Thursday, September 28, 2023

Elisabeth of Bohemia 1, Descartes 0

I'm loving reading the 1643 correspondence between Elisabeth of Bohemia and Descartes! I'm embarrassed to confess that I hadn't read it before now; the standard Cottingham et al. edition presents only selections from Descartes' side. I'd seen quotes of Elisabeth, but not the whole exchange as it played out. Elisabeth's letters are gems. She has Descartes on the ropes, and she puts her concerns so plainly and sensibly (in Bennett's translation; I haven't attempted to read the antique French). You can practically feel Descartes squirming against her objections. I have a clear and distinct idea of Descartes ducking and dodging!

Here's my (somewhat cheeky) summary, with comments and evaluation at the end.

Elisabeth, May 6, 1643:

I'm so ignorant and you're so learned! Here's what I don't understand about your view: How can an immaterial soul, simply by thinking, possibly cause a bodily action?


it seems that how a thing moves depends solely on (i) how much it is pushed, (ii) the manner in which it is pushed, or (iii) the surface-texture and shape of the thing that pushes it. The first two of those require contact between the two things, and the third requires that the causally active thing be extended [i.e., occupy a region of space]. Your notion of the soul entirely excludes extension, and it appears to me that an immaterial thing can't possibly touch anything else.

Also, if, as you say, thinking is the essential property of human souls, what about unborn children and people who have fainted, who presumably have souls without thinking?

René, May 21, 1643:

Admittedly in my writings I talk much more about the fact that the soul thinks than about the question of how it is united with the body. This idea of the union of the soul and the body is basic and can be understood only through itself. It's so easy to get confused by using your imagination or trying to apply notions that aren't appropriate to the case!

For a comparison, however, think about how the weight of a rock moves it downwards. One might (mistakenly, I hope later to show) think of weight as a "real quality" about which we know nothing except that it has the power to move the body toward the centre of the earth. The soul's power to move the body is analogous.

Elisabeth, June 10, 1643:

Please forgive my stupidity! I wish I had the time to develop your level of expertise. But why should I be persuaded that an immaterial soul can move a material body by this analogy to weight? If we think in terms of the old idea of weight, why shouldn't we then conclude by your reasoning that things move downward due to the power of immaterial causes? I can't conceive of "what is immaterial" except negatively as "what is not material" and as what can't enter into causal relations with matter. I'd rather concede that the soul is material than that an immaterial thing could move a body.

René, May 28, 1643:

This matter of the soul's union with the body is a very dark affair when it comes from the intellect (whether alone or aided by the imagination). People who just use their senses, in the ordinary course of life, have no doubt that the soul moves the body. We shouldn't spend too much time in intellectual thinking. In fact,

I never spend more than a few hours a day in the thoughts involving the imagination, or more than a few hours a year on thoughts that involve the intellect alone. I give all the rest of my time to the relaxation of the senses and the repose of the mind.

The human mind can't clearly conceive the soul's distinctness from the body and its union with the body simultaneously. The comparison with weight was imperfect, but without philosophizing everyone knows that they have body and thought and that thought can move the body.

But since you remark that it is easier to attribute matter and extension to the soul than to credit it with the capacity to move and be moved by the body without having matter, please feel free to attribute this matter and extension to the soul -- because that's what it is to conceive it as united to the body.

Still, once you do this, you'll find that matter is not thought because the matter has a definite location, excluding other matter. But again, thinking too much about metaphysics is harmful.

Elisabeth, July 1, 1643:

I hope my letters aren't troubling you.

I find from your letter that the senses show me that the soul moves the body, but as for how it does so, the senses tell me nothing about that, any more than the intellect and imagination do. This leads me to think that the soul has properties that we don't know -- which might overturn your doctrine... that the soul is not extended.

As you have emphasized in your writings, all our errors come from our forming judgments about things we don't perceive well enough. Since we can't perceive how the soul moves the body, I am left with my initial doubt, that is, my thinking that perhaps after all the soul is extended.

There is no record of a reply by Descartes.


Zing! Elisabeth shows up so much better than Descartes in this exchange. She immediately homes in on the historically most important (and continuing) objection to Cartesian substance dualism: the question of how, if at all, an immaterial soul and a material object could causally interact. She efficiently and elegantly formulates a version of the principle of "the causal closure of the physical", according to which material events can only be caused by other material events, connecting that idea both with Descartes' denial that the soul is extended in space and with the view, widely accepted by early modern philosophers before Newton, that physical causation requires direct physical contact (no "action at a distance"). Jaegwon Kim notes (2011, p. 49) that hers might be the first causal argument for a materialist view of the mind. To top it off, she poses an excellent objection (from fetuses and fainting spells) to the idea that thinking is essential to having a soul.

