Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Mill on Moral Reflection and Moral Behavior

Two weeks ago, I posted some of Kant's remarks about the relationship between moral reflection and moral behavior. Kant suggests that people who tend to engage in moral reflection (like professional ethicists, presumably) will be less likely to fall for easy rationalizations of their inclinations, and so they will behave with more scruple.

Today, John Stuart Mill:

[Once an ethical or religious creed becomes dominant, believers] neither listen, when they can help it, to arguments against their creed, nor trouble dissentients (if there be such) with arguments in its favour. From this time may usually be dated the decline of the living power of the doctrine. We often hear the teachers of all creeds lamenting the difficulty of keeping up in the minds of believers a lively apprehension of the truth which they nominally recognise, so that it may penetrate the feelings, and acquire real mastery over the conduct. No such difficulty is complained of while the creed is still fighting for its existence: even the weaker combatants then know and feel what they are fighting for, and the difference between it and other doctrines; and in that period of every creed's existence, not a few persons may be found who have realised its fundamental principles in all the forms of thought, have weighed and considered them in all their important bearings, and have experienced the full effect on the character which belief in that creed ought to produce in a mind thoroughly imbued with it. But when it has come to be an hereditary creed, and to be received passively, not actively -- when the mind is no longer compelled, in the same degree as at first, to exercise its vital powers on the questions which its belief presents to it, there is a progressive tendency to forget all of the belief except the formularies, or to give it a dull and torpid assent, as if accepting it on trust dispensed with the necessity of realising it in consciousness, or testing it by personal experience, until it almost ceases to connect itself at all with the inner life of the human being....

All Christians believe that the blessed are the poor and humble, and those who are ill-used by the world; that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven; that they should judge not, lest they be judged; that they should swear not at all; that they should love their neighbor as themselves; that if one take their cloak, they should give him their coat also; that they should take no thought for the morrow; that if they would be perfect they should sell all that they have and give it to the poor. They are not insincere when they say that they believe these things. They do believe them, as people believe what they have always heard lauded and never discussed. But in the sense of that living belief which regulates conduct, they believe these doctrines just up to the point which it is usual to act upon them....

The same thing holds true, generally speaking, of all traditional doctrines -- those of prudence and knowledge of life, as well as of morals or religion.... [M]uch more of the meaning even of these would have been understood, and what was understood would have been far more deeply impressed on the mind, if the man had been accustomed to hear it argued pro and con by people who did understand it (from On Liberty, Ch. II).
Forgive the long quote. Mill writes so beautifully!

I hesitate to set my own prose next to Mill's, lest the contrast be too painfully evident, so I'll just briefly remark: If what Mill says is true, then professional ethicists, who know better than almost anyone the pros and cons of their moral creeds, who discuss them endlessly, who comprehend as well as people can the principles undergirding them, ought to display those moral principles in their character and behavior. Yet from what I see, they behave no differently than do others of similar social background.

Is Mill simply wrong, then? He seems so right! I cannot bring myself to reject the moral value of ethical reflection, consigning it to mere froth and rationalization with no power to alter and improve our behavior.

I call this the problem of the ethics professors.


Anonymous said...

When you say that ethicists are perceived to behave no better than non-ethicists, do you mean that they do not seem to have any greater tendency to act according to their principles or that they do not seem to have a greater tendency to act according to the correct moral principles? If the first, then I guess your results really would disconfirm Mill.

But I thought your results showed the second fact, that ethicists don't seem to other philosophers to behave any better than non-ethicists. In that case, there is an easy explanation: philosophers, like all people, tend to be pretty well spread along all spectra of moral beliefs. So it shouldn't be too surprising that each of us perceives the others to be no better than average. But more to the point, Mill, in the passage you quoted, doesn't seem to be arguing that moral reflection leads to morally better behavior, just that it leads one to act more in accordance with one's principles.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

That's an interesting and complicated issue, Jim. If a Nietzschean, for example, were to act according to his principles, he might not (depending on his view of Nietzsche) look like a very morally good person to others.

However, my thinking is that the difference between conventional morality and the morality endorsed by most ethicists is negligible for the purposes of these studies. In the peer opinion study, for example, we asked people to list the bases of their judgments. They tended to say things like "honesty", "conscientiousness", "treatment of students", "cheating on spouse", "selfish" -- which suggests to me that the kinds of behavior they have in mind are the kinds of behavior on which there would be a general consensus among mainstream ethicists. Same also with mishandling library books (another of my studies).

One complication in this, though, is that an ethicist may find a rationalizing justification to justify her immoral behavior. In such cases, I think the measure we want is the moral truth and not the self-justifying principle to which the ethicist may be appealing.

Anonymous said...

Well, Mills' example is a bit off, because if you really set up a debate on each of those Christian beliefs, most people (during his time or now) wouldn't actually agree with many of them. People generally hate and resent poor people, have no intention of all of turning the other cheek, etc. These are things that people think saints should be doing, not things that apply to their daily lives.

