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.
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