Descartes' reply by analogy to weight is weak. As Elisabeth notes, it doesn't really answer the question of how the process is supposed to work for souls. Descartes' own theory of weight (articulated the subsequent year in Principles of Philosophy, dedicated to Elisabeth) involves action by contact (light particles spinning off the rotating Earth shoot up, displacing heavier particles down: IV.20-24). At best, Descartes is saying that the false, old idea of weight didn't involve contact, so why not think souls can also have influence without contact? Elisabeth's reply implicitly suggests a dilemma: If downward motion is by contact, then weight is not an example of how causation without contact is possible. If downward motion is not by contact, then shouldn't we think (absurdly?) that things move down due to the action of immaterial souls? She also notes that "immaterial" just seems to be a negative idea, not something we can form a clear, positive conception of.

Elisabeth's response forces Descartes concede that we can't in fact think clearly and distinctly about these matters. This is a major concession, given the centrality of the standard of "clear and distinct" ideas to Descartes' philosophy. He comes off almost as a mysterian! He also seems to partly retract what is perhaps the most central idea in his dualist metaphysics -- that the soul does not have extension. Elisabeth should feel free to attribute matter and extension to the soul, after all! Indeed, in saying that attributing matter and extension is "what it is to conceive [the soul] as united to the body", Descartes seriously muddies the interpretation of his positive view about the nature of souls.

It's also worth noting that Descartes entirely ignores Elisabeth's excellent fetus and fainting question.

I had previously been familiar with Descartes' famous quote that he spends no more than a few hours a year on thoughts involving the intellect alone; but reading the full exchange provides interesting context. His aim in saying that is to convince Elisabeth not to put too much energy into objecting to his account of how the soul works.

Understandably, Elisabeth is dissatisfied. She even gestures (though not in so many words) toward Descartes' methodological self-contradiction: Descartes famously says that philosophizing requires that we have clear ideas and that our errors all arise from failure to do so -- yet here he is, saying that there's an issue at the core of his metaphysics about which it's not possible to think clearly! Shouldn't he admit, then, that on this very point he's liable to be mistaken?

If Descartes attempted a further reply, the reply is lost. Their later correspondence treats other issues.

The whole correspondence is just 15 pages, so I'd encourage you to read it yourself. This summary necessarily omits interesting detail and nuance. In this exchange, Elisabeth is by far the better philosopher.

[image source]

Friday, September 22, 2023

Percentage of Women Philosophy Majors Has Risen Sharply Since 2016 -- Why? Or: The 2017 Knuckle

Back in 2017, I noticed that the percentage of women philosophy majors in the U.S. had been 30%-34% for "approximately forever". That is, despite the increasing percentage of Bachelor's degrees awarded to women overall and in most other majors, the percentage of philosophy Bachelor's degrees awarded to women had been remarkably steady from the first available years (1986-1987) in the NCES IPEDS database through the then-most-recent data year (2016).

In the past few years, however, I have noticed some signs of change. The most recent NCES IPEDS data release, which I analyzed this morning, statistically solidifies the trend. Women now constitute over 40% of philosophy Bachelor's degree recipients. I would argue that this is a very material change from the long-standing trend of 30-34%. If parity is 50%, a change from 32% women to 41% women constitutes a halving of the disparity. Furthermore, the change has been entirely in the most recent six years' of data -- remarkably swift for this type of demographic shift.

The chart below shows the historical trend through the most recent available year (2022). I've marked the 30%-34% band with thick horiztonal lines. A thin vertical line marks 2017, the first year to cross the 34% mark (34.9%). The most recent years are 41.4% and 41.3% respectively.

[click to enlarge and clarify]

Given the knuckle-like change in the slope of the graph, let's call this the 2017 Knuckle.

What I find puzzling is why?

This doesn't reflect an overall trend of increasing percentages of women across majors. Overall, women have been 56%-58% of Bachelor's degree recipients throughout the 21st century. Most other humanities and social sciences had a much earlier increase in the proportion of women.

