Tuesday, September 03, 2013

The Moral Behavior of Ethics Professors and the Role of the Philosopher

Philosophers rarely seem surprised or unsettled when I present my work on the morality of ethicists -- work suggesting that ethics professors behave no differently than other professors or any more in accord with their own moral opinions (e.g., here). Amusement is a more common reaction; so also is dismissal of the relevancy of such results to philosophy. Such reactions reveal something, perhaps, about the role philosophical moral reflection is widely assumed to have in academia and in individual ethicists' personal lives.

I think of Randy Cohen's farewell column as ethics columnist for the New York Times Magazine:

Writing the column has not made me even slightly more virtuous. And I didn't have to be.... I wasn't hired to personify virtue, to be a role model for kids, but to write about virtue in a way readers might find engaging. Consider sports writers: not 2 in 20 can hit the curveball, and why should they? They're meant to report on athletes, not be athletes. And that's the self-serving rationalization I'd have clung to had the cops hauled me off in handcuffs.

What spending my workday thinking about ethics did do was make me acutely aware of my own transgressions, of the times I fell short. It is deeply demoralizing.

(BTW, here's my initial reaction to Cohen's column.)

Josh Rust and I have found, for example, that although U.S.-based ethicists are much more likely than other professors to say it's bad to regularly eat the meat of mammals (60% say it is bad, vs. 45% of non-ethicist philosophers and only 19% of professors outside of philosophy), they are no less likely to report having eaten the meat of a mammal at their previous evening meal (37%, in our study, vs. 33% of non-ethicist philosophers and 45% of non-philosophers; details here and also in the previously linked paper). So we might consider the following scenario:

An ethicist philosopher considers whether it's morally permissible to eat the meat of factory-farmed mammals. She read Peter Singer. She reads objections and replies to Singer. She concludes that it is in fact morally bad to eat meat. She presents the material in her applied ethics class. Maybe she even writes on the issue. However, instead of changing her behavior to match her new moral opinions, she retains her old behavior. She teaches Singer's defense of vegetarianism, both outwardly and inwardly endorsing it, and then proceeds to the university cafeteria for a cheeseburger (perhaps feeling somewhat bad about doing so).

To the student who sees her in the cafeteria, our philosopher says: Singer's arguments are sound. It is morally wrong of me to eat this delicious cheeseburger. But my role as a philosopher is only to discuss philosophical issues, to present and evaluate philosophical views and arguments, not to live accordingly. Indeed, it would be unfair to expect me to live to higher moral standards just because I am an ethicist. I am paid to teach and write, like my colleagues in other fields; it would be an additional burden on me, not placed on them, to demand that I also live my life as a model. Furthermore, the demand that ethicists live as moral models would create distortive pressures on the field that might tend to lead us away from the moral truth. If I feel no inward or outward pressure to live according to my publicly espoused doctrines, then I am free to explore doctrines that demand high levels of self-sacrifice on an equal footing with more permissive doctrines. If instead I felt an obligation to live as I teach, I would be highly motivated to avoid concluding that wealthy people should give most of their money to charity or that I should never lie out of self-interest. The world is better served if the intellectual discourse of moral philosophy is undistorted by such pressures, that is, if ethicists are not expected to live out their moral opinions.

Such a view of the role of the philosopher is very different from the view of most ancient ethicists. Socrates, Confucius, and the Stoics sought to live according to the norms they espoused and invited others to judge their lives as an expression of their doctrines. It is an open and little-discussed question which is the better vision of the role of the philosopher.

Update 1:17 PM: A number of philosophers have expressed variants of this position to me over the years, but Helen De Cruz has reminded me of Regina Rini's articulate expression of some of these ideas in a comment on one of my earlier posts.]


Unknown said...

I am baffled that moral philosophers do not feel the force of their own reason upon their lives. This is a divorce of reason from reality.

You are right to point out that the ancients would not tolerate such a view. Neither would the medievalists. I am reminded of the Minos where law (and the same for moral codes in this case) is the discovery and codification of what is.

howard berman said...

