Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Animal Rights Advocate Eats Cheeseburger, So... What?

Suppose it turns out that professional ethicists' lived behavior is entirely uncorrelated with their philosophical theorizing. Suppose, for example, that ethicists who assert that lying is never permissible (a la Kant) are neither more nor less likely to lie, in any particular situation, than is anyone else of similar social background. Suppose that ethicists who defend Singer's strong views about charity in fact give no more to charity than their peers who don't defend such views. Suppose this, just hypothetically.

For concreteness, let's imagine an ethicist who gives a lecture defending strict vegetarianism, then immediately retires to the university cafeteria for a bacon double cheeseburger. Seeing this, a student charges the ethicist with hypocrisy. The ethicist replies: "Wait. I made no claims in class about my own behavior. All I said was that eating meat was morally wrong. And in fact, I do think that. I gave sound arguments in defense of that conclusion, which you should also accept. The fact that I am here eating a delicious bacon double cheeseburger in no way vitiates the force of those arguments."

Student: "But you can't really believe those arguments! After all, here you are shamelessly doing what you just told us was morally wrong."

Ethicist: "What I personally believe is beside the point, as long as the arguments are sound. But in any case, I do believe that what I am doing is morally wrong. I don't claim to be a saint. My job is only to discover moral truths and inform the world about them. You're going to have to pay me extra if you want to add actually living morally well to my job description."

My question is this: What, if anything, is wrong with the ethicist's attitude toward philosophical ethics?

Maybe nothing. Maybe academic ethics is only a theoretical enterprise, dedicated to the discovery of moral truths, if there are any, and the dissemination of those discoveries to the world. But I'm inclined to think otherwise. I'm inclined to think that philosophical reflection on morality has gone wrong in some important way if it has no impact on your behavior, that part of the project is to figure out what you yourself should do. And if you engage in that project authentically, your behavior should shift accordingly -- maybe not perfectly but at least to some extent. Ethics necessarily is, or should be, first-personal.

If a chemist determines in the lab that X and Y are explosive, one doesn't expect her to set aside this knowledge, failing to conclude that an explosion is likely, when she finds X and Y in her house. If a psychologist discovers that method Z is a good way to calm an autistic teenager, we don't expect him to set aside that knowledge when faced with a real autistic teenager, failing to conclude that method Z might calm the person. So are all academic disciplines, in a way, first-personal?

No, not in the sense I intend the term. The chemist and psychologist cases are different from the ethicist case as I have imagined it. The ethicist is not setting aside her opinion that eating meat is wrong as she eats that cheeseburger. She does in fact conclude that eating the cheeseburger is wrong. However, she is unmoved by that conclusion. And to be unmoved by that conclusion is to fail in the first-personal task of ethics. A chemist who deliberately causes explosions at home might not be failing in any way as a chemist. But an ethicist who flouts her own vision of the moral law is, I would suggest, in some way, though perhaps not entirely, a failure as an ethicist.

An entirely zero correlation between moral opinion and moral behavior among professional ethicists is empirically unlikely, I'm inclined to think. However, Joshua Rust's and my empirical evidence to date does suggest that the correlations might be pretty weak. One question is whether they are weak enough to indicate a problem in the enterprise as it is actually practiced in the 21st-century United States.


Matthew J. Brown said...

I think there is an assumption underlying your argument that may be flawed. Clearly the ethicist has reasons to eschew eating the cheeseburger. But it doesn't follow that she ought not eat the cheeseburger unless (A) there are no countervailing reasons in favor of eating the cheeseburger or (B) the moral reasons in this case outweigh the other reasons. "I don't claim to be a saint" may be an assertion that neither (A) nor (B) are the case, for the ethicist.

To generalize, we should expect (and I mean this in your normative sense of expect) ethicists' behavior to strongly correlate with their moral beliefs only if (A) moral reasons are the only kinds of reasons, or (B) moral reasons always (or usually) trump other kinds of reasons. I suspect some people believe each of these things, but I also suspect that neither is true as a matter of moral psychology. More controversially, I suspect that they are also both false as normative claims.