However, interestingly, the physical sciences and engineering, which have also tended to be disproportionately men, have showed some similar trends. Since 2010, physics majors have increased from 40% to 45% women -- with all of that increase being since 2017. Since 2010, Engineering has increased from 18% to 25% women, with the bulk of the increase since 2016. Since 2010, "Engineering Technologies and Engineering-related Fields" (which NCES classifies separately from Engineering) has also increased from 10% to 15% women, again with most of the increase since 2016. Among the humanities and social sciences, Economics is maybe the only large major similar to Philosophy in gender disparity, and in Economics we see a similar trend, though smaller: an increase from 31% to 35% women between 2010 and 2022, again with most of the gain since 2016.

Since people tend to decide their majors a few years before graduating, whatever explains these trends must have begun in approximately 2013-2016, then increased through at least 2020. Any hypotheses?

It's probably not a result of change in the percentage of women faculty: Faculty turnover is slow, and at least in philosophy the evidence suggests a slow increase over the decades, rather than a knuckle. (Data are sparser and less reliable on this issue, but see here, here and here.) There also wasn't much change in the 2010s in the percentage of women earning Philosophy PhDs in the U.S.

A modeling hypothesis would suggest that change in the percentage of women philosophy majors is driven by a change in the percentage of women faculty and TAs in Philosophy. In contrast, a pipeline hypothesis predicts that change in the percentage of women philosophy majors leads to a change in the percentage of women graduate students and (years later) faculty. Both hypotheses posit a relationship between women undergraduates and women instructors, but with different directions of causation. (The hypotheses aren't, of course, incompatible: Causation might flow both ways.) At least in Philosophy, the modeling hypothesis doesn't seem to explain the 2017 Knuckle. Concerning the pipeline, it's too early to tell, but when the NSF releases their data on doctorates in October, I'll look for preliminary signs.

I'm also inclined to think -- though I'm certainly open to evidence -- that feminism has been slowly, steadily increasing in U.S. culture, rather than being more or less flat since the late 1980s and recently increasing again. So a general cultural increase in feminist attitudes wouldn't specifically explain the 2017 Knuckle. Now it is true that 2015-2017 saw the rise of Trump, and the backlash against Trump, as well as the explosion of the #MeToo movement. Maybe that's important? It would be pretty remarkable if those cultural events had a substantial effect on the percentage of women undergraduates declaring Philosophy, Economics, Physics, and Engineering majors.

Further thoughts? What explains the 2017 Knuckle?

It could be interesting to look at other countries, and at race/ethnicity data, and at majors that tend to be disproporately women -- patterns there could potentially cast light on the effect -- but enough for today.


Methodological notes: NCES IPEDS attempts to collect data on every graduating student in accredited Bachelor's programs in the U.S., using administrator-supplied statistics. Gender categories are binary "men" and "women" with no unclassified students. Data are limited to "U.S. only" institutions in classification category 38.01 ("Philosophy") and include both first and second majors back through 2001. Before 2001, only first majors are available. Each year includes all graduates during the academic year ending in that year (e.g., 2022 includes all students from the 2021-2022 academic year). For engineering and physical sciences, I used major catories 15, 16, and 40; and for Economics, 45.06.

Friday, September 15, 2023

Walking the Walk: Frankness and Social Proof

My last two posts have concerned the extent to which ethicists should "walk the walk" -- that is, live according to, or at least attempt to live according to, the ethical principles they espouse in their writing and teaching. According to "Schelerian separation", what ethicists say or write can and should be evaluated independently of facts about the ethicist's personal life. While there are some good reasons to favor Schelerian separation, I argued last week that ethical slogans ("act on that maxim you can at the same time will to be a universal law", "maximize utility") will tend to lack specific, determinate content without a context of clarifying examples. One's own life can be a rich source of content-determining examples, while armchair reflection on examples tends to be impoverished.

Today, I'll discuss two more advantages of walking the walk.

[a Dall-E render of "walking the walk"]

Frankness and Belief

Consider scientific research. Scientists don't always believe their own conclusions. They might regard their conclusions as tentative, the best working model, or just a view with enough merit to be worth exploring. But if they have doubt, they ought to be unsurprised if their readers also have doubt. Conversely, if a reader learns that a scientist has substantial doubts about their own conclusions, it's reasonable for the reader to wonder why, to expect that the scientist is probably responding to limitations in their own methods and gaps in their own reasoning that might be invisible to non-experts.

