Monday, January 29, 2007

Is It Fair to Expect Ethicists to Behave Better?

Suppose I'm right and ethicists don't behave better than anyone else (see these posts). Shall we accuse them of hypocrisy? Consider a concrete example: Kant is remarkably strict in his denunciation of lying (famously saying that you shouldn't even lie to a murderer at the door about the hiding place of his innocent target). Should we hold him to higher standards of truthfulness in his personal behavior than others? Is there something particularly bad about Kant falsifying his tax return?

The obvious and natural answer is yes. Yet I'm struck by this analogy: A doctor goes to a third world country. Every time she takes a day off, ten people die who wouldn't otherwise have died. Suppose she takes a day off to go fishing, knowing that she doesn't need to fish, that a vacation isn't necessary to her continued functioning, that should could have worked that day without any loss to her future efficiency. She just wants to fish, and she thinks she deserves the time off. Shall we accuse her of preferring a day of fishing for herself to the lives of ten other people, and thus fishing at the expense of their lives? In a sense her choice does seem repugnant in that way. Yet also the accusation seems unfair. Had she chosen a pleasant career as a philosophy professor, or a cosmetic surgeon, she could take a day off without deadly repercussions. Her choice to go abroad instead was morally admirable. Surely, she deserves a "me day" at least as much as the rest of us.

I draw the conclusion that we should be careful about requiring people to shoulder an additional moral load because of their choice of profession (setting aside cases in they shoulder such a load to compensate for a wicked profession). Considering myself: I chose to specialize in philosophy of psychology, not ethics. Do I therefore have fewer moral obligations? Is it more permissible for me to lie, disrespect my students, ignore the disadvantaged? To say so seems not only unfair to ethicists but to create a kind of prudential incentive to avoid ethics -- perhaps even to avoid thinking about ethics -- if one wishes to remain (comparatively!) un-blameworthy for one's actions.

(I was brought to this thought reading Richard Posner's comment [in his 1999 book, p. 69] that ethics professors seem just as eager to reduce their teaching loads as anyone else -- and that therefore they must either think their teaching ineffectual or value the cultivation of morality less than they say. At first, this seemed to me a fair and interesting criticism; and maybe it still is....)


Anonymous said...

Eric, I'm glad you raised this question. To be honest, it's something I've been wondering about since you first started talking about this question. Why is it obvious and natural to hold ethicists to higher standards than to other people?

Your Kant example isn't quite fair. Kant is particularly condemnatory with regard to ethical shortcomings, so there's every reason to accuse him of hypocrisy if he doesn't live up to it. But that's a fact about Kant, not about ethicists in general.

Let's use your doctor example in a very different way: should we hold doctors to be in some important way blameworthy or deficient if empirical investigation suggests that they're no less likely to suffer broken bones than other people are?

Ethicists are people who study ethics; they're interested in what explains ethical truths or ethical judgments, or what normative theories are correct, or what metaphysics ethical discourse commits to. Why should we expect or demand that this academic study correlate with greater than average moral behavior?

Here's an empirical claim that I don't find terribly unlikely: ethicists are no more likely to think that keeping library books past their due dates is morally wrong than non-ethicists are. If this claim is true, then the hypocrisy complaint you point to cannot sustain the demands that ethicists be extra-ethical. Do you think it's obviously false? Or do you think that it's something else that is doing the explaining?

Brad C said...

Hi Eric,

This is slightly off topic, but...

After reading you post I was thinking and came to the conclusion that studying ethics has, I think, made me more ethical than I was before I studied it. To be sure I include the study of eastern religion, western contemplatives, stoicism, cognitive psychology, Aristotle and Plato, etc. under the broad umbrella of Ethics. And this study includes trying out various practices. But, in any case, I wonder if, instead of (or, at least, in addition to) asking whether ethics professors are more or less moral than the rest, we should be asking whether their studies have *improved* them at all.

If the old chestnut about the ill behaved studying ethics is right, then they have lots to learn and improve upon, and I wonder if studying ethics (or at least some things that fall under that title) might at least buttress their conscience when temptation assails. Another way it can improve ones action is by encouraging and enabling reflection on and awareness of ones habits of mind and action. Awareness of temptation as it first begins to take hold is invaluable as we can often nip a bad act in the bud, so to speak, and ethical thinking can also help motivate us, and help us, to cultivate that sort of awareness.

Finally, on both the blameworthiness and tendency to violate fronts, I doubt that the study of meta-ethics will do much good, except insofar as it helps students see that we can be tolerant without lapsing into relativism or subjectivism, or giving up on the power of critical practical thinking.