Unknown said...

Even if there are countervailing reasons, as Matt suggests, aren't we still left with the fact that the ethicist is doing something that is morally wrong by his/her own lights? If so, then the question, as I understand it, is whether or not this fact reflects something about the enterprise of academic ethics.

BTW, Singer was "accused" of failing to practice what he preaches:

Carl M. said...

Aristotle says that there's no point in studying ethics theoretically; it has to be a practical pursuit:

"Since, then, the present inquiry does not aim at theoretical knowledge like the others (for we are inquiring not in order to know what virtue is, but in order to become good, since otherwise our inquiry would have been of no use), we must examine the nature of actions, namely how we ought to do them…"

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks!

@ Matthew: Regarding countervailing reasons, I was assuming there are none such in the cheeseburger case. This is part of the reason I described the ethicist as advocating "strict" vegetarianism. Another nice feature of the vegetarianism case is that most advocates of strict vegetarianism would regard the non-moral reasons (basically, preference for the taste of meat) to be outweighed in all normal cases. I was also assuming that.

Now if we reach beyond the vegetarianism case, things aren't quite as clear. But I would insist that we clearly distinguish "correlation" from "perfect correlation". As long as moral reasons have *some* weight, there should be a correlation, even if not a perfect one, unless there are not just *amoral* but *countermoral* forces that are especially likely to play in the opposite direction for ethicists, no?

So that's what I'd say about the hypothetical case of zero correlation. Now in the actual case of what seems to be weak correlation... well, I think it gets complicated and difficult to assess, so I haven't tried to do that here. I do think one possibility is that a substantial proportion of ethicists conclude that moral considerations don't deserve as much weight as nonethicists tend to assume.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Moti: I agree. And thanks for the interesting link on Singer! Despite what one might conclude from this post, I am not inclined to be hard on Singer even if he indulges in some substantial luxuries he condemns. I have always admired people with high standards, even if they don't entirely live up to those standards, more than people who set and meet only low moral standards. Singer certainly does not take the attitude of the imagined ethicist in this post.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Carl: Yes, I agree. In fact, it seems to me a peculiarly 20th-21st century Western phenomenon to separate, as much as we do, the evaluation of ethical theories from evaluation of the behavior of the ethicists promoting those theories.

Callan S. said...

Ah, the new christian guilt...

I think it's the framing of the ethicism that implies a belief or support of it.

If the ethicist was talking about chess, that the rule is rooks can't move diagnally, but then you find him moving a rook non orthagonally, he might say 'I'm not playing chess'. It was a technical observance of the rules.

Here though the phrasing in the example is one of saying something is bad. This is like crying wolf - you do so when there's a wolf around, or else the words fall into ruin.

Or maybe I sound like a nihilist, in that when the dude says ' My job is only to discover moral truths', it's absurd to me - they don't exist as some sort of physical object to be found. You just have a line in the sand you support.

So I might seem the nihilist, yet it seems this ethicist who seems to believe in morality that actually physically exists (to be 'discovered') are actually more amoral than this type of nihilist! As if it's just an artifact that can be discovered, then left in the corner of a dusty museum or something!

'I don't claim to be a saint' isn't a get out. If you think some behaviour is bad, then you try to modify your behaviour away from that.

To have a not-a-saint excuse either means you don't think it's bad, or you, at a logistical level, are in a damnation loop. Just a trapped loop behaviour, thinking some act is bad, but never even trying to change that behaviour.

Okay, I got a little ranty! :)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Callan, I like your thought that there's a way in which my imagined ethicist is more a nihilist, despite her moral realism, than is someone who is much less of a moral realist but lives according to the standards he espouses.

Scott Bakker said...

"One question is whether they are weak enough to indicate a problem in the enterprise as it is actually practiced in the 21st-century United States."

This is one question. Another question is whether this is exactly what we should expect from second-order moral enterprises in general. In other words, the question is whether this lack of correlation shows us something about human hypocrisy more generally, and our inclination to exempt ourselves from the implications of our moral judgments.