Imagine reading a scientific article, finding the conclusion wholly convincing, and then learning that the scientist who wrote the article thinks the conclusion is probably not correct. Absent some unusual explanation, you’ll probably want to temper your belief. You’ll want to know why the scientist is hesitating, what weaknesses and potential objections they might be seeing that you have missed. It’s possible that the scientist is simply irrationally unconvinced by their own compelling reasoning; but that’s presumably not the normal case. Arguably, readers of scientific articles are owed, and reasonably expect, scientific frankness. Scientists who are not fully convinced by their results should explain the limitations that cause them to hesitate. (See also Wesley Buckwalter on the "belief norm of academic publishing".)

Something similar is true in ethics. If Max Scheler paints a picture of a beautiful, ethical, religious way of life which he personally scorns, it's reasonable for the reader to wonder why he scorns it, what flaws he sees that you might not notice in your first read-through. If he hasn't actually tried to live that way, why not? If he has tried, but failed, why did he fail? If a professional ethicist argues that ethically, and all things considered, one should be a vegetarian, but isn't themselves a vegetarian and has no special medical or other excuse, it's reasonable for readers and students to wonder why not and to withhold belief until that question is resolved. People are not usually baldly irrational. It's reasonable to suppose that there's some thinking behind their choice, which they have not yet revealed readers and students, which tempers or undercuts their reasoning.

As Nomy Arpaly has emphasized in some of her work, our gut inclinations are sometimes wiser than our intellectual affirmations. The student who says to herself that she should be in graduate school, that academics is the career for her, but who procrastinates, self-sabotages, and hates her work – maybe the part of her that is resisting the career is the wiser part. When Huck Finn tells himself that the right thing to do is to turn in his friend, the runaway slave Jim, but can't bring himself to do it – again, his inclinations might be wiser than his explicit reasoning.

If an ethicist's intellectual arguments aren't penetrating through to their behavior, maybe there's a good reason. If you can't, or don't, live what you intellectually endorse, it could be because your intellectual reasoning is leaving something important out that the less intellectual parts of you rightly refuse to abandon. Frankness with readers enables them to consider this possibility. Conversely, if we see someone who reasons to a certain ethical conclusion, and their reasoning seems solid, and then they consistently live that way without tearing themselves apart with ambivalence, we have less grounds for suspecting that their gut might be wisely fighting against flaws their academic reasoning than we do when we see someone who doesn’t walk the walk.

What is it to believe that eating meat is morally wrong (or any other ethical proposition)? I favor a dispositionalist approach (e.g., here, here, here). It is in part to be disposed to say and intellectually judge that eating meat is morally wrong. But more than that, it is to give weight to the avoidance of meat in your ethical decision-making. It is to be disposed to feel you have done something wrong if you eat meat for insufficient reason, maybe feeling guilt or shame. It is to feel moral approval and disapproval of others' meat-avoiding or meat-eating choices. If an ethicist intellectually affirms the soundness of arguments for vegetarianism but lacks the rest of this dispositional structure, then (on the dispositionalist view I favor) they don't fully or determinately believe that eating meat is ethically wrong. Their intellectually endorsed positions don't accurately reflect their actual beliefs and values. This completes the analogy with the scientist who doesn't believe their own conclusions.

Social Proof

Somewhat differently, an ethicist's own life can serve as a kind of social proof. Look: This set of norms is livable – maybe appealing so, with integrity. Things don't fall apart. There's an implementable vision, which other people could also follow. Figures like Confucius, Buddha, and Jesus were inspiring in part because they showed what their slogans amounted to in practice, in part because they showed that real people could live in something like the way they themselves lived, and in part because they also showed how practically embodying the ethics they espoused could be attractive and fulfilling, at least to certain groups of people.

Ethical Reasons to Walk the Walk?

I haven't yet discussed ethical reasons for walking the walk. So far, the focus has been epistemology, philosophy of language, and philosophy of mind. However, arguing in favor of certain ethical norms appears to involve recommending that others adhere to those norms, or at least be partly motivated by those norms. Making such a recommendation while personally eschewing those same norms plausibly constitutes a failure of fairness, equity, or universalization – the same sort of thing that rightly annoys children when their parents or teachers say "do as I say, not as I do". More on this, I hope, another day.

