Tuesday, April 03, 2012

On Whether the Job of an Ethicist Is Only to Theorize about Morality, Not to Be Moral

Over several studies, I've found that professional ethicists tend to behave no better than non-ethicists. Ethicists sometimes react to my work by saying "My job is to theorize about ethics, not to live the moral life." What should we make of this response?

First: I agree about the formal job description.

Second: If the idea is that an ethicist's professionally espoused moral views both are and should be entirely isolated from her personal life, that seems an odd position to endorse. Taken to its natural conclusion, it seems to imply that ethicists advocating vegetarianism should be expected to consume cheeseburgers at the same rate as does everyone else. We should resist that conclusion. Both normatively and descriptively, we should expect Peter Singer to live at least approximately the vegetarianism he so passionately advocates. Analogously, if not quite as starkly, it seems reasonable to expect those Kantians who think that lying is particularly heinous to lie a bit less, on average, than do other people, and to expect Confucians who see filial duty as important to be a bit more attentive to their parents, and to expect consequentialists who emphasize the huge importance of donating to famine relief to donate a bit more to famine relief than do other people. Sainthood would be too much expect. But some movement to harmonize one's life and one's moral theories seems both normatively appropriate and descriptively likely, at least on the face of it.

Third: Ethicists seem, on average, to espouse somewhat more stringent moral views than do non-ethicists. For example, ethicists seem to be more likely than non-ethicists to say it's morally bad to eat meat, and on average they seem to think that people should donate more to charity than non-ethicists seem to think people should donate. (See here.) Unless there is some countervailing force, then, movements to harmonize normative attitude and real-world behavior ought to lead ethicists, on average, to regulate their moral behavior a bit more stringently than do non-ethicists. The problem is that this doesn't seem empirically to be the case. For example, although Josh Rust and I found 60% of ethicists to describe "regularly eating the meat of mammals such as beef and pork" as morally bad, compared to 45% of other philosophers and only 19% of professors in other departments, when asked if they had eaten meat at their previous evening meal, we found no statistically significant difference among the three groups.

Fourth: So we might consider some countervailing forces. One possibility is that there's some kind of "moral licensing" effect. Suppose, for example, that a consequentialist donates a wad to charity. Maybe then she feels free to behave worse in other ways than she otherwise would have. Suppose a Kantian remains rigorously honest at some substantial cost to his welfare. Maybe then he feels freer to be a jerk to his students. One depressing thought is that all this cancels out: Our efforts to live by our ethical principles exert sufficient psychic costs that we compensate by acting worse in other ways, only moving around the lump under the rug.

A very different possibility: Maybe those of us attracted to moral theorizing tend to be people with deficient moral emotional reactions, which we compensate for intellectually. Our moral reflection as ethicists does morally improve us, after all, relative to where we would be without that reflection -- but that improvement only brings us up to average.

Still another possibility: Ethicists are especially talented at coming up with superficially appealing rationalizations of immoral behavior, setting them free to engage in immoralities that others would resist. On average, the boost from harmonizing to stricter norms and the loss from toxic rationalization approximately cancel out.

There are other possibilities, too, interesting and empirically risky. We should explore such possibilities! But I don't think that such exploration is what ethicists have in mind when they say their job is only to theorize about morality, not to live it.

Fifth: I acknowledge that there is something a bit unfair, still, about holding ethicists to especially high standards because of their career choice. I don't really want to do that. In fact, I find something admirable in embracing and advocating stringent moral standards, even if one doesn't succeed in living up to those standards. Ultimately, most of the weight in evaluating people's moral character should rest on how they behave, not on how far they fall short of their own standards, which might be self-scathingly high or self-flatteringly low.

My aim is not to scold ethicists for failing to live up to their often high standards but rather to confront the issue of why there seems to be such a tenuous connection between philosophical moral reflection and real-world moral behavior. The dismissive "that's not my job" seems to me to be exactly the wrong spirit to bring to the issue.


Anonymous said...

