Should Ethicists Be Held to a Higher Moral Standard?

Yes.

There, that was easy. But apparently not all academic ethicists think this is true. Eric Schwitzgebel of UC Riverside at The Splintered Mind (a mind laying in splinters would be a “mindfield,” no?) wrote on this question earlier this week, and it deserves a look:

Josh Rust and I have found, for example, that although U.S.-based ethicists are much more likely than other professors to say it’s bad to regularly eat the meat of mammals (60% say it is bad, vs. 45% of non-ethicist philosophers and only 19% of professors outside of philosophy), they are no less likely to report having eaten the meat of a mammal at their previous evening meal (37%, in our study, vs. 33% of non-ethicist philosophers and 45% of non-philosophers; details here and also in the previously linked paper).

Talk about not walking the talk. No wonder academic ethics seems so confused to outsiders – if you don’t actually have to do what you tell other people to do (if you even think ethics involves that sort of thing) then you can say just about anything you want. Who cares, you are not going to actually do it.

For this reason, people have known for a long time that if you want to know what a person really thinks, you look to how people actually behave (“actions speak louder than words”) rather than to what they say. What they do will show what they really think is good.

But surely the ethicists in question would not agree that they are hypocrites – philosophers can rationalize much better than most, after all. Here is Schwitzgebel’s scenario of what a hypothetical academic ethicist might say when asked why they do not practice their theoretically-higher standards:

But my role as a philosopher is only to discuss philosophical issues, to present and evaluate philosophical views and arguments, not to live accordingly. Indeed, it would be unfair to expect me to live to higher moral standards just because I am an ethicist. I am paid to teach and write, like my colleagues in other fields; it would be an additional burden on me, not placed on them, to demand that I also live my life as a model. Furthermore, the demand that ethicists live as moral models would create distortive pressures on the field that might tend to lead us away from the moral truth. If I feel no inward or outward pressure to live according to my publicly espoused doctrines, then I am free to explore doctrines that demand high levels of self-sacrifice on an equal footing with more permissive doctrines. If instead I felt an obligation to live as I teach, I would be highly motivated to avoid concluding that wealthy people should give most of their money to charity or that I should never lie out of self-interest. The world is better served if the intellectual discourse of moral philosophy is undistorted by such pressures, that is, if ethicists are not expected to live out their moral opinions. Such a view of the role of the philosopher is very different from the view of most ancient ethicists.

Indeed, Aristotle grounds his Nicomachean Ethics with the idea that the point of studying ethics is to become good, and in so doing become a virtuous, flourishing, fulfilled, happy human being.

Because really, what other point could there be? Become a famous philosopher? Ha! Well, less flippantly, finding “The Truth” might be another point, and the truth might not actually make you so happy, one might retort, but you can bet that if I figured out “The Truth,” I’d be happy since I’d just accomplished a pretty big thing.

Ethics is the study of action with respect to the good for humans, which is happiness. Once you figure that out, shouldn’t you have some practically useful insights from it? Shouldn’t you want to become a more excellent, happier human being (whatever that means to you) if you think you have that figured out?

Because if you say you have it figured out and then you don’t do it, you don’t bother to try, then, it seems like you don’t actually think it is good. That your theories won’t make you a better person, that they won’t make you happier. You say one thing and live another.

And if you say one thing and consciously do another… I start to scowl.

But I can’t say I am surprised. Many contemporary academic ethicists just don’t think ethics is about becoming a good person. That is a very ancient strand of ethics, and no longer popular.

Aristotelians and Thomists are exceptions to this. I would be interested in knowing whether they also fall into this theory/practice trap, or whether it is more the Kantians and/or utilitarians. Also I wonder if religion would have any effect.  I’m not saying I expect it would, but I hope would. After all, at least in Christianity, hypocrisy gets called out by the Big Guy himself. And if Christians can’t produce academic ethicists who think it worthy at least to try (actually doing it has always proven difficult) to follow their own standards then it starts to look a bit like they don’t believe at all. And that is scandalous.

In any case, this is terrific research and I appreciate The Splintered Mind for bringing it to light. Good job guys.

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2 responses to “Should Ethicists Be Held to a Higher Moral Standard?

  • Are religious and secular ethicists climbing the same mountain « Stepping Toes

    […] Should Ethicists Be Held to a Higher Moral Standard? (moralmindfield.wordpress.com) if you don’t actually have to do what you tell other people to do (if you even think ethics involves that sort of thing) then you can say just about anything you want. Who cares, you are not going to actually do it. + For this reason, people have known for a long time that if you want to know what a person really thinks, you look to how people actually behave (“actions speak louder than words”) rather than to what they say. What they do will show what they really think is good. + Ethics is the study of action with respect to the good for humans, which is happiness. Once you figure that out, shouldn’t you have some practically useful insights from it? Shouldn’t you want to become a more excellent, happier human being (whatever that means to you) if you think you have that figured out? + if Christians can’t produce academic ethicists who think it worthy at least to try (actually doing it has always proven difficult) to follow their own standards then it starts to look a bit like they don’t believe at all. […]

  • Why Think There Is a God? (3): Why Is It Wrong? | Stepping Toes

    […] Should Ethicists Be Held to a Higher Moral Standard? […]

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