Haidt for instance argues that 'moral reason' is primarily a sop to desire. In which case 'ethcists' find themselves in a peculiar position of training/exploring what is primarily a human capacity to *signal* appropriate moral commitments in the guise of 'moral cognition.' What you data would then reveal is the degree to which human moral reason is subreptive.

Is there any such specific research, Eric? If so, how does your data fit?

And more generally, if our moral systems are 'first person deceptive' in this way, what sense does it make to ask these questions *within* the frame of moral intuition? If we were to take a poll of x-phi metaethicists who fault ethicists for inconsistency, would we find the same kind of inconsistency, do you think?

Jorge A. said...

It is a self-evident apriori fact that the quale associated with eating a bacon cheeseburger is de facto the meaning of existence. Any moral philosophy denouncing the eating of cheeseburgers is thus not just mistaken, but deeply evil.

All the of the vast multiverses and semi-conceivable number spaces have clearly conspired to bring about a universe where I can eat a cheeseburger.

If Nietzsche were to tell me about Eternal Recurrence I would tell him "Aye! I weep with joy, for I shall enjoy infinite such cheeseburgers!"

This leads us to find out that all philosophical conundrums can be reduced to a single, pressing, and utterly quintessential query:

"Can I has cheeseburger?"

Anonymous said...

I don't find your description of the imagined professor to be remotely plausible.

(BTW: I'm a motivational internalist of a sort.)

If the professor sincerely believes that eating the bacon cheeseburger is morally impermissible they will no doubt feel guilty for doing so. They will also probably eat fewer of them than they otherwise would if they didn't believe that it was morally impermissible.

Full disclosure: I think it's morally impermissible to go buy meat at your grocery store or restaurant. (Whether or not it's morally impermissible to raise and humanely slaughter your own animals is a question that puzzles me.) This means that I think, in practice, something like vegetarianism is morally required. I believe this, and I usually give at least one lecture on the subject.

Of course, occasionally I do purchase meat I think I shouldn't. I feel bad when I do, but I enjoy the taste. I do it very infrequently, however. If a student caught me doing this, I would respond along the following lines:

I know I shouldn't be doing this. I feel awful for doing it. But on occasion I screw up and do things I shouldn't. It is an unfortunate feature of the human condition that humans often act in ways they believe they shouldn't, but I try to do it as infrequently as I can. Please don't try to use my moral lapse as an excuse to justify your behavior. That's what pigs do.

Anonymous said...

"But an ethicist who flouts her own vision of the moral law is, I would suggest, in some way, though perhaps not entirely, a failure as an ethicist."

Please explain this remark in more detail? It strikes me as beyond stupid. What do you mean by "flouts her own violation of the moral law"? And what is it to be "a failure as an ethicist"?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

@ Scott: It's a big set of issues, and there's virtually no systematic empirical work on the attitudes and behavior of professional ethicists or the relationship between the two. There's a little bit of work on the effectiveness of applied ethics courses on students, but none that I am aware of that uses real-world measures as opposed to questionnaire responses. However, Josh Rust and I have, I think, provided evidence across several measures that ethicists probably behave for the most part no differently from non-ethicist professors, and no more in line with their own espoused norms (except *maybe* on very narrow issues central to their careers). However, on a few issues (esp. charity and vegetarianism) they appear to verbally espouse more stringent norms.

What to make of this theoretically is tricky. I don't think we need to go straight to Haidt's view, though I do think Haidt's view is one live option. Josh and I are working on exploring some of the options in a couple of theoretical papers in progress.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Jorge A: LOL.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Anon Dec 20 5:15: I wasn't claiming that it was empirically likely that most ethicists would adopt such a line. I don't think it is. However, I don't think it's beyond the pale of possibility that some would. For example, see applied ethicist Randy Cohen's farewell column to the New York Times Magazine here:

(I discuss it in a blog post here: )

What you describe as your own attitude seems to me much more natural.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Anon Dec 20 3:03. Wow, "beyond stupid" would be quite an achievement! Are things on a roundabout so that going beyond stupid circles one back into smart? (Somehow, I doubt it.)

