Eric Schwitzgebel: What Good is the Study of Ethics if it Doesn’t Make Us More Ethical?Posted: July 14, 2015
Are professional ethicists good people? According to our research, not especially. So what is the point of learning ethics?
Eric Schwitzgebel writes: None of the classic questions of philosophy are beyond a seven-year-old’s understanding. If God exists, why do bad things happen? How do you know there’s still a world on the other side of that closed door? Are we just made of material stuff that will turn into mud when we die? If you could get away with killing and robbing people just for fun, would you? The questions are natural. It’s the answers that are hard.
“Shouldn’t regularly thinking about ethics have some sort of influence on one’s own behaviour? Doesn’t it seem that it would? To my surprise, few professional ethicists seem to have given the question much thought.”
Eight years ago, I’d just begun a series of empirical studies on the moral behaviour of professional ethicists. My son Davy, then seven years old, was in his booster seat in the back of my car. ‘What do you think, Davy?’ I asked. ‘People who think a lot about what’s fair and about being nice – do they behave any better than other people? Are they more likely to be fair? Are they more likely to be nice?’
Davy didn’t respond right away. I caught his eye in the rearview mirror.
“Ethicists do not behave better. But neither, overall, do they seem to behave worse.”
‘The kids who always talk about being fair and sharing,’ I recall him saying, ‘mostly just want you to be fair to them and share with them.’
When I meet an ethicist for the first time – by ‘ethicist’, I mean a professor of philosophy who specialises in teaching and researching ethics – it’s my habit to ask whether ethicists behave any differently to other types of professor. Most say no.
I’ll probe further: why not? Shouldn’t regularly thinking about ethics have some sort of influence on one’s own behaviour? Doesn’t it seem that it would?
To my surprise, few professional ethicists seem to have given the question much thought. They’ll toss out responses that strike me as flip or are easily rebutted, and then they’ll have little to add when asked to clarify. They’ll say that academic ethics is all about abstract problems and bizarre puzzle cases, with no bearing on day-to-day life – a claim easily shown to be false by a few examples: Aristotle on virtue, Kant on lying, Singer on charitable donation. They’ll say: ‘What, do you expect epistemologists to have more knowledge? Do you expect doctors to be less likely to smoke?’ I’ll reply that the empirical evidence does suggest that doctors are less likely to smoke than non-doctors of similar social and economic background. Maybe epistemologists don’t have more knowledge, but I’d hope that specialists in feminism would exhibit less sexist behaviour – and if they didn’t, that would be an interesting finding. I’ll suggest that relationships between professional specialisation and personal life might play out differently for different cases.
“We criticise Martin Heidegger for his Nazism, and we wonder how deeply connected his Nazism was to his other philosophical views. But we don’t feel the need to turn the mirror on ourselves.”
It seems odd to me that our profession has so little to say about this matter. We criticise Martin Heidegger for his Nazism, and we wonder how deeply connected his Nazism was to his other philosophical views. But we don’t feel the need to turn the mirror on ourselves.
“No clergyperson has ever expressed to me the view that clergy behave on average morally better than laypeople, despite all their immersion in religious teaching and ethical conversation. Maybe in part this is modesty on behalf of their profession.”
The same issues arise with clergy. In 2010, I was presenting some of my work at the Confucius Institute for Scotland. Afterward, I was approached by not one but two bishops. I asked them whether they
thought that clergy, on average, behaved better, the same or worse than laypeople.
‘About the same,’ said one.
‘Worse!’ said the other.
No clergyperson has ever expressed to me the view that clergy behave on average morally better than laypeople, despite all their immersion in religious teaching and ethical conversation. Maybe in part this is modesty on behalf of their profession. But in most of their voices, I also hear something that sounds like genuine disappointment, some remnant of the young adult who had headed off to seminary hoping it would be otherwise.
In a series of empirical studies – mostly in collaboration with the philosopher Joshua Rust of Stetson University – I have empirically explored the moral behaviour of ethics professors. As far as I’m aware, Josh and I are the only people ever to have done so in a systematic way.
Here are the measures we looked at: voting in public elections, calling one’s mother, eating the meat of mammals, donating to charity, littering, disruptive chatting and door-slamming during philosophy presentations, responding to student emails, attending conferences without paying registration fees, organ donation, blood donation, theft of library books, overall moral evaluation by one’s departmental peers based on personal impressions, honesty in responding to survey questions, and joining the Nazi party in 1930s Germany.
Obviously some of these measures are more significant than others. They range from comparative trivialities (littering) to substantial life decisions (joining the Nazis), and from contributions to strangers (blood donation) to personal interactions (calling Mom). Some of our measures rely on self-report (we didn’t ask ethicists’ mothers how long it had really been).
The majority, however, were directly observational or involved peer testimony or archival data. In several cases we had both self-reports and more objective data. For example, we were able to compare philosophers’ self-reported voting rates with state records showing whether and how often they had actually voted. We found no evidence that ethicists’ self-reports of their behaviour were either more or less accurate than other groups’ self-reports.
Ethicists do not appear to behave better. Never once have we found ethicists as a whole behaving better than our comparison groups of other professors, by any of our main planned measures. But neither, overall, do they seem to behave worse….(read more)
Eric Schwitzgebel is professor of philosophy at University of California, Riverside. He blogs at the Splintered Mind and his latest book is Perplexities of Consciousness (2011).
- 8-Bit Philosophy: Is Technology Killing Your Creativity? (Star Wars + Heidegger) (geeksaresexy.net)
- Can Moral Disputes Be Resolved? (opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com)
- Rules and Virtue (hebrewhutong.com)
- Dining philosophers (rosettacode.org)
- Nietzche vs. Socrates in the Greek crisis, but who will score? (Monty Python video) (en.protothema.gr)
- Hitler-Heidegger, December 9, 2006 (gloriamundiblog.wordpress.com)
- ‘8-Bit Philosophy’ Explores Whether Technology Kills Creativity (laughingsquid.com)