Friday, September 08, 2023

One Reason to Walk the Walk: To Give Specific Content to Your Assertions

Last week, I discussed some reasons we might not expect or want professional ethicists to "walk the walk" in the sense of living by the ethical norms they espouse in their teaching and research. (In short: This isn't their professional obligation; it's reasonable for them to trust convention more than their academic conclusions; and one can arguably be more objective in evaluating arguments if one isn't obligated to modify one's life depending on those conclusions.) Today I want to start talking about why I think that's too simple.

To be clear: I just want to start talking about it. I'll give one reason why I think there's some benefit to walking the walk, as an ethicist. I don't intend this as a full account.

Short version: Ethical slogans lack concrete, practical meaning unless they are grounded in a range of examples. One's own life can provide that range of examples, putting flesh on the blood or your slogans. If you say "act on that maxim that you can at the same time will to be a universal law", I have no idea what you are specifically recommending -- and I worry that you might not have much idea either. But if you put it to work in your life, then what it amounts to, at least as expressed by you, becomes much clearer.

Longer version:

Love Is Love, and Slogans Require a Context

A few years ago, signs like this began to sprout up in my neighborhood:

In this house, we believe:
Black lives matter
Women’s rights are human rights
No human is illegal
Science is real
Love is love
Kindness is everything

If you know the U.S. political scene, you'll understand that the first five of these slogans have meanings much more specific than is evident from the surface content alone. "Black lives matter" conveys a belief that great racial injustice still exists in the U.S., perpetrated especially by the police, and it recommends taking action to rectify that injustice. "Women's rights are human rights" conveys a similar belief about continuing gender inequality, especially with respect to reproductive rights, including access to abortion. "No human is illegal" expresses concern over the mistreatment of people who have entered the U.S. without legal permission. "Science is real" expresses disdain for mainstream Republicans' dismissal of scientific evidence in policy, especially concerning climate change. And "love is love" expresses the view that heterosexual romantic relationships should not be privileged above homosexual romantic relationships, especially with regard to the rights of marriage. "Kindness is everything" is also interesting, and I'll get to it in a moment.

How confusing and opaque all of this would be to an outsider! Imagine a time traveler from the 19th century. "Love is love". Well, of course! Isn't that just a tautology? Who could disagree? Explain the details, however, and our 19th century guest might well disagree. The content of this slogan, or "belief", is radically underspecified by the explicit linguistic content. Another feature of these claims is that they sound less controversial in the abstract than they do after contextual specification. The surface content of both "Black lives matter" and the opposing rallying cry, "all lives matter" is unobjectionable. However, whether special attention should be dedicated to anti-Black police violence, or whether instead pro-Black protesters have gone too far -- that's quite another matter.

The last slogan, "kindness is everything", is to my knowledge less politically specific, but it illustrates a connected point. Clearly, it expresses support for increasing kindness. But kindness isn't literally everything, certainly not ontologically, nor even morally, unless something extremely thin is meant by "kindness". If a philosopher were to espouse this slogan, I'd immediately want to work through examples with them, to assess what this claim amounts to. If I give an underperforming student the C-minus they deserve instead of the A they want, am I being kind to them, in the intended sense? How about if I object to someone's stepping on my toe? Of course, these sketchy questions lack detail, since there are many ways to step on someone's toe, and many ways to object, and many different circumstances in which toe-stepping might be embedded, and not all C-minus situations are the same. Working through abstract examples, though, at least gets us started on what counts as "kindness" and what priority it should have when it appears to conflict with other goods.

But here's what would really make the slogan clear: a life lived in kindness -- an observable pattern of reactions to a wide range of complex situations. How does the person who embodies the slogan "kindness is everything" react to having their toe stepped on, in this particular way by this particular person? Show me specific kindness-related situations over and over, with all the variation that life brings. Only then will I really understand the ideal. We can do this sometimes in imagination, developing a feel for someone's character and way of life. In a richly imagined fiction, or in a set of stories about Confucius or Jesus or some other sage, we can begin to see the substance of a moral view and set of values, going beyond the slogans.

