Look out, children! There's an ethicist!

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.

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If awareness of what's ethical serves to motivate one to behave accordingly, then philosophers who have pondered deeply the nature and content of ethical norms probably should behave more ethically than the rest of us. But nobody's ever been able to make a persuasive case that ethical knowledge provides such motivation.

By bob koepp (not verified) on 27 Nov 2007 #permalink

It occurs to me (if there really is a gap) that it could also be that people trained in ethics, because so much of ethics as it is taught in philosophy is connected direction to ethical reasoning and justification -- are better at rationalizing unethical behavior along ethical lines -- the