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....Forgive the long quote. Mill writes so beautifully!
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).
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.