I like theory #4, although I've always imagined that the "moral licensing" effect - or justification, essentially - worked by ethicists' feeling that because they spend so much time thinking and writing about ethics, that they need not be as stringent in following the norms they lay out or examine. In other words, thinking and writing about ethics "counts" sufficiently enough as ethical behavior. The justification is that regardless of how an ethicist acts when s/he leaves the office, by studying ethics s/he's already more ethical than the average non-ethicist. S/he's therefore free to be only as ethical as the average non-ethicist in his/her non-academic life.

Susan C. said...

I don't see how "moral licensing" as you describe it would explain the lack of difference in behavior. It would work, however, if the consequentialist rationalizes her refusal to donate a monetary wad by thinking, "ah, but I am not a jerk to my students!"

Expanding on the previous comment, perhaps the ethicist's theoretical work would "count" as ethical behavior if it encourages ethical behavior in others.

I found myself wondering how the professional ethicists view their own behavior. For instance, do those who say that eating mammalian flesh is bad think that they eat less meat than other people do?

Sebastian Watzl said...
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Sebastian Watzl said...

Hi Eric, interesting questions and observations. Quick question: do you have data on whether ethicists who are motivational internalists (i.e. people who believe that moral beliefs are intrinisically motivating) are more likely to be motivated by their (explicitly endorsed) ethical beliefs than others? I ask because the following three claims seem to be inconsistent (I think of these as a way of organizing the discussion):

(1) S holds moral beliefs B.
(2) S is not motivated by B.
(3) Moral beliefs is intrinsically motivating.

This inconsistency seems troubling.

One obvious way to get rid of the inconsistency is to reject (3): in this case the unmotivated motivational internalist would be a counterexample to their own metaethical views.

Another is to reject (2): maybe ethicists are motivated by their beliefs, but that motivation doesn't show up in the data you looked at. Maybe their motivations shows in circumstances you have not considered. Or maybe their motivation is overridden by something else, system 1, passions, etc.

Another possibility seems to reject (1): ethicists don't actually believe what they say.

Another option: revise (1) and (3) by saying something like: (3)' *Firmly* held moral beliefs are intrinsically motivating, and (1)' S holds moral beliefs B, but does not hold them firmly. Maybe studying moral philosophy makes you less sure that you moral beliefs are right, and thus you waver ...

In any case: the data about the internalists would be interesting to look at, I think

Regina Rini said...

These are very interesting ideas, but I wonder if you've undersold the "job description". Moral philosophers are not moralists. That is, it is not the job of the moral philosopher to exemplify any particular moral code, as it might be of preachers, educators, or community leaders.

In fact, the task of moral philosophy is marked by a reflective distance from practice. We all have strong psychological programming (acculturated, innate, or otherwise) to unthinkingly act upon a certain range of views. In order to question and probe the received moral positions of one's own culture, one needs to be able to detach philosophizing from action. In a sense, one needs to be able to take one's ethical views "offline" in order to subject them to reflective scrutiny.

If that's right, then a gap between theory and practice may very well be a psychological prerequisite of doing moral philosophy. The moral philosopher's behavior goes on auto-pilot, defaulting to conventional standards, and so can be minimally distinguished from the behavior of others, even while the moral philosopher's theory may widely diverge.

Of course, if moral philosophy is to have any practical value, then we might hope to be able to close this gap at some point. But when? If the gap is needed to pursue reflection, then closing the gap locks the philosopher into some set of views, so presumably this ought not be done until moral theory is somehow complete or immune to revision. Does that ever happen? Doubtful, and so it is unclear why any individual moral philosopher might aim to close the gap.

This suggests a societal division of intellectual labor. Most people are fairly consistent in their moral beliefs and behavior, partly because they don't engage in much reflection upon the accepted standards of the community. Moral philosophers (and some others) are tasked with that reflection, which requires opening a gap between theory and practice, and so leads moral philosophers to exhibit something that looks at least mildly hypocritical. But this is for everyone's benefit, if we want moral systems to be open to change and growth. Moral philosophers do the necessary reflective theorizing, even if its practical effects can (eventually) be detected only at the societal level, and not at the level of the individual philosopher.

