Thursday, January 07, 2010

Might Ethicists Behave More Permissibly but Also No Better?

I've been thinking a fair bit about the relationship between moral reflection and moral behavior -- especially in light of my findings suggesting that ethicists behave no better than non-ethicists of similar social background. I've been working with the default assumption that moral reflection can and often does improve moral behavior; but I'm also inclined to read the empirical evidence as suggesting that people who morally reflect a lot don't behave, on average, better than those who don't morally reflect very much.

Those two thoughts can be reconciled if, about as often as moral reflection is morally salutary, it goes wrong in one of the following ways:

* it leads to moral skepticism or nihilism or egotism,
* it collapses into self-serving rationalization, or
* it reduces our ability to respond unreflectively in good ways.
But all this is rather depressing, since it suggests that if my aim is to behave well, there's no point in morally reflecting -- the downside is as big as the upside. (Or it is, unless I can find a good way to avoid those risks, and I have no reason to think I'm a special talent.)

But it occurs to me now that the following empirical claim might be true: The majority of our moral reflection concerns not what it would be morally good to do but rather whether it's permissible to do things that are not morally good. So, for example, most people would agree that donating to well-chosen charities and embracing vegetarianism would be morally good things to do. (On vegetarianism: Even if animals have no rights, eating meat causes more pollution.) When I'm reflecting morally about whether to eat the slightly less appealing vegetarian dish or to donate money to Oxfam -- or to kick back instead of helping my wife with the dishes -- I'm not thinking about whether it would be morally good to do those things. I take it for granted that it would be. Rather, I'm thinking about whether not doing those things is morally permissible.

So here, then, is a possibility: Those who reflect a lot about ethics have a better sense of which morally-less-than-ideal things really are permissible and which are not. This might make them behave morally worse in some cases -- for example, when most people do what is morally good but not morally required, mistakenly thinking it is required (e.g., voting? returning library books?); and it might make them behave morally better in others (e.g., vegetarianism?) On average, they might behave just about as well as non-ethicists, doing less that is supererogatory but better meeting their moral obligations. If so, then philosophical moral reflection might be succeeding quite well in its aim of regulating behavior without actually improving it, no skepticism or nihilism or rationalization or injury of spontaneous reactions required.


Anonymous said...

How one operates and fashions oneself as a professional is often a thing quite apart from how one operates and identifies as a private person.

So is it really so surprising that professional ethicists behave no better than others? Aren't they just compartmentalizing their lives, just like the rest of us do? Not taking work home, as it were?

(Perhaps you're one of those people who tend not to distinguish their professional and personal personae, and that's why you perceive such a great puzzle.)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, anon, that's certainly a possibility! Here's what I imagine, though. Suppose a Kantian ethicist has just been taking a hard line in class -- and sincerely so -- on honesty. She goes home and is tempted to lie to her husband about some minor thing... won't she have a little Kant niggling in her mind? Or suppose an ethicist publicly endorses the importance of giving to charity; doesn't that feed directly into her life so that there's some psychological pressure for her also to give?

Some gap between the professional and personal, yes. A high wall so that one is wholly insulated from another? That seems less likely, to me.

Of course, it could be that the influence is all one way, from the personal behavior to the professional stance; but that starts to look like rationalization, like the ethical reflection is just in the service of defending what one would have done anyway.

Andrew said...

If so, then philosophical moral reflection might be succeeding quite well in its aim of regulating behavior without actually improving it, no skepticism or nihilism or rationalization or injury of spontaneous reactions required."

Unless, of course, that very distinction between permissability and obligation serves to rationalise the range of behaviour

William Moore. said...

Prof. Schwitzgebel,

You said that we would expect a Kantian ethicist to have a little Kant in her mind. Doesn't this get at the heart of the debate between internalism and externalism about moral motivation? That is, the reason why people act morally/immorally is because they are motivated by one of two things; they can be motivated by internal factors (compassion, guilt, greed, etc.) or by external factors (laws, commands, reasons). If this is so, wouldn't you expect that your data shows some evidence for believe that externalism about moral motivation is incorrect? Or at least not as correct as we would like to hope?

William Moore. said...

Concerning the last comment. I just re-read a bit of the SEP article on moral motivation and it appears I mismatched "interalism" with "externalism." The point still seems clear: the data you presented, to me at least, seems like a reason to be skeptical about the relation between reasons and moral motivation.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for your comments, William! Yes, that is one way of interpreting the data. I think there are several other possible ways, too, and we don't yet have enough empirical data to decide between them.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, Andrew -- a definite possibility! My primary inclination is to think of things just on a good-bad scale, and to find something a little fishy in the permissible/impermissible distinction.

Autumnal Harvest said...

Perhaps I'm overly cynical, but I wouldn't have expected ethicists to behave any more ethically than others. It seems to me that for the vast majority of ethical situations that people face, the problem isn't that people are lacking knowledge of what the ethical thing to do is - they usually know, but they don't want to do it.

Furthermore, much of ethics literature isn't really useful for everyday ethics problems - situations with runaway trolleys and islands with dictators are interesting, but I'm not sure they have much bearing on situations ordinary people are likely to encounter. One might argue that such situations are useful for distilling and understanding core ethical postulates, which can then be applied to real-life situations, but I suspect very few people, including ethicists, deal with real-life situations by mechanically applying abstract rules, as if they were mathematicians proving theorems.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for your comment, Autumnal. I see merit in that point of view. But still, trolley problems are one thing and reflections on charity and vegetarianism are another. I guess I would expect (or would have expected) that there would be areas of reflection that have more connection to daily living, even if there are areas of reflection that seems pretty remote from it.