) thinking about ethics; applying ethics (or being ethical) and then applying abstract thinking about ethics to practical ethics. Those seem to me to be three very separate skills and one can (and typically is) good at one without being good at the other two.

Clark Goble said...

BTW - to continue my sports analogy. One might be good at working out plays and strategies without being a good coach. And definitely without being a good player. (I can think of several examples in college football) I think this is just true in general.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for clarifying, Clark. I think there's surely much right in what you say.

Yet I also think it's pessimistic and unintuitive to suppose that there's no link whatsoever (or only a negligible link, for most people) between considering ethical matters abstractly -- where, if I understand you right, "abstractly" simply means something like not in the moment of action (like a coach telling his player to do X on the next play) -- and moral behavior. Now maybe it's right to say this. But it implies, seemingly, that there's really no value in moral reflection in general, in thinking about what's right and wrong outside the heat of the moment, in conversing about and considering general issues like vegetarianism, the respect due to minorities, etc.

Are we really ready to sign up for that?

On the other hand, if there is a significant link -- though, surely, more fragile than we might have hoped -- then moral reflection ought to lead to moral improvement in a non-negligible percentage of cases, and we're stuck right back in the problem of the ethics professors.

Anonymous said...

I think I have a movie recommendation for this thread: Wit (2001). A humanity professor, dying of cancer, faces the fact that all her instruction and scholarship on the meaning of life really never touched her life or her students' life (unfortunatley, she became a research specimen for one of her X-students).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Sounds interesting. Thanks for the recommendation!