Rolf Degen said...

60% of ethicists describe "regularly eating the meat of mammals such as beef and pork" as morally bad, but they still eat as much meat as members of other faculties who do not uphold the same standards. Well it seems that even vegetarians themselves fall into the same trap:

75% of all vegetarians change their minds and return to meat eating:


And we know what they think about meat eaters in between. But most vegetarians are not even vegetarians: "Six percent of the individuals surveyed said they considered themselves vegetarian. But when asked by the pollsters what they had eaten in the last 24 hours, 60% of the self-described "vegetarians" admitted that that had consumed red meat, poultry or fish the previous day."


Doug Portmore said...

Hi Eric,

You write: "Ethicists seem, on average, to espouse somewhat more stringent moral views than do non-ethicists. For example, ethicists...on average...seem to think that people should donate more to charity than non-ethicists seem to think people should donate. ...Unless there is some countervailing force, then, movements to harmonize normative attitude and real-world behavior ought to lead ethicists, on average, to regulate their moral behavior a bit more stringently than do non-ethicists."

Many of the ethicists who hold more stringent views about morality (e.g., utilitarians) deny that they always have decisive reason to do what they're morally required to do. And you shouldn't expect ethicists who think that there is often sufficient reason to act immorally (such as Singer, Sobel, and Dorsey) to act more morally than non-ethicists.

Indeed, I think that ethicists are more likely to think that moral requirements are not rationally authoritative than non-ethicists are. This would explain why ethicists such as utilitarians more often do what they believe is wrong than non-ethicists do.

So it seems to me that people regulate their behavior according to their reasons, not according to their views about what is morally required of them.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for all the thoughtful comments, folks!

Anon 12:48 and Susan C.: I think moral licensing could work several ways, including possibly the way you mention. Susan, I think it can work the way I describe it as long as the consequentialist thinks it's still wrong to be a jerk to students. If the consequentialist doesn't think that... well, I'd be inclined to think that's *both* (nonconscious) licensing and rationalization, though of course the person herself would disagree.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Sebastian: I don't have data on that in particular. But it seems to me that all but the most radical motivational externalists would tend to allow that on average there's a bit of a motivational boost toward acting B-ishly when one arrives at moral belief B, as a matter of contingent psychological fact. I guess I'm inclined to think there is a boost but that it's masked by countervailing factors of some sort -- though I admit that's not the simplest interpretation of the evidence.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Regina: That's a very interesting idea! In a way, dissociating one's theoretical reflections from contact with one's personal behavior might help free one from being guided in one's reflections by self-serving rationalizations.

This approach would probably predict lower attitude-behavior correlations for ethicists than for non-ethicists. Josh and I do have some data on that. We found ethicists to have a lower correlation between what they said the typical professor should donate to charity and what they themselves reported donating to charity. On the other hand, we found ethicists to have a higher correlation between the normative value they put on voting and their measured voting participation rates from public records. Overall across several measures, ethicists' attitude-behavior correlations were similar to those of non-ethicist philosophers and those of professors outside of philosophy.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Rolf: Thanks so much for those links! Josh had remembered hearing some time ago about the finding that many self-reported vegetarians also report eating meat when asked about what they had eaten the previous day. We'd been looking to find the source of that finding, but never had managed to track it down. Much appreciated!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Doug: I'm inclined to agree about ethicists tending not to find morality as authoritative, though I don't have polling data on that question. I like how Scheffler lays out the matter in _Human Morality_. To the extent one's ethical theories are demanding, that puts pressure against the "claim of overridingness" for morality. And my guess (backed with a bit of data) is that ethicists do on average tend to endorse fairly demanding moral norms.