In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, patriot, revolutionary, and slaveowner, wrote "All men are created equal". This sounds good. People in the U.S. endorse that slogan, repeat it, embrace it in all sincerity. What does it mean? All "men" in the old-fashioned sense that supposedly also included women, or really only men? Black and cognitively disabled people too? And in what does equality consist? Does it mean that all adults should have the right to vote? Equal treatment before the law? Certain rights and liberties? What is the function of "created" in the sentence? Do we start equal but diverge? We could try to answer all these questions, and new more specific questions would spring forth, hydra-like (which laws specifically, under which conditions?) until we tack it down in a range of examples. The framers of the U.S. Constitution certainly didn't agree on all of these matters, especially the question of slavery. They could agree on the slogan while disagreeing radically about what it amounts to, because the slogan is neither "self-evident" nor determinate in its content. In one precisification, it might be only some banal thing even King George III would have accepted. In another precisification, it might entail universal franchise and the immediate abolition of slavery, in which case Jefferson himself would have rejected it.

Kant famously disdained casuistry -- the study of ethics through the examination of cases -- and it's understandable why. When he took steps in that direction, he embarrassed himself. You should not lie even to the murderer at the door chasing down your friend. Masturbation is a horror akin to murdering yourself, only less courageous. It's fine to kill children born out of wedlock. Women fleeing from abusive husbands should be returned against their will. Servants should not be permitted to vote because their "existence, as it were, is only inherence". Kant preferred beautiful abstractions: Act on that maxim that you can at the same time will to be a universal law. Treat everyone as an end in themselves, never as a mere means. Sympathetic scholars can accept these beautiful abstractions and ignore Kant's foolish treatment of cases. If they work through the cases themselves, reaching different judgments than Kant himself did, they put flesh on the view -- but not the flesh that was originally there. They've converted a vague slogan into a more concrete position. As with "all mean are created equal", this can be done in many ways.

So as not to poke only at Kant, similar considerations apply to consequentialist mottoes like "maximize utility" and virtue ethicist mottoes like "be generous". Only when we work through involuntary organ donor cases, and animal cases, and what to do about people who derive joy from others' suffering, and what kinds of things count as utility, and what to do about uncertainty, and what to do about future people, etc., do we have a real consequentialist view instead of an abstract skeleton. It would be nice to see a breathing example of a consequentialist life -- a consequentialist sage, so to speak, who lives thoroughly by consequentialist principles (maybe the ancient Chinese philosopher Mozi was one; see also MacFarquhar 2015). Might that person look like a Silicon Valley effective altruist, investing a huge salary wisely in index funds in expectation of donating it someday for the purchase of a continent's worth of mosquito nets? Or will they rush off immediately to give medical aid to the poor? Will they never eat desserts, or are those seeming-luxuries needed to keep their spirits up to do other good work? Will they pay for their children's college? Will they donate a kidney? An eye? What specific considerations do they appeal to, pro and con, and how much does it depend on which particulars? The more specific, the more we move from a diffuse slogan to determinate advice.

The Power of Walking the Walk: Discovering the Specifics.

One great advantage of walking the walk, then, is that it gives your slogans specificity. Nothing is more concrete than particular responses to particular cases. Kant never married. (He had a long relationship with a valet, but I'll assume that's a rather different thing.) If Kant says, "don't deceive your spouse", well, I'm not sure he really ever confronted the reality of it or worked through the cases. On the other hand, if your father-in-law, happily married for sixty-plus years, says "don't deceive your spouse", that's quite different. He'll have lived through a wide range of cases, with a well-developed sense of what the boundaries of honesty are and how to manifest it -- what exceptions there might be, what omissions and vaguenesses cross the boundary into unacceptable dishonesty, how much frankness is really required, how to weigh honesty against other goods. This background of long marriage provides context for him to really mean something quite specific when he says "don't deceive your spouse". I might not understand immediately what he means -- those words could mean so many different things coming from different mouths -- but I can look to his life as an example, and I can trust that he has grappled with a wide range of difficult cases, which ideally we could talk through. His words manifest a depth that will normally be absent from similar advice from an unmarried person.

Ethics can be abstract. Kant was, perhaps, a great abstract ethicist. But if you don't apply your ethics to real cases, over and over, if you deal only in slogans and abstractions and a few tidy paragraph-long thought experiments, then your ethics is spectral, or at best skeletal. It will be very difficult to know what it amounts to -- just as, I've argued, we don't really know what "act on that maxim you can at the same time will to be a universal law" amounts to, without thinking through the cases. Maybe in private study you work through ten times as many cases as you publish in your articles or present in the classroom. But that's still a tiny fraction of the cases that someone will confront who attempts to actually live by a broad-reaching ethical principle; and what you privately imagine -- forgive me -- will probably be simplistic compared to the messiness of daily life. Contrast this with Martin Luther King's ethics of non-violent political activism or Confucius's ethics of duty and propriety. We who never met them can only get a glimpse of what their fully embodied principles must have been, as enacted in their lives. My point is not that they were saints. King, and presumably Confucius, were flawed characters. But when King endorsed non-violent activism as a means of political change and when Confucius said "do not speak unless it is in accord with ritual; do not move unless it is in accord with ritual" (5th c. BCE/2023, §12.1, p. 33), they had confronted many real cases and so must have had a much fuller grasp of the substance behind these slogans than it is realistic to expect anyone to obtain simply from reading and reflection.