P.S. do you have the numbers on books on philosophical anarchism?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Very interesting comments, Jonathan and Brad. Delightful!

So, first, some thoughts in response to Jonathan:

* There might be a useful distinction here between particularly condemnatory ethicists -- or maybe better, those who preach rigorous standards (e.g., Kant, Unger) -- and the more permissive (e.g., Williams). Maybe it's only the former who should be held to higher standards. Nonetheless, I still feel somewhat the pull of the doctor analogy for those cases.

* Regarding your adapation of the doctor analogy: Doctors should have fewer -- if not broken bones specifically then health disorders in general (setting aside differences in exposure) because they are should know better how to avoid them and also because they should be more alert to the risks. The chain-smoking doctor is strange in the same way the wicked moralist is.

* The chain-smoking doctor example also brings out what I think is amiss in your final point. All educated North Americans know smoking is bad for you. Doctors don't know this at any higher rate than the rest of us. The chain-smoking doctor is odd because the health risks should be more salient to her and because she builds her career around issues of health. Analogously for ethicists stealing books.

* Finally, let me address the point that the study of ethics is purely theoretical and shouldn't be expected to change behavior. Ethicists say this to me a lot in self-defense. But I think it's an unhappy defense. Here's a short argument: (1.) Studying ethics helps us discover moral truths and/or it makes what's morally right and wrong more salient [this may not apply to the most abstract metaethics -- but who does only that?]. (2.) Seeing better what's right and wrong, being more attuned to the moral aspects of the world, normally increases the likelihood of doing the morally right thing. (3.) Therefore, studying ethics ought normally to increase the likelihood of doing the right thing.

The conclusion follows straightforwardly from the premises. Denying (1) is tantamount to moral skepticism, or at least skepticism about moral reasoning. Denying (2) is starkly pessimistic about the connection between reasoning and behavior. Now maybe we do have to embrace one of these positions, but if so, we shouldn't be comfortable about it. The reply, in not recognizing this, is too glib.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, Brad, I would settle for ethics morally improving its practioners -- which is compatible with ethicists not behaving any better than the rest of us if one assumes that ethicists start out worse! (Maybe, then, they improve to about average.)

But I do think that's an empirically risky assumption. Would we expect, for example, to see higher rates of juvenile delinquency among ethicists? I'd love to be able to test that!

I'm definitely sympathetic to your reflections about how ethics might help us morally -- and I agree that different approaches may differ in their effects on our moral lives. Ethics may improve us partly through helping us see moral truths we didn't see before (e.g., the implicit heterosexism in some of the habits we've inherited) but even more so, I suspect, by simply making the moral dimension of life more salient, by (as you put it) "encouraging and enabling reflection on and awareness of one's habits of mind and action".

I want to believe all that. I do believe it. But what I'm calling "the problem of the ethics professors" still troubles me. The idea that ethicists start out worse is an appealing escape, but not one I feel I can in full intellectual conscience accept, yet.

If certain types of ethics books encourage moral improvement more than others, one might expect those books to be stolen less. I haven't looked at the issue systematically yet, and I'm not sure I have enough statistical power to do anything convincing here, but I've noticed no striking trends (e.g., feminism books seem just as likely to be missing as books in metaethics).

On anarchism specifically, I don't have many anarchist books on my list (that I'm aware of); but it might be fun to put together a list of a dozen or so and see what comes out! (Do you know the area?) Nozick's Anarchy, State, Utopia has 11 missing of 111 off-shelf for a missing rate of 9.9%, which is actually pretty good considering its age and prominence.

Anonymous said...

I don't think that denying (1) is tantamount to moral skepticism. Here's what seems to me to be a pretty natural combination of views: we pretty much know which actions are morally right and which ones are morally wrong, prior to ethical theorizing. Maybe we'll disagree about unusual cases, turning to competing theories to adjudicate them. But pretty much everybody has pretty good intuitive moral judgments, and these judgments amount to knowledge.

Now there are a whole bunch of questions that this raises. What unifies right and wrong action? How is it that we reliably judge actions? Ethicists study these questions, which arise from that starting point.

I'm not saying this is the correct picture of how ethics works; I'm just saying that it's a pretty natural one, and ought at least to be on the table.

If this is right, then your (1) could easily be false, without skepticism being true. Philosophical study of ethics doesn't help us to make more accurate ethical judgments (at least in the everyday cases); we're already very good at that. Rather, philosophical study of ethics helps us to understand more about how they work and what they're talking about.