And yet... I don't think Singer's view (for example) is: Oh, we ought to give most of our money to charity. Ho hum, I guess I'm immoral [goes out and buys a $80K car with his Princeton salary]. I'm inclined to think that those of us with stringent moral views still feel some pressure to act at least somewhat in accord with them, even if we don't fault ourselves too much "all things considered" if we fail to behave fully in accord with our stringent moral standards.

Chris Berry said...

"Still another possibility: Ethicists are especially talented at coming up with superficially appealing rationalizations of immoral behavior, setting them free to engage in immoralities that others would resist."

I'm reminded of an exchange between Peter Singer and Richard Posner about animal rights. In defense of his speciesist attitude giving primary value to human life over animal life, Posner states that "I do not feel obliged to defend this reaction; it is a moral intuition deeper than any reason that could be given for it and impervious to any reason that you or anyone could give against it."

Posner's statement reflects a broader theory on morality -- that it is largely the product of instinct. If his hypothesis were true, I would expect philosophers to invoke ethics to justify their pre-existing intuition. Granted, they might be doing this subconsciously and there might be a little room for intellectual growth when confronted with clear biases or hypocracises.

In any event, your musing seems to support Posner's hypothesis about morality. Ethicists are no more moral than everybody else because in the end they are just constructing fancy arguments to describe the thing everybody bases moral judgment on -- their intuition.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Chris: That is a possibility, though a (to me) somewhat depressing one. In one paper, Josh and I describe two different models of how this might go: an "epiphenomenal" model on which such theories have no effect on one's explicit moral attitudes and a "rationalization" model on which reflection actually shifts one's explicit moral attitudes more into line with one's patterns behavior than they otherwise would be -- and thus generating a higher attitude-behavior match for ethicists than for non-ethicists, despite their having the same overall moral behavior.

There are other possibilities too....

clasqm said...

FWIW we see these sort of questionnaire results all the time in studying religious self-ascription. Ask people "What religion are you?" and perhaps 80% (depending on where you ask the question, of course) will say "Christian". Ask those same 80% how often they see the inside of a church and for about half of them the answer will be "never". This is a well-worn theme in the sociology of religion.

gcwall said...

What one knows and what one thinks one knows may or may not have an effect on one's behavior.

Is a person a priest if he is also a pedophile? Is a champion sports figure a champion if he takes steroids?

Is hypocrisy an aspect of human nature shared by "all" humans? If hypocrisy is an aspect of human nature should there exist an expectation of hypocrisy about humans? If it is rational to expect hypocrisy among "all" humans, then why does a distinction exist? Is it possible to say that "all" humans will be hypocritical, but they are not all hypocrites? The answer may be a description of a behavior that is restricted by time. One would be hard pressed to find a human who is hypocritical "all" of the time, and it would be just as difficult to find a human who is never a hypocrite. Therefore, one distinguishes between those times when one is a hypocrite as opposed to those times when one is not. If one behaves hypocritically on a particular occasion is he a hypocrite or did he behave hypocritically on that occasion? Is one determined to be a hypocrite, because he has been hypocritical, or must one demonstrate a tendency toward hypocrisy on a single issue or a range of issues? Is the word "integrity" used to describe fleeting moments when one is not being hypocritical, or will a person of integrity occasionally lapse into hypocrisy? Is it possible to be a hypocrite and a person with integrity? If it is then the labels are situational rather than broad descriptions of human behavior. If one uses either label to describe a person then one is describing an incident "when" the behavior took place or one recognized a preponderence of hypocrisy or integrity in an individual's behavior over an unspecified period of observation.

While the expectation for an ethicist to behave ethically is intuitively affirmed there is no rational basis for the expectation.

gcwall said...

Posner's argument amounts to the following:

God is an imponderable entity.

Any attempt to describe the imponderable is stupid.

Therefore, there must be a god.

Posner did not make an argument; he used a manipulative statement to obfuscate the discussion.

Manuel González said...