The ethicist who does not attempt to live by their principles -- if they are principles that can be lived by and not, for example, reflections about what to do simply in certain rare or remote cases -- thus abandons the best tool they have for repeatedly confronting the practicalities, the limits, the conflicts, the disambiguations, which force them to work out the specific, determinate content of the principles they endorse.

Now there is a sense in which a view could have a very specific, determinate content, even if we don't know what that content is. Consider simple act utilitarianism, according to which we should do what maximizes the total sum of pleasure minus the total sum of pain. Arguably, each time you act, there is a single specific act you could do which would be right according to this view -- though also, arguably, it is impossible to know what this act is, since every act has numerous, long-running, and complicated consequences. In a way, the principle has specific content: exactly act A is correct and no other, though who knows what act A is? However, this is not specific, determinate content in the sense that I mean. To have a livable ethical system, the act utilitarian needs to develop estimates, guesses, more specific principles and policies; and different act utilitarians might approach that problem very differently. It is these actionable specifics that constitute the practical substance of the ethical view.

The hard work of trying to live out your ethical values -- that's how ordinary mortals discover the substance of their principles. Otherwise, they risk being as indeterminate as the slogan "love is love" removed from its political context.



"Does It Matter if Ethicists Walk the Walk?" (Sep 1, 2023)

"Love Is Love, and Slogans Require a Context of Examples" (Mar 13, 2021)

Friday, September 01, 2023

Does It Matter If Ethicists Walk the Walk?

The Question: What's Wrong with Scheler?

There's a story about Max Scheler, the famous early 20th century Catholic German ethicist. Scheler was known for his inspiring moral and religious reflections. He was also known for his horrible personal behavior, including multiple predatory sexual affairs with students, sufficiently serious that he was banned from teaching in Germany. When a distressed admirer asked about the apparent discrepancy, Scheler was reportedly untroubled, replying, "The sign that points to Boston doesn't have to go there."

[image modified from here and here]

That seems like a disappointing answer! Of course it's disappointing when anyone behaves badly. But it seems especially bad when an ethical thinker goes astray. If a great chemist turns out to be a greedy embezzler, that doesn't appear to reflect much on the value of their chemical research. But when a great ethicist turns out to be a greedy embezzler, something deeper seems to have gone wrong. Or so you might think -- and so I do actually think -- though today I'm going to consider the opposite view. I'll consider reasons to favor what I'll call Schelerian separation between an ethicist's teaching or writing and their personal behavior.

Hypocrisy and the Cheeseburger Ethicist

A natural first thought is hypocrisy. Scheler was, perhaps, a hypocrite, surreptitiously violating moral standards that he publicly espoused -- posing through his writings as a person of great moral concern and integrity, while revealing through his actions that he was no such thing. To see that this isn't the core issue, consider the following case:

Cheeseburger Ethicist. Diane is a philosophy professor specializing in ethics. She regularly teaches Peter Singer's arguments for vegetarianism to her lower-division students. In class, she asserts that Singer's arguments are sound and that vegetarianism is morally required. She openly emphasizes, however, that she herself is not personally a vegetarian. Although in her judgment, vegetarianism is morally required, she chooses to eat meat. She affirms in no uncertain terms that vegetarianism is not ethically optional, then announces that after class she'll go to the campus cafeteria for a delicious cheeseburger.

Diane isn't a hypocrite, at least not straightforwardly so. We might imagine a version of Scheler, too, who was entirely open about his failure to abide by his own teachings, so that no reader would be misled.

Non-Overridingness Is Only Part of the Issue

There's a well-known debate about whether ethical norms are "overriding". If an action is ethically required, does that imply that it is required full stop, all things considered? Or can we sometimes reasonably say, "although ethics requires X, all things considered it's better not to do X"? We might imagine Diane concluding her lesson "-- and thus ethics requires that we stop eating meat. So much the worse for ethics! Let's all go enjoy some cheeseburgers!" We might imagine Scheler adding a preface: "if you want to be ethical and full of good religious spirit, this book gives you some excellent advice; but for myself, I'd rather laugh with the sinners."