My cheeseburger ethicist was meant to be an example of someone flouting her own vision of the moral law. I acknowledge I haven't specified what it means to be a "failure as an ethicist". But my thought is that if ethics is in part a "first-person" enterprise, i.e., in part geared toward discovering for oneself what one should do, then if it remains utterly disconnected from one's behavior, that aspect of the enterprise has failed. (I confess to a bit of "motivational internalism" here. See my work on belief and my forthcoming essay on attitudes in general.)

clasqm said...

"My job is only to discover moral truths and inform the world about them."

Moral TRUTHS? Wow, I must be hanging with the wrong crowd. The ethicists I know won't go further than saying "My job is only to consider and compare ethical theories and inform the world about them."

The idea that there are definitive moral truths out there, just waiting to be discovered and applied has a very religious ring to it, but even the theological ethicists of my acquaintance wouldn't use it.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Clasqm: Well, I put it starkly, but the claim can be adapted for different metaethical commitments. In any case, I do think there are a lot of moral realists out there who think that moral claims are true or false and that it's an important part of ethics to figure out which ones are true.

Callan S. said...

I think as clasqm describes the position, it has more merit - that's a technical evaluation and observance of various moral theories, presumably as far as the text can be rendered down to it's emperical references.

Though it might leave the cultural impression that an ethicist pushes for some kind of ethics? Like the role of a priest, perhaps? When clasqm's example is more like someone who just catalogs priests/their writings.

It might be a bit missleading a title, ironically? Like someone being called a muscician, when the person only considers and compares songs. He doesn't write or perform.

clasqm said...

@Callan S. Indeed. We call such people musicologists.

Such pairs are in fact easy to think up:

politician <> political scientist
entrepreneur<> economist
engineer <> physicist
best-selling author <> philosopher
(Sorry, Eric)

Perhaps we need to invent "ethicologist".

There's nothing to stop a person trying to be both, just as there is nothing to stop them trying to be, simultaneously, a citizen, a parent, a blogger. We can all be classified in a variety of ways. I am not saying that these are airtight spheres. There are overlaps. Tracing influences, or the lack of them, from Eric Schwitzgebel the philosopher to Eric Schwitzgebel the concerned citizen (and vice versa!) is what makes a good biography worth reading.But what Eric seems to be arguing is that in this particular case, there should be a large, possibly total overlap.

Let's think about that. could there be other academic disciplines where one expects such an overlap? Theology springs to mind. You'd expect theologians to believe in God. I haven't the empirical data Eric has gathered on ethicists, but my experience would say that the proportion of theologians who actually believe in God is about the same as ethicists who behave in accordance with the ethics they teach ... and the ones who don't believe generally produce the more interesting work.

One last thought, what kind of ethical theory underlies the assumption that ethicists should themselves behave ethically? Are we not perhaps restricting ourselves to deontology here?

Anonymous said...

At a young age (not usually the thoughts of a young person - but i was unusual) i had the thought that if I was to very closely relate my beliefs with my actions - then I would compromise the development of my beliefs.

Maybe conciously or unconciously maybe philosophers also tend to do that - or maybe they dont and then they just don't make good philosophers...


Anonymous said...


I would like to note my respect for the almost infinite paitience you display!


Callan S. said...

clasqm, aww, you beat me to it with ethicologist!

One last thought, what kind of ethical theory underlies the assumption that ethicists should themselves behave ethically?
That kind of doesn't make sense - were talking about theory where the dude concludes eating meat is bad, but that theory doesn't compel him to do anything about it. It's devoid of 'shoulds'. How can it tell him how he should behave?

That's the frightening thing about 'ethic' getting into the name of it. It suggests a moral compass exists in it, then that gets banked on as existant in it, and so the question of what kind of ethical theory says ethicists have to behave in line with the ethics they talk about, seems to make sense.

