This is not breaking news (unless your news cycle is more geological), but it strikes me as relevant on the day that I deliver my penultimate lecture in the newly-created ethics module in the Introduction to Engineering class at my university:
Can you trust an ethicist to behave ethically?
Eric Schwitzgebel and Joshua Rust asked other philosophers, who presumably have a good bit of data on the everyday conduct of professional ethicists. The majority seemed to think that ethicists were no more ethical in their behavior than are other sorts of philosophers.
Brian Leiter suggested that a finer-grained examination of attitudes might show that some varieties of ethicist are better behaved than others (or at least, are likely to be viewed as such by their colleagues in philosophy departments):
Based on my utterly non-scientific, anecdotal method, my conclusion is that you’re safest with utilitarians and virtue theorists, and in mortal danger around Kantians (it’s that combination of dogmatic rectitude and lack of judgment, I guess
This gives me pause, since I find myself becoming more Kantian as the years go by. (Of course, my take on Kant is that the autonomy is central and the duties follow from that, rather than making duties the centerpiece for their own sake.)
Eric Schwitzgebel allows as how he’s heard the same suspicious grumblings about Kantians as Brian Leiter offers, but he adds:
I know too few ethicists who fall neatly into these categories, and their character seems to me too diverse. My sample size is too small, given the variance!
This, I think, gets at something really important: a lot of ethicists tackle ethical decision making with the Kantian approach as just one tool in their ethical toolbox. Kant’s way of working out the ethical options can be useful — but there are other frameworks (like utilitarianism and virtue ethics) that illuminate different issues that are important in responding to a particular situation.
At least, I think this characterization works for those of us who do “practical ethics”. I suspect it may be easier for the meta-ethics crowd to fall hard for Kant while forsaking all others.
Schwitzgebel and Rust framed their survey of peer opinion on the moral behavior of ethicists in terms of whether there is a (positive) connection between philosophical moral reflection and moral behavior. The opinions they found (not so much) raise interesting questions.
- Is moral reflection utterly useless from the point of view of making good moral decisions (and/or letting those decisions guide your behavior)?
- Is it the philosophical style of moral reflection that seems not to make any positive contribution to moral behavior?
- Could there be a “what I do as my job”/”what I do when I’m off the clock” sort of dichotomy operating here? (When I was in chemistry, my “pleasure reading” included more philosophical works than it does now that I’m a working philosopher. Maybe, to the ethicist, careful moral reasoning feels too much like what you do at the head of a seminar or while writing a manuscript?)
- Maybe all the philosophy professors , ethicists or not, have (by virtue of their philosophical education) essentially equivalent training as far as philosophical moral reflection goes, and that’s why they all behave about as well as each other.
- Possibly the ethicists really do have better moral behavior, but their colleagues don’t think that they do. (In this case, you’d want to work out the explanation for the gap between perception and reality.)
It’s also possible, of course, for the perception-reality gap to work the other way. This article on how those with a strong moral identity can be major cheaters (which came to my attention via Corpus Callosum) deals with that gap. I’ll share some of my thoughts about how to avoid falling into such a gap, but first I have to teach ethics to another section of engineering students.