I agree with the idea that the ethicist´s job is to theorize about ethics. But the question, I think, is that only by living a moral live you can go further with your research, trying to find what is good.
Otherwise you can get stuck without experiencing your own theories, without experiencing if you were right, that is, if what you are saying is in accordance with the human nature. You can say that vegetables are good for your health, but never try them. But unless you try them you will never demonstrate that vegetables are good for your health.
In my opinion, the problem with many theorists is that they believe so much in their theories, that they don´t bother to prove if they are right or not. They believe that they have got the truth, and that satisfies them so much that they do nothing but proclaming the truth. Nothing else needs to be done. Proclaming our own theories is usually more important than trying to live in accordance with them.

Anonymous said...

When I was an undergraduate at UCL in the 1990s, there were some rather well-known philosophers who taught ethics to us but who regularly behaved as if they were unable to think ethically, especially in relation to attitudes towards and treatment of female students. The disjunct between personal ethical standards of behaviour and professional ethical concerns was striking. I thought that a certain professional hostility to what was then termed [in a sneering way] 'continental' [i.e. 'woolly' or 'irrational'] approaches to ethics [especially those approaches that focused on phenomenological and/or existential foundations] went hand-in-hand with a way of functioning that evidenced a real lack of thought about connections between ethical philosophy and everyday life.

clasqm said...

apropos my earlier remarks, see the sources here:


Jesse Steinberg said...

I've wondered whether philosophers (ethicist especially) are like architects in certain ways. The conversation thus far points to some interesting similarities.

I might ask an architect to design an addition to my home and she might appeal to various legal codes, physical facts about certain possible building materials, facts about certain aesthetic properties, etc. in designing the addition.

Now she might not be a very adept builder--she might not follow her own advice about what materials to use, she (like me) might not be very handy, etc.

Of course, architects are only responsible for creating the design and, perhaps, explaining/justifying why it's a good one. They are not (typically) asked to build anything.

It might be puzzling for an architect to fail to take her own advice and it might be slightly odd for a person to possess the sorts of talents for architecture while lacking the talents for being good at building things. But, in the end, I don't find such things that puzzling.

Of course, many (all?) ethicists are engaged in theoretical work and, as surprising as it may be, this can be *purely* theoretical work. Maybe in light of this example, we shouldn't be so surprised by the data Eric has collected.

But, alas, my example breaks down. It may be perverse to ask my architect to build that addition, but it doesn't seem perverse to expect a moral philosopher to behave morally--indeed, more morally than a non-ethicist. Nevertheless, I think the comparison is interesting, if not very illuminating.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

Manuel: That's an interesting thought about not fully testing one's moral theories unless one lives them.

Jesse: The architects comparison is interesting. I've also compared with sports writers in an earlier post. Although architects might not be good builders and sports writers might not be athletically able, I still think it's not unreasonable to expect -- on average and all else being equal -- that such professional identifications would be connected (probably both by cause and effect) with having certain interests and having certain things be salient. I'd rather be on an intramural team of sportswriters than an intramural age- and gender-matched team randomly selected from the population. I'd think the architect slightly more likely to live in an interesting house than a random income- and age-matched non-architect.

Mylan Engel Jr. said...
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Mylan Engel Jr. said...

As a moral philosopher, it seems obvious to me that if, after detailed study and careful reflection, I come to the conclusion that doing action X is morally wrong, then I should no longer do X. That is just what it means to say that X is morally wrong -- one should not do it. Of course, it is not just moral philosophers who should stop doing what they think is morally wrong. We all should. If one continues to do X after judging that it is wrong, one exhibits a criticizable moral failing.

I find the data that Schwitzgebel and Rust report surprising since nearly every moral philosopher that I know who judges that eating meat is wrong does not eat meat. I do, however, find that there is a gap between judgment and practice where veganism is concerned. I know many moral philosophers who think that veganism is morally required, but who continue to eat animal products, nonetheless.

