Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Two Kinds of Ethical Thinking?

Yesterday, over at the Blog of the APA, Michael J. Sigrist published a reflection on my work on the not-especially-ethical behavior of ethics professors. The central question is captured in his title: "Why Aren't Ethicists More Ethical?"

Although he has some qualms about my attempts to measure the moral behavior of ethicists (see here for a summary of my measures), Sigrist accepts the conclusion that, overall, professional ethicists do not behave better than comparable non-ethicists. He offers this explanation:

There's a kind of thinking that we do when we are trying to prove something, and then a kind of thinking we do when we are trying to do something or become a certain kind of person -- when we are trying to forgive someone, or be more understanding, or become more confident in ourselves. Becoming a better person relies on thinking of the latter sort, whereas most work in professional ethics -- even in practical ethics -- is exclusive to the former.

The first type of thinking, "trying to prove something", Sigrist characterizes as universalistic and impersonal, the second type of thinking, "trying to do something", he characterizes as emotional, personal, and engaged with the details of ordinary life. He suggests that my work neglects or deprioritizes the latter, more personal, more engaged type of thinking. (I suspect Sigrist wouldn't characterize my work that way if he knew some other things I've written -- but of course there is no obligation for anyone to read my whole corpus.)

The picture Sigrist appears to have in mind is something like this: The typical ethicist has their head in the clouds, thinking about universal principles, while they ignore -- or at least don't apply their philosophical skills to -- the particular moral issues in the world around their feet; and so it is, or should be, unsurprising that their philosophical ethical skills don't improve them morally. This picture resonates, because it has some truth in it, and it fits with common stereotypes about philosophers. If the picture is correct, it would tidily address the otherwise puzzling disconnection between philosophers' great skills at abstract ethical reflection and their not-so-amazing real-world ethical behavior.

However, things are not so neat.

Throughout his post, Sigrist frames his reflections primarily in terms of the contrast between impersonal thinking (about what people in general should do) and personal thinking (about what I in this particular, detailed situation should do). But real, living philosophers do not apply their ethical theories and reasoning skills only to the former; nor do thoughtful people normally engage in personal thinking without also reflecting from time to time on general principles that they think might be true (and indeed that they sometimes try to prove to their interlocutors or themselves, in the process of making ethical decisions). An ethicist might write only about trolley problems and Kant interpretation. But in that ethicist's personal life, when making decisions about what to do, sometimes philosophy will come to mind -- Aristotle's view of courage and friendship, Kant's view of honesty, whether some practical policy would be appropriately universalizable, conflicts between consequentialist vs. deontological principles in harming someone for some greater goal.

A professional ethicist doesn't pass through the front door of their house and forget all of academic philosophy. Philosophical ethics is too richly and obviously connected to the particularities of personal life. Nor is there some kind of starkly different type of "personal" thinking that ordinary people do that avoids appeal to general principles. In thinking about whether to have children, whether to lie about some matter of importance, how much time or money to donate to charities, how much care one owes to a needy parent or sibling in a time of crisis -- in such matters, thoughtful people often do, and should, think not only about the specifics of their situation but also about general principles.

Academic philosophical ethics and ordinary engaged ethical reflection are not radically different cognitive enterprises. They can and should, and in philosophers and philosophically-minded non-philosophers, merge and blend into each other, as we wander back and forth, fruitfully, between the general and the specific. How could it be otherwise?

Sigrist is mistaken. The puzzle remains. We cannot so easily dismiss the challenge that I think my research on ethicists poses to the field. We cannot say, "ah, but of course ethicists behave no differently in their personal lives, because all of their expertise is only relevant to the impersonal and universal". The two kinds of ethical thinking that Sigrist identifies are ends of a continuum that we all regularly traverse, rather than discrete patterns of thinking that are walled off from each other without mutual influence.

In my work and my personal life, I try to make a point of blending the personal with the universal and the everyday with the scholarly, rejecting any sharp distinction between academic and non-academic thinking. This is part of why I write a blog. This is part of the vision behind my recent book. I think Sigrist values this blending too, and means to be critiquing what he sees as its absence in mainstream Anglophone philosophical ethics. Sigrist has only drawn his lines too sharply, offering too simplified a view of the typical ethicist's ways of thinking; and he has mistaken me for an opponent rather than a fellow traveler.


howard b said...

analogies to religious leaders and psychiatrists and to psychologists: Carl Rogers wrote that therapists must be compassionate and caring and all that goes with these things while in session, but not in their personal life; still I can imagine that someone like Yalom is deep and caring and present in his personal life.
What's the difference?

P.D. Magnus said...

It seems to me that moral life requires a certain kind of perceptual sensitivity, noticing the morally relevant aspects of the situation. And that kind of awareness might be different in kind than the ability to construct arguments, even though honing one will can effect the development of the other.

Furthermore (I think) perceptual abilities are context sensitive. So one cannot develop them in general. This encourages what William James calls the sentimentalist fallacy, "to shed tears over abstract justice and generosity, beauty, etc., and never to know these qualities when you meet them in the street, because the circumstances make them vulgar."

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

P.D.: Yes, that seems right. But here's one thing I wouldn't infer (not that you're implying it): If skill X requires both A and B, improving B is on average useless. (A = perceptual sensitivity, B = understanding of general principles; of course it's not really that simple.)

Howard: Different disciplines will work differently -- not that I'd necessarily defer to Rogers on this point without further thought.

P.D. Magnus said...

Eric: I just meant to point to a middle ground between saying that the two things "are ends of a continuum" and saying that they "are walled off from each other without mutual influence", namely that they are different in kind but might effect each other.
Maybe understanding general principles has two possible effects. It might sharpen one's perceptual sensitivity somewhat, by making moral factors more salient. Or it might dull one's sensitivity, by making one overlook real-world values in the way James describes.
If these two effects play out variously in the population, they might wash out on average.

Arnold said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Arnold said...

...isn't that global attitudes for sustaining Life on our planet are all that are front of us now...

...'the unexamined Life is not worth living' has influenced our Lives for 2500 years; for some of us travelers personal-communal worth is part of global worth...

howard b said...


Maybe this is a stereotype: ethics is concerned with correct behavior and judgment and is impersonal, even when concerned with personal behavior.
Psychology and religion are concerned with individual people and their well being.
Abstract philosophy is liable to abuse specifically because it is concerned with being right and passing judgment and not with people and their needs and well being and happiness, and people and ethicists being who they are, they will do harmful things to people because by the nature of their project they are not concerned with human beings as such.
Perhaps they should take a Hippocratic Oath