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.


D.O'Donovan. said...

Thank you. I enjoyed this post.

Arnold said...

That ethos, pathos, logos, ethics, morals are persuasions for hope...
...into learning, walking the walk, stumbling remembering walking the walk...