On the chain-smoking doctor, you say: The chain-smoking doctor is odd because the health risks should be more salient to her and because she builds her career around issues of health. Analogously for ethicists stealing books. But not quite analogously; the doctor isn't merely building her career around health issues -- she has a career whose goal is to promote health. The point of doctors is to make people healthy. It is at least not obvious that the point of ethics professors is to make people ethical. I'm sure that many ethics professors would deny having that function. Maybe you condemn that, and maybe you should. But it's at least not as blatantly wrong-headed as the doctor who says he doesn't care about making people healthy.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I agree with you, Jonathan, that our intuitive moral judgments are already fairly good (though I do worry about this a bit). That's why I included in my statement of (1) not just discovering moral truths but also making the moral dimension of life more salient (and in fact that's where I'd put my emphasis). Premise (1) is disjunctive, and I think the entire disjunction is harder to deny than just the first element of it.

I also agree that there's the disanalogy you point out in the doctor case. I don't think ethicists should have to see their task as making their students morally better -- though I also think it's admirable to see that as part of the task (if they think it's attainable in some small degree), and I think the hope is also implicit in requiring business majors to take business ethics and the like.

I also think it's an unusual ethicist who regards her ethical reflections as irrelevant to the moral quality of her behavior. Most (not all) ethicists, I hope and believe, want to think about what's right and do it if they can; or what to think about the best kind of person to be and hope to make progress in that direction. Would they say, should they say, there's no moral point in any of my ethical reflections, I will not behave any better or be any better a person as a result of them? Some would, but I do think that's a more pessimistic view than most would be comfortable with (except as a stance, in response to an objection).

(I'm glad you're pressing me on this, Jonathan. I'm finding the discussion useful.)

Anonymous said...

We have to tread carefully here. We generally admire people who do their best to be moral and promote morality and criticize people who don't. So the observation that we'd disapprove of an ethicist who doesn't care about morality, and who doesn't take opportunities to foster moral behavior in others, isn't sufficient to establish that we consider, or should consider, ethicists especially blameworthy for moral failings.

It seems like a lot of weight is being put on salience. Ethicists think about ethics a lot. Eric, it seems like you think that this is why we should hold them to a higher standard. They don't have an excuse that lots of us have: "I just didn't think about it in an ethical context."

But should we expect the kind of theorizing that ethicists do to make the ethically relevant features of situations salient in the way that would promote moral action? Maybe not. Suppose I'm trying to figure out the correct normative theory; I take my ordinary moral judgments, and try to abstract away from various contingent features of the situations in question, and plug intuitions into a kind of reflective equilibrium process, a la Rawles. That's one way to do ethics. Would we expect this to make ethical matters in my life more salient? Maybe not. Indeed, maybe excessive theorizing interferes with good moral judgment. Maybe ethicists, compared to other people, will be more prone to having "one thought too many". Some ethicists explicitly endorse claims like this; those who claim about fetishistic morality, for instance, will have no reason to expect moral theorists to be particularly good moral agents. Likewise, one sometimes encounters utilitarians who think that morally speaking, the best society is likely not to be one whose members are guided by utilitarianism, and that utilitarians are less likely than some to behave morally. This might be wrong, but it doesn't seem obviously wrong.

Here is an interesting thought. Ethicists, who tend to think, like most philosophers, very abstractly, are not especially likely to focus particularly on the most morally relevant features of the world. What they're up to calls for greater abstraction. The people I'd expect to be really in tune with moral life are the people for whom the real moral details of everyday life are salient. I guess which people one thinks those are will depend, to an extent, on one's normative views, but I have in mind people like sociologists who study poverty, psychologists who study human cruelty, political theorists who study oppression, and the like. If I had to guess from the armchair, I'd expect these folks to be more moral, on average, than ethicists.

Justin Tiwald said...

Eric and Jonathan--this is great stuff. I wonder, though, whether your two views on moral salience aren't somewhat at cross-purposes.

Eric claims moral reflection should make ethicists better aware of morally salient features, and therefore more responsive to salient concerns. Jonathan claims that the people better attuned to the details of everyday life would be better aware of the salient facts, and therefore more responsive (certain kinds of sociologists and psychologists being good candidates).