Those are interesting cases to consider, but they're not my target cases. We can also imagine Diane and Scheler saying, apparently sincerely, all things considered, you and I should follow their ethical recommendations. We can imagine them holding, or seeming to hold, at least intellectually, that such-and-such really is the best thing to do overall, and yet simply not doing it themselves.

The Aim of Academic Ethics and Some Considerations Favoring Schelerian Separation

Scheler and Diane might defend themselves plausibly as follows: The job of an ethics professor is to evaluate ethical views and ethical arguments, producing research articles and educating students in the ideas of the discipline. In this respect, ethics is no different from other academic disciplines. Chemists, Shakespeare scholars, metphysicians -- what we expect is that they master an area of intellectual inquiry, teach it, contribute to it. We don't demand that they also live a certain way. Ethicists are supposed to be scholars, not saints.

Thus, ethicists succeed without qualification if they find sound arguments for interesting ethical conclusions, which they teach to their students and publish as research, engaging capably in this intellectual endeavor. How they live their lives matters to their conclusions as little as it matters how research chemists live their lives. We should judge Scheler's ethical writings by their merit as writings. His life needn't come into it. He can point the way to Boston while hightailing it to Philadephia.

On the other hand, Aristotle famously suggested that the aim of studying ethics "is not, as... in other inquiries, the attainment of theoretical knowledge" but "to become good" (4th c. BCE/1962, 1103b, p. 35). Many philosophers have agreed with Aristotle, for example, the ancient Stoics and Confucians (Hadot 1995; Ivanhoe 2000). We study ethics -- at least some of us do -- at least in part because we want to become better people.

Does this seem quaint and naive in a modern university context? Maybe. People can approach academic ethics with different aims. Some might be drawn primarily by the intellectual challenge. Others might mainly be interested in uncovering principles with which they can critique others.

Those who favor a primarily intellectualistic approach to ethics might even justifiably mistrust their academic ethical thinking -- sufficiently so that they intentionally quarantine it from everyday life. If common sense and tradition are a more reasonable guide to life than academic ethics, good policy might require not letting your perhaps weird and radical ethical conclusions change how you treat the people around you. Radical utilitarian consequentialist in the classroom, conventional friend and husband at home. Nihilistic anti-natalist in the journals, loving mother of three at home. Thank goodness.

If there's no expectation that ethicists live according to the norms they espouse, that also frees them to explore radical ideas which might be true but which might require great sacrifice or be hard to live by. If I accept Schelerian separation, I can conclude that property is theft or that it's unethical to enjoy any luxuries without thereby feeling that I have any special obligation to sacrifice my minivan or my children's college education fund. If my children's college fund really were at stake, I would be highly motivated to avoid the conclusion that I am ethically required to sacrifice it. That fact would likely bias my reasoning. If ethics is treated more like an intellectual game, divorced from my practical life, then I can follow the moves where they take me without worrying that I'll need to sacrifice anything at the end. A policy of Schelerian separation might then generate better academic discourse in which researchers are unafraid to follow their thinking to whatever radical conclusions it leads them.

Undergraduates are often curious whether Peter Singer personally lives as a vegan and personally donates almost all of his presumably large salary to charitable causes, as his ethical views require. But Singer's academic critics focus on his arguments, not his personal life. It would perhaps be a little strange if Singer were a double-bacon-cheeseburger-eating Maserati driver draped in gold and diamond bling; but from a purely argumentative perspective such personal habits seem irrelevant. The Singer Principle stands or falls on its own merits, regardless of how well or poorly Peter Singer himself embodies it.

So there's a case to be made for Schelerian separation -- the view that academic ethics and personal life are and should be entirely distinct matters, and in particular that if an ethicist does not live according to the norms they espouse in their academic work, that is irrelevant to the assessment of their work. I feel the pull of this idea. There's substantial truth in it, I suspect. However, in a future post I'll discuss why I think this is too simple. (Meanwhile, reader comments -- whether on this post, by email, or on linked social media -- are certainly welcome!)


Follow-up post:

"One Reason to Walk the Walk: To Give Specific Content to Your Assertions" (Sep 8, 2023)