It's frighteningly easy to shift the sense of an existing moral compass to something that is completely absent a moral compass.

Hae, sounds like I could be an ethicist!? Actually make some money! Anyone got a job? Will ethicise for food! Seriously, would like...

Anyway, actually I'd be tempted to remove 'ethic' from the name entirely. Refer to some kind of 'sympathetic law observation' or something.

Anon, compromising the development of your beliefs seems like a good thing?

If you were to say it compromises the development of your imagination and creative writing ideas, I think I could agree with that notion!

Anonymous said...


depends on what you want. But maybe not if you want to be an ethical philosopher worth reading.


Anonymous said...

maybe an imaginative and creative one!


clasqm said...

@Callan S. What I'm thinking here is that if our hypothetical ethicist is a Kantian, he would have, according to his own theory, only do that which he would want to see instituted as a universal law (This is from memory. Bear with me, I'm far away from my reference material). So for a Kantian ethicist, Eric would be right. If you do not want to see cheeseburger-eating practised universally, then you should not do it yourself. To a non-ethicist like myself, this seems like a more sophisticated version of the Golden Rule, but I expect to be rapped over the knuckles by my betters for saying that. Which is why I think Eric is using an unstated deontological assumption in this particular argument. That's not a judgement on anything else he's written.

But a utilitarian ethicist would have more latitude. You could quite logically say that the greatest happiness for the greatest number would be served if 99% of the human race went vegan, then go ahead and count yourself in the 1%.

Oh, something like this "if 99% of the human race went vegan, we would immeasurably reduce our ecological footprint and that would mean the greatest happiness for the greatest number. However, it would mean that certain species of domesticated animals would rapidly go extinct. That would leave us with a diminished food security situation for an uncertain future. There may come a time when we again require the cow and the pig to exist. It is therefore necessary for 1% of humanity to sacrifice themselves and eat meat, thereby maintaining the market conditions that makes it possible for these species to continue to exist and create a gene reserve for the future. I am prepared to perform this ethically onerous, but necessary task. Have a taste?"

Trickle-down gastronomics? :-)

I leave it to others to apply the principle to more avant-garde ethical theories.

Don't shoot the messenger! I am just pointing out that there are ethicists and ethicists and asking which one we are talking about here.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

clasqm, callan & GNZ: Interesting discussion. I was checked out for a few days focusing on family.

"Ethicologist" is an interesting notion. I'd suggest that it implies a certain kind of distance from the conclusions, similar perhaps to the distance of the traditional anthropologist. There's probably room for ethicologists in academia, though I'd hate to see all ethicists take that kind of distance from their moral judgments.

On the utilitarian 1%-er: That's an interesting idea too. I once heard a story about a famous consequentialist vegetarian who went back to eating meat saying that he had, through his writings, already done more than his share of reducing animal suffering and so now he could go ahead and enjoy his cheeseburgers. However, I haven't been able to confirm this story from the ethicist himself. (Not Peter Singer, I should probably say.)

So I think there might be something to the deontologist/consequentialist observation, though I wouldn't normally think of myself as a straight deontologist. My current inclination, instead, is toward a messy pluralism about moral norms.

There is one aspect of my other work that does directly relate to this, though: My work on belief and other attitudes, especially my most recent paper on the topic, a general account of attitudes. To have an attitude is to live a certain way, I argue. Although I don't explicitly develop this idea in detail for moral attitudes -- a topic for a future essay, I hope -- I think that fully and genuinely having a moral attitude requires if not exactly abiding by it at least not having the motivationless distance of the "ethicologist".

Anonymous said...

I see it as the opposite for a utilitarian.
the problem for the utilitarian (concequentialist) is that your philosophy effects every decision and there is no "i have done enough" because there is no bar to get over.

Contrast this with a philosophy where to be good all I need to do is not kill people (directly).

Now a utilitarian can claim to be following an indirect policy - but to do so they would probably need to be dishonest to themself as experimentally they dont seem to do that much better than others in general every day actions (as per the experiments).