How would these findings relate to people in therapy who don't listen to their therapists?
My cognitive therapist practices his teachings and that adds in his credibility.
Then again, cognitive therapy is indebted to ancient philosophy (and modern logic and science too) and is a doctrine and too a degree a way of life

howard berman said...

A further point: do ethicists follow positions of which they are the originators?
So take Peter Singer. He devised arguments in favor of vegetarianism,
He's likely a vegetarian.
His students maybe not.
So in the ancient world, something bound students of ethical views to follow their teaching just as originators of arguments are today.
It may be the nature of ancient cults or the nature of ancient society as a whole or the roles of beliefs today as opposed to back then.
To that point, do these findings of hypocrisy extend to religious people today as well, or for that matter just to secular western countries as our own?

G. Randolph Mayes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
G. Randolph Mayes said...

Then again, why the complex rationalization when a simple confession of moral weakness would be the more virtuous reply? Yes, I think it is wrong to eat meat but it is delicious, and my love for it simply overpowers my moral convictions. Similarly with cheating on my spouse, drinking to excess, texting while driving and reading philosophy rather than going to watch my kid play soccer. Why did the ancients expect philosophers to suffer less from akrasia than the common man? Surely the habit of contemplating the arguments in support of all manner of deviant behavior can only exacerbate the condition. Still,it is disappointing.

Anonymous said...

Actually, the vegetarian philosophers I know and meet invariably turn out to be ethicists. So, there are certainly quite some exceptions, particularly amongst female and younger philosophers. More generally, I find philosophers oftentimes more conscientious and emphatic than non-philosophers; and the ethicists I have met and worked with so far are genuinely striving to be virtuous. At the same time, yes, philosophy can have a corrupting influence. It perhaps becomes too easy (second nature) to justify your own preferred action, to bias your own viewpoint. That's a slippery slope all of us should try to avoid.

Rolf Degen said...

Not practicing what one preaches is the classical definition of hypocrisy. An ethicist should know that. And about vegetarianism: There is empirical evidence that most vegetarians quit that way of living after some years. And most vegetarians are not even vegetarians: They secretely eat meat or fish. That is the - ugly - truth. It is not doable!

Unknown said...

where is this empirical evidence you refer to?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks!

Julian: Here's one of my main empirical papers on the issue:

Rolf Degen said...

to Julian Bennett

OK, you wanted it. Voila:

66% of the "vegetarians" had eaten animal flesh in the last 24 hours.


75% of people who quit eating meat eventually change their minds and return to a diet that includes animal flesh


Even the Dalai Lama loves meat


Regina Rini said...

Thanks for linking to my earlier comment Eric (and thanks for the reminder Helen)!

I'm wondering about the meat-eating study. You report that 40% of ethicists do not think that eating meat is morally bad at all. You also report that 37% of ethicists ate meat at their last meal. If the 37% who ate meat are a subset of the 40% who think eating meat is fine, then there's no moral hypocrisy whatsoever. (Looking at your earlier post about this research, it appears that Tucker Lentz pointed this out as well.)

Even if some of those who ate meat are among the 60% who think eating meat is not perfectly okay, that doesn't quite show hypocrisy either. The way you've set up the response scale, a reply of 4 or less is coded as regarding eating meat as wrong - but it's natural to interpret a '4' response as 'eating meat is only a little bit wrong'. I don't think it's hypocritical, or even inconsistent, to eat meat every now and then if you think it's only a little bit wrong. We all do things that are a little bit wrong every now and then. (Arguably, every instance of failing to fulfill an imperfect duty is a little bit wrong. Yet imperfect duties are exactly such that they can't be fulfilled every time.)

In the paper you've broken down the data further. Among those who called eating meat "very morally bad" (1 on the scale) apparently 0% ate meat. This only goes up to 5% or so for those who gave a '2' response. To get to large percentages, we do indeed have to look at people who gave '3' or '4' responses, who apparently believe that eating meat is only somewhat or a little bit wrong.

