Eric Schwitzgebel: What Good is the Study of Ethics if it Doesn’t Make Us More Ethical?

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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.

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“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.’

[Read the full text of Eric Schwitzgebel’s article here, at Aeon]

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.51enhSs2nlL._SL250_

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?

[Order Eric Schwitzgebel’s book “Perplexities of Consciousness” (Life and Mind: Philosophical Issues in Biology and Psychology) from Amazon.com]

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.

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“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.

Photo by Hussein Malla/AP

“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 Christ_Icon_Sinai_6th_century
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. Read the rest of this entry »


In Praise of the Dying Art of Civil Disagreement

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Carl R. Trueman writes: I spent the first half of last week at a seminar at an Ivy League divinity school, where a friend and I gave a presentation on ministry and media. I had resolved before speaking that I would refer early on in my presentation to the fact that I belong to a denomination which does not ordain women. My discussion of ministry would be incomplete if I didn’t mention this subject, though I knew my comment would draw fire at a seminar with ordained women present.

“If we no longer have a university system which models ways of civil engagement on such matters, then the kind of civic virtues upon which a healthy democracy depends are truly a thing of the past.”

Sure enough, one of the women ministers present challenged me with some vigor on my position. For a few minutes we exchanged trenchant but civil remarks on the subject.We each spoke our minds, neither persuaded the other, and then we moved on to the larger matter in hand: The use of modern media in the church. The matter of my opposition to women’s ordination never came up again in the remaining two days of the seminar.

[Read the full text here, at First Things]

Later that evening, a young research student commented to me that it was amazing to see such a trenchant but respectful disagreement on an issue that typically arouses visceral passions. He added that he and those of his generation had “no idea” (his phrase, if I recall) how such things should be done. Later in the week, my youngest son confirmed that he too had never seen civil disagreement on a matter of importance in the university classroom. This is an ominous, if fascinating, indictment, for I had simply done what I had seen modeled when I was an undergraduate: Vigorous disagreement in the classroom followed by friendly conversation in the pub. Read the rest of this entry »


[VIDEO] Violating Taboos on LIVE Television: Louis CK’s SNL Opening Monologue

‘Louis CK’s SNL Opening Monologue Was Awesomely Offensive’

editor-commen-deskIn a late-night post involving Louis CK, and Mollie Hemingway, we find ourselves in familiar territory. Testing the limits of good taste, defending freedom of expression, and witnessing fallout from violating powerful social taboos. In the current edition of The Federalist, it’s gratifying to see one of my favorite media writers stand up for one of my favorite comedians. As we see in the video above, Louis CK goes where few comedians would dare to tread.

“It was actually quite disgusting and completely offensive. I can not possibly characterize how tasteless it was. It was also hilarious.”

— Mollie Hemingway

If you’ve ever heard Louis C.K. talk about SNL preparation–as I did recently, listening to a recent radio an interview–you know he seeks out difficult audiences rather than easy ones. He described testing his SNL monologue material in unfavorable environments, on disinterested audiences, intentionally, in order to find weaknesses in the material, and win over tough crowds.

Unlike his usual hip New York audiences, he discovered, SNL audience are comprised mostly of non-New Yorkers. Tourists, regular folks from the heartland. Edgy material he might normally do doesn’t necessarily connect here. After one disappointing performance on SNL, he worked harder at it the next time—testing, calibrating, rehearsing more. And coming better prepared, in his subsequent appearance, he succeeded. (it’s a good interview, if I find the audio clip or transcript of it, I’ll link it) Which is why his recent appearance on SNL surprised me. Because even if the now-infamous controversial material seemed risky, or misguided, you can be sure that the choices made were not arrived at casually.

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Likewise for Lorne Michaels. SNL is shot live, the material is vetted in advance. I can’t imagine anything was performed that wasn’t approved. (or at least not disapproved) Knowing Louis C.K.’s work habits (more disciplined than they appear) it’s likely that he rehearsed his monologue for weeks, in front of difficult audiences, in different settings. And then, on live TV, Louis said exactly what he wanted to say. Knowing the risks. Expecting to offend people. But reasonably confident that it was funny. 

When asked, in the interview, about his willingness to make people uncomfortable, referring to his frequent run-ins with authority figures in childhood, Louis C.K. said, “I’m used to getting in trouble”. It doesn’t bother him, the experience of being in trouble. He’s often talked about the challenge, and joy, of taking audiences to uneasy places, to explore what’s there, and find what’s funny about it.

To me, this is classic Louis C.K. There’s something about his frankness, sincerity, and delivery, that allows him to get away with things other comics would get crucified for. There’s more here than meets the eye.

In I’ve Seen The Future. It’s Comedy SpeakeasiesHemingway writes:

The social justice warriors are creating a culture where comedians can’t make most jokes about race, sex, sexual choices, or any of the things that used to be staples of the comedy circuit. One joke in a stand-up set bombs for being over the line and the social media mobs come forth with pitchforks and your career is over or your comedy is seriously proscribed. It’s a free country, though, which means, in these cases, that if a bunch of coddled children can’t handle transgressive comedy without losing their minds, they can make life for a comic a living hell. Just because you’re trying something out in an intimate setting with a particular group of people doesn’t keep them from blasting it on the internet for a global audience that couldn’t possibly understand what you were going for. Comedians such as Chris Rock say it’s just not fun any more….(more)

Photo By Dan Nguyen @ New York City

Photo By Dan Nguyen @ New York City

“It’s a free country, though, which means, in these cases, that if a bunch of coddled children can’t handle transgressive comedy without losing their minds, they can make life for a comic a living hell.” 

— Mollie Hemingway

While not exactly endorsing the content of Louis C.K.’s queasy monologue, The Federalist‘s Mollie Hemingway defends it, describing it as “refreshing — and ballsy”, and links to an earlier article discussing the necessity of tolerance. Comedy will suffer if comics are threatened and stop taking risks. Enforcing current PC-orthodoxy with online shaming campaigns, social justice warriors provoke and exploit social media hysteria to keep violators in line. Thus, the idea of Comedy Speakeasies.

The problem with comedy is that people can share what happens in the club with anyone in the world. In the future, when comedy speakeasies are the only way for people to hear transgressive jokes about race and sex, people will have to have the password. But they’ll also have to be patted down for recording equipment. No phones. No audio recorders. No pens and pads. Any recitation of the bits will be fully denied…

In her current column, Mollie continues…

…Louis CK knew he’d be met with social justice warrior outrage — and he was — and he went ahead with the monologue anyway. Not in a speakeasy but on network television. No trigger warnings. No concerns about punching all the way down

Read more of MZHemingway’s comments here, and also read I’ve Seen The Future. It’s Comedy Speakeasies.