Ethics is like grammatical analysis. We have our ethics, our ideas of right and wrong, just like we have our grammatical system. We don't need Linguistics professors how to create grammatical sentences in our native language, just like we don't need philosophy professors to tell us how to do right from wrong. Their disputations and analyses may help us understand what is going on, or clarify some edge cases, but they aren't the driving force.

Morals are in us. We can try to tease them out, try to put a structure to them, try to make them seem logical. But we are playing at the surface of something that is basic to us as humans.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment, Ken! I'm not sure I agree with you about what beliefs Christianity does or should involve -- but of course (as with all major world religions) there is immense diversity within the tradition.

The analogy between ethics and grammar is an interesting one. I agree we don't generally need ethicists to tell us what's right and we don't generally need grammarians to tell us what's good grammar (assuming here a normative view of grammar, for the sake of the analogy). And yet, there are puzzling cases that grammarians and ethicists can help us with; and there are common lapses that grammarians and ethicists can help us with (e.g., "John and me are going..." and racism); and on average, ceteris paribus, I'd expect grammarians to speak more correctly than non-grammarians. Whether that last part of the analogy holds for ethicists is the question that troubles me!

Anonymous said...

I like the idea of looking at the additional factors suggested by earlier responders. Allport and Ross (1967) ran into a similar problem when they looked at church-goers and prejudice. Given church teachings, it seemed like there should have been less prejudice, but that was not what they found. They sorted it out by looking at why people were at church. The folks that attended more than once a week did have less prejudice. The folks who showed up now and then (perhaps in response to tradition, need for community, or such) had more prejudice.

-- rj

Allport, G. W., & Ross, J. M. (1967). Personal religious orientation and prejudice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 5, 432-443.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, it would be nice to start breaking the results down into factors.

In the religiosity / moral behavior literature, such breakdowns sometimes seem to work and sometimes don't. The whole thing is a stupendous mess!

Mark Koester said...

This discussion directs me towards a very troubling question I often ask myself: Can we teach ethics and morals in order to make people and their actions more ethical or just? Or in teaching ethics and politics are we just developing a complex discourse of justification and rationalization?

Leaving this question aside for the moment, the most glaring example I’ve come across of where “practice what you preach” doesn’t exactly hold true in the real world is from a discussion between Ricoeur et Changeaux where hardcore science and highest level of ethical theorizing meet. The example that turns the whole discussion on its head (for me) is the following:

A group of seminarians are asked to prepare a biblical reading or sermon on the Biblical story “Good Samaritan,” which retells the tale of an injured man lying on the side of the road who is passed by a rich man, a rabbi, etc. and only one who stops to help (and I would say he goes far beyond just helping and exemplifies a kind of a kind of economy of surplus love) is the Samaritan. This story epitomizes the fact that, in spite of our prejudices about who is morally good or bad, the one that helps the beaten man is the one we would expect the least to do it. Moreover, this act could be interpreted quite simply as “help those who need helping because one day it could be you in his place” (the moral ability to put yourself in the place of the other). Anyways, in this experiment, these young seminarians were required to give their sermon at a certain hour, but along the way they cross paths with someone hurt or injured (the very moral calling of the Good Samaritan story) and guess what they did? They didn’t stop. They had somewhere else to be. Their later requirements trumped over the obviousness of “practicing what you preach.” And in spite the very fresh and current knowledge of this story, their actions did not reflect what they had read and what they had prepared to say. While seminarians aren’t professional ethicists, their actions should follow from their religious principles. But as we see in this example, their actions did not follow from the goldenness of their rules.

Mark Koester said...

It seems to me that according to this example, ethics as a discourse of rationalization fails a critical test of the Greek ideal where word and action are and should the same thing. It seems that this presents us with a number of questions: What is the role and task of an ethicist? In spite of the fact that professional ethicists and seminarians don’t necessarily meet word with their daily action, perhaps we shouldn’t entirely give up on their role in society, because it seems to me that the role of an ethicist is more a public one than a private. The job of an ethicist is to survey a public moral crisis in its singularity, attempt to apply our moral theories, and in the tension of these two extremes (between the singularity of the event and the multiplicity of universal ethics) make a judgment.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Mark! I agree that the good samaritan experiment is a very interesting demonstration of the gap between doctrine and behavior.

If it turns out that philosophical moral reflection really has no impact on behavior (which I'm not quite ready to concede yet), then I agree that we need to think hard about the role of ethics instruction. Is it of purely theoretical interest? Is it, as you say, a matter of bringing theories into public discourse? Maybe so -- but I think there's a risk that the judgments reached in the end will then be largely just rationalizations of some sort (in the pejorative sense of "rationalization").

Schuyler Ferguson said...

"on average, ceteris paribus, I'd expect grammarians to speak more correctly than non-grammarians."

That's not actually true. People with more schooling in 'proper' speech/grammar have much more inconsistent grammars (q.v. Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct for that one). It happens because the prescriptive rules run up against descriptive tendencies (Such as: Chris and me went to the mall).

Who knows about ethics, but my ling 101 class taught me that one.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting tidbit, James. The issue might turn on whether we say that someone who sometimes says "James and I went" and sometimes "Me and James went" speaks better grammaticaly than someone who consistently says "Me and James".