To me, these results seem compatible with the claim that ethicists are for the most part consistent in their practice and their preaching. The people who are *strongly* convinced that eating meat is wrong generally don't eat meat. The people who are less firm in this belief do sometimes eat meat. Unless we hold that moral consistency requires *never* doing anything that is even *slightly* wrong - which seems an implausible view to me - than I'm not sure these results are problematic.

Of course, part of your point here is to compare ethicists to non-ethicists, and it is noteworthy that ethicists are no more likely than others to be morally consistent. But on my interpretation, this is probably just a ceiling effect. Everyone, ethicist and non-ethicist, exhibits behavior patterns fitting to the strength of their moral beliefs (at least in self-report...). Ethicists aren't 'more' consistent because they are already at an appropriate level of consistency, given the strength of their beliefs (as are non-ethicists).

clasqm said...

I am not an ethicist, so I am probably way out of line here. But there is an unstated assumption in this discussion that all ethical enquiry will inevitably lead to a liberal, peace-loving ethic that will defend and hopefully practice vaguely left-wing ideas.

Perhaps that is so, empirically. Perhaps all known ethical systems have evolved to that point. But does even the possibility exist of an internally consistent warrior ethic that has no problem with genocide, environmental degradation and so on? No need to invoke Godwin's Law here: Nazi ideology was not internally consistent. It defined "race" according to the personnel demands of the moment, to mention just one thing.

But let's say that such an ethic was developed and quibble as we might, we couldn't fault it. Then a bit of cognitive dissonance on the part of ethics professors might be our last, best hope ...

Callan S. said...

It's not what we expect of the ethics professor, it's what they've commited to themselves. Have they actually inwardly endorsed these moral principles?

The absolute madness, the absolute akratic nature of utterly betraying genuine personal dedication because 'hae, it's just muh job!' - surely this can't really be a genuinely existant thing?

Are you sure the column write off isn't some way of trying to make us consider our values more by him sort of exposing a shameful side of himself?

In regard to Regina's comment
In a sense, one needs to be able to take one's ethical views "offline" in order to subject them to reflective scrutiny.
It depends on why the 'offline' is enacted - if it's for some sense of a greater agenda or to 'better things' (vague as that is), it's going somewhere.

If it's doing it for no reason (beyond simply collecting a paycheck) then it's utterly f'ed up. I don't know who conditioned her or anyone into thinking such a species of labotomy was somehow normal. But I guess after the fact, pretty much anything will seem normal.

Maybe it's just from people who believe so hard that when they extinguish the act of actually acting upon believed standards, they think they still have something after that. After the labotomy.

And dang, that last sentence was supposed to be my gentler version to end on...could not get there...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

Regina: Yes, I agree that those who say it's very bad tend not to do it (whether ethicist or not). I still think it's striking that there could be such a huge difference in groups' expressed normative attitude and no statistically detectable difference in groups' behavior. It's not my aim to charge hypocrisy. In fact, I think there's something admirable about being willing to admit that something you regularly do is somewhat wrong. It suggests the possibility of a lack of a certain kind of post-hoc rationalizing self-deception.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Michel: Part of Josh's and my aim in the survey study was to see whether ethicists behaved more consistently with their own standards, and not just according to conventional standards or what Josh and I think is morally good (as in our other studies). So an internally consistent warrior would have shown up in our data as a datapoint of high correlation between behavior and espoused moral view. And overall it didn't look like ethicists tended to have higher correlations of this sort than did other types of professors.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Callan -- Much of me agrees with you, though in much less intense, more forgiving language! But I do see some merits on the other side too, as I expressed in this post. So I'm torn.

Callan S. said...

Assuming I understand it right (hopefully I don't), I see no merit at all - indeed, the end of merit - may as well be two face from the batman comics, so detached in regards to ethics you are just a flipping coin.

I do see a space for a kind of comfy armchair, glass of brandy in one hand discussion - I'm all up for that myself! But my god, it horrorfies me if it seems that can be done without border/without end, to any point.

