Saturday, October 5, 2013

Professors Behaving Badly

Over at Philosophy Bites, we get an interview with Eric Schwitzgebel about the ethical behavior of professors of moral philosophy. Surprising probably no one familiar with the state of academia, he finds that there is no evidence to think that ethicists behavior more ethically, by their own standards, than the general public.

This isn't surprising, but it is certainly disappointing. I often hope that much of the world's problems are just caused by confusion, and that if we could just get clearer on the ideas we're using, perhaps we could allay a lot of what ails us. Unfortunately, this study seems to suggest that even if people are clear on what the right thing to do is, they still might not do it.

One interesting tidbit: 60% of ethical philosophers think it's bad to "regularly eat the meat of mammals." About 45% of non-ethicist philosophers agreed, joined by only 19% of professors surveyed from all other departments. This should be quite shocking to most people, I think, given the ubiquity of animal consumption in our society. It shocks even me, despite the fact that I've repeatedly argued that there are just no good replies to the AMC and that I regard this argument as settled as a philosophical matter.

Of course most philosophers are not vegetarians, let alone vegans (a surprising number of very intelligent people ignore this distinction.) In fact, the study found that they were just as likely to have recently consumed the meat of mammals as the members of the other groups, despite disproportionately asserting that it was bad.

These results were consistent with results looking at other behaviors that ethicists are likelier to think are more important than others professors, such as voting or charitable donations. This indicates that ethicists are no more likely to be good people than other professors, but are more likely to be hypocritical in their espoused ethical opinions.

There are two ways to read this. On one reading, ethicists are worse morally than other professors, because they are more likely to do the acts that they either know, or falsely think, to be wrong. That is, they are more likely to do what is wrong from their own perspective. Alternatively, you could say that they are somewhat morally better than other professors (assuming their moral beliefs are correct) because even though their actions are not in line with moral truth, at least their beliefs are closer, and that counts for something.

In the interview, Eric Schwitzgebel gives a couple arguments in order to try and defend  the behavior of ethicists. First, he says, it might not be fair to expect ethics professors to both be experts in their field and to adhere to their moral beliefs, and he thinks this would be demanding a lot.

This is not persuasive. We expect all professors to follow moral guidelines, and they don't get a pass because they do a lot of work to become experts. It's hard to see how it's unfair to expect ethicists to do what they are morally required to do (from their own perspective). If they thought there was something unfair about being required to do it, how could they consistently think it is required?

A better argument he gives is that requiring ethicists to live by their own moral standards might have a distorting effect on their moral  views. Therefore, it's in the interest of having good moral philosophy to not demand philosophers to adhere to their own views.

While I think this is perhaps a good reason not to, for example, fire a moral philosopher for not living morally, it's hard for me to see how this policy implication has any moral force. Whether or not having such a policy has good or bad effects, this is no vindication for professors who are knowingly doing what they believe is wrong. They still ought to say to themselves "I understand why there's no policy to force me to act this way, but the reasons I have for thinking it's the right thing to do are exactly the same reasons I have for doing it."

In response to all this, Nigel Warbuton suggests that perhaps Neitzche was right when he suggested that moral philosophers simply rationalize justifications for their own behaviors, rather than reaching any moral truth. Schwitzgebel agrees, but this is completely backwards! What these studies show is that philosophers are very comfortable coming to moral conclusions that denounce their own actions as immoral. What better refutation of Nietzche could there be?

I wish there had been questions in the study about what meta-ethical beliefs the philosophers held. I would be very curious to know whether those who take a strongly realist view of morality were more likely to behave according to their own standards. 

There are also other really deep questions here, it seems to me, about what goes on when someone chooses to do what they think is wrong. What does that thought process look like, and how does it work? In fact, I think there's a good argument to be made that it's not possible to do what you think is wrong. More on that to come.
Image provided by Surachair /


  1. What do you mean by "a strongly realist view of morality"?

    I agree it seems pretty obvious that no one will (or should) care about my moral opinions if I do not practice what I preach. Hypocrisy, besides being repulsive, is simply a logical detriment to credibility. If a Pepsi sales rep carries Coke in her hand-bag for when she thinks no one's looking...that says a lot more about the two products than if the Coke rep was carrying a Coke, or a random person on the street (a limited analogy of course, since beverages are not philosophy, but still).

    I'm curious about when you say "I think there's a good argument to be made that it's not possible to do what you think is wrong." It seems like that would be a hard sell unless you get there by playing fast and loose with definitions. Or perhaps you mean to say that when we say one thing and do another, our actions prove that we don't *really* believe the things we say?

  2. Realism when it comes to morality can mean different things, depending on who you ask. I generally take it to be the belief that moral statements can have truth values, or that certain actions can be right or wrong. There are all other sorts of questions about the status of values and reasons, and which of these views are properly called "realist" is a matter of debate. But what I mean here is just that there are (at least some) correct answers to moral questions.

    I think I'd disagree about the Pepsi rep carrying a can of Coke--this doesn't necessarily tell us much about the two products generally. What it does tell us is that we might doubt the rep's purported belief in the superiority of her product.

    Which ties in nicely to your last question. In a way, both of the options you give are correct. I am playing a bit of a game of definitions, in particular about what it really means to believe something. However, I think my definition has some intuitive appeal, and I think it is revealing about how we should think of these matters.

    So consider the Pepsi sales rep. She tells us she believes Pepsi to be the superior product, but actually drinks Coke plenty. Given that she has financial incentives to say that Pepsi is superior, we would be justified in believing that these play a significant role in her purported position on the matter. Given her tendency to drink Coke, we might think this is more revealing of her true feeling on the matter.

    I can imagine, though, that she might believe her own lies. She might really think that Pepsi is superior, in some sense, but then every time she goes to purchase her own soft drinks she comes up with some reason why she should pick up Coke. It was on sale today, or its closer to the cash register, she wants to drink it to come up with some kind of negative review, etc. But we generally think that, despite what she might tell others, and despite what she might tell herself, if her pattern of behavior consistently shows this bias, there's a significant sense in which she doesn't really believe Pepsi to be the superior product.

    I think our moral view can work the same way. There's some more spelling out here that needs to be done; for example, what analogous incentive is there for someone to purport to hold to a moral belief which she doesn't actually support? But I think this makes it a bit clearer what I mean.