How to account for this gap between moral judgment and practice? We find the answer in Hume, who famously wrote: "Reason is and ought to be slave to the passions." What Hume recognized is that reason unaccompanied by passion lacks motivational force. Merely JUDGING that an action is wrong is not enough to motivate one to stop engaging in that action. One must also FEEL that it is wrong. We are not simply cognitive ratiocinative machines. We have complex psychologies that combine cognitive and conative elements, and motivation derives from the latter. I routinely have students approach me after class after having read Singer's or Regan's arguments for ethical vegetarianism and defiantly say: "I know that eating meat is wrong, but I'm going to continue to do it anyway!" After these same students are shown documentary films that allow then to witness the inhumane conditions inherent in factory farms, the routine mutilations performed on farmed animals without anesthesia, and the inhumane slaughtering of the animals, many of them come up to me and say: "I had no idea how horrifically farmed animals are treated. I'll never eat meat again!" It is one thing to judge that something is wrong. It is another to truly understand that it is wrong. True understanding requires reason and emotion -- judgment and feeling.

I encourage those moral philosophers (and people in general) who judge that eating meat is wrong but continue to do so to make a point of watching films that document the cruelty inherent in modern animal agriculture. Professor Kathie Jenni has a wonderful paper entitled "The Power of the Visual" [available here: http://www.criticalanimalstudies.org/JCAS/Journal_Articles_download/Issue_4/The_Power_of_the_Visual.pdf ] in which she argues that we have a moral obligation to watch films that document the pain and suffering that animals are forced to endure in factory farms and slaughterhouses and films that document the suffering that starving children experience in the most impoverished parts of the world. Why? Because witnessing images of such suffering enhances our moral perception and motivates us to be our best moral selves (in a way that verbal descriptions of such suffering often can't). You can experience the moral power of the visual for yourself by watching "Glass Walls" (running time: 13 minutes) here: http://www.meat.org/ . Then decide whether you want to continue to support the meat industry.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Mylan: Thanks so much for that thoughtful and interesting comment! I agree that engaging the emotions is probably an important dimension here, and I like the strategy of working via outside influences to engage one's emotions if one finds oneself in the situation of thinking that P is morally wrong but feeling left cold by its wrongness.

Daniel said...

I wonder if this trend holds for people other than philosophy professors, who nevertheless engage in abstract moral reasoning. Priests, Rabbis and Imams all engage in moral reflection as at least a part of their broader profession. Of course, they also belong to institutions which require certain behaviours: a priest or monk devoting more of his time to helping the poor is not necessarily a reflection of his moral reasoning. It may just be his job.

And what about philosophy students? Is it perhaps the case that students who have taken one or more classes in ethical reasoning are more likely to interrogate their own practices, and so live in a somewhat more ethically 'consistent' manner?

If these two groups do show more ethical behaviour than the general population, that would support the hypothesis that there is something peculiar about ethics professors, rather than the theory that ethical reflection in general has no effect on behaviour.

Intuitively, I find something attractive about this suggestion. Ethics professors (and advanced students) have spent so much time thinking about ethical problems that they naturally approach them in a more abstract way. This leads to the kind of 'rationalizing' that you suggest, Eric. when faced with a dilemma, they see immediately that deontological ethics has one thing to say, utilitarianism another, and natural law ethics a third. This lets them off the hook, so to speak. They know that no matter which behaviour they choose, it will be ethical *somehow*.

But I wonder if the data would bear out this "a little reflection helps; too much undoes the benefits" theory.

(I also wonder if there is an observable difference between those professors who commit themselves to a given position, and those who maintain academic neutrality in their work).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Daniel: Yes, I think that's an interesting set of issues. I have talked about this with several clergy of different Western religions and all have expressed the view that clergy behave no better overall, but it would be interesting to find a way to look into that more systematically.

I do have a little data on charitable giving among philosophy students that suggests that philosophy students don't increase their rates of charitably giving to selected student charities over the course of their education (though they do start out among the most charitable majors).

As far as I can tell, abstractness of interest in moral reflection makes no difference: Applied ethicists and metaethicists seem to behave the same as each other and as other professors.

There's a nice tangle of issues here, though. I've only scratched the surface.