Probably part of this is what might be labeled, ironically, nihilism on my part. For some people its all just traveling out into new areas of morality. From my view, it's just stepping off the bus. There aint something else out there - hell, there's barely even a bus...

After that point wanting forgiving language is like wanting for air after popping the air lock. It's all out in in the black, now...

Okay, no more brandy for me, fair enough...even I agree!

Bear said...

Perhaps we can look at this from another perspective: look at our reaction to the behaviour of religious clergy, in particular Christian clergy.

Consider a preacher thundering a sermon promoting abstinence from alcohol, that is is morally corrupt to consume alcohol. If he were to have a dram before going to bed at night, we would call him a hypocrite - preaching one thing and practicing another.

The reason that we condemn the preacher is that he is telling the faithful how to live their lives, and in doing so, makes himself a standard. He is promoting particular normative standards for the community.

How is this different for professors of Moral Philosophy/Ethics. They are also exploring and promoting normative standards of behaviour against which people are judged. Thus, it should be no surprise to them that they themselves will be judged by those standards.

I appreciate the argument that we want Ethicists to be objective and not to flinch from making hard conclusions - but this is tantamount to accuse them of lacking moral courage. We expect more of soldiers and other professionals.

If an Ethicist defends and promotes legislation which penalises certain behaviour, and then is prosecuted for such behaviour, would we accept such an argument?

Anonymous said...

In Ancient world the pressure to behave in certain virtuous ways was much higher than it is in a contemporary society. One has to keep in mind that there was a daily struggle to survive for most people - scarcity and/or difficulty of obtaining food or maintaining its supply, complete lack of any police force or state protection from crime (there were courts, but you had to catch the criminal yourself), frequent wars and raids, danger of diseases, etc. etc. This is reflected, among other things, in the attention that Ancient philosophers devote to courage, friendship, and anger. It also meant that the qualities one was supposed to aim for really were quite crucial to one's success in having any kind of livable life - being weak, cowardly, unreliable led to having no people to rely on and so on. Nowadays, the situation is quite different. One can easily go through one's life being somewhat lazy, unreliable, cowardly and so on without that endangering one's existence. One might end up being kind like the Dude in Big Lebowski, but that's even considered 'cool' in some circles. We do not come into situation in which we would have the opportunity to show true 'virtue' much at all (maybe soldiers still do, firemen). Philosophy - ethics - seems to be dealing with issues that are thus not quite so pressing in our every day life. Nothing important happens to me as a consequence of me eating meat today. It is not going to mark me for life as a impious and untrustworthy person. So even if I have an argument that I should not - that argument will not appeal to anything truly pressing. At best it will appeal to some abstract conception of consciousness or long-term effects beyond my lifetime on others, and so on. But to nothing I will feel and experience. It is quite different when Plato or Aristotle or Seneca write about being cowardly or being a bad friend since without avoiding these my life would truly suck, in fact, be very vulnerable. I am not sure whether there are any such qualities important to us nowadays as they were for ancients, but I would sure like to know...

timgier said...

I'd say that those who don't eat other animals hold strong 'moral' convictions about the matter because they don't eat other animals, and not the other way 'round.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing discussion, folks!

@ Bear: I agree that that's an interesting comparison point, though if one is forthright about the fact that one declines to follow the norms, I'm not sure it's hypocrisy. I would love at some point to work on exploring these issues empirically with clergy as the target group.

Anon Sep 28: I agree that moral reflection from luxurious and comfortable safety is very different from reflection when you are surrounded by death -- but I don't think this divides modern/ancient. Consider Syria right now.

Timgier: I have some sympathy with that claim, though I think the causal patterns are more complicated that your simple statement suggests (as you might also think).

Alasti said...

These arguments for living in a way which is other than how one's studies and teachings indicate one ought to live are just sheer amoral sophistry. If the proponents of ethics are not themselves living paradigms of existing according the the tenets for which they advocate (or at least they are incorporating provisos into their teaching indicating why it's acceptable to be otherwise), they should get into another line of work.