But there are two things at work in perceiving morally salience. On the one hand there's perceiving features of the world that are morally salient; on the other hand there's perceiving them as morally salient. So there's recognition of the fact that the old-fashioned restaurant manager prefers to hire attractive wait staff, and there's recognition of the fact there is a significant wrongness in this (not just a laughable quaintness in it). Good sociologists and good moral philosophers should have some facility for both, but it wouldn't be surprising if the work of sociologists tended to cultivate more of the first sort of moral perception, and the work of moral philosophers tended to cultivate more of the second.

This doesn't mean that we should expect sociologists to be bad at recognizing features of the world as morally salient, since after all many of them go into sociology because of an interest in systematic forms of injustice. But I do think that the sociologist's ability to recognize these events as salient hinges in part on philosophical moral reflection. Of course, they might be better aware of certain causal connections that would also open their eyes to ways in which some feature could bear on some other salient injustice (e.g., holding a poor employee responsible for being late to work on a regular basis, when the lateness is a result of her dependence on an unreliable bus system).

But I also think that moral reflection is responsible for some of the other work in identifying which features of the world are morally salient. For example, philosophical moral reflection has pushed my intuitions about what counts as "fair play," helped me to sort out what kinds of entitlements count as rights, and convinced me that certain necessary inequalities in some spheres of life shouldn't carry over to other spheres (a la Walzer). This strikes me a reason form of moral perception to expect of people who regularly reflect on moral problems in a philosophical way, so long as they can meet a certain threshold level of perceptiveness of the first sort and concern for other human beings. I'd also throw in the other usual caveats about people who do metaethics exclusively, etc.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Nice, thought-provoking comments, Jonathan and Justin!

I find useful your distinction, Justin, between perceiving features of the world that are morally salient and perceiving them as morally salient; and I agree that we have prima facie reason to think that ethicists may be better at the latter if they're minimally competent at the former. But only prima facie reason: I believe that "the problem of the ethics professors" requires us to give up something (one of about eight different things, I'd say) and that could be what we have to give up. Maybe, indeed, Jonathan is comfortable giving that up; but I don't think he should be, since I think the prima facie reasons are fairly good for thinking that (most) ethicists would be more likely than the average member of their socio-economic group to be attuned to the moral dimensions of their behavior. Your concluding paragraph, Justin, is an example of just the kind of thing that seems phenomenologically to be encouraged by philosophical ethics and to lead to moral improvement.

Although I'm not ready to accept your entire picture, Jonathan, I will agree with you that ethicists who downplay the importance of morality may not be any more likely to behave morally; and I'll agree that if there's such a thing as "one thought too many" -- ethical reflection interfering with moral behavior -- then ethicists may be more prone to that; and that there are kinds of ethical focus too far removed from practical behavior to be pertinent to ethicists' day-to-day lives; and that it's possible to embrace a type of utilitarianism according to which one believes that one will be personally morally worse for having embraced it. All these observations mitigate to some extent the prima facie case that ethicists will behave better than non-ethicists. Indeed, it is a clever list, and I bet with more cleverness we could add another half-dozen items to it. Yet, it seems to me that all these things only nibble at the margins, and the central argument remains: Overall, on average, for many, a career in ethics should increase moral knowledge and/or the saliency of the moral world; increases in moral knowledge and/or the saliency of the moral world should (overall, on average, for many) have a beneficial impact on behavior; therefore, prima facie it seems that a career in ethics should lead to better moral behavior.

Oh and by the way, just for clarity: I'm definitely ambivalent about whether we should hold ethicists to a higher moral standard. The original intent of the post was to convey that ambivalence; I think you may have lost track of that in your last contribution, Jonathan.

All my research on ethicists has really been mostly empirically driven rather than normatively: I'm not much interested in blaming ethicists or saying "naughty, hypocritical ethicists!" (though I see that readers might draw that from the work). Rather, what I care about is thinking about what kinds of moral reflection, as a matter of empirical fact, lead to moral improvement and what kinds don't.

Justin Tiwald said...

Thanks, Eric. Yes, I should have said that I was trying to cash out your prime facie case for thinking that moral reflection would improve our perception of moral salience. As you say, it's a position you ultimately reject. But I think we're both arguing that it's a position worth rejecting (for lack of a better way of putting it).

Anonymous said...

Eric, your last comment does clarify some things for me, thanks. You're right that I was misinterpreting some of what you're up to. You have some data that seems to suggest that ethicists don't behave more morally than other people -- I've been conjecturing some possible explanations for why this might be. So I don't know that we end up disagreeing on much, other than the uninteresting question of whether we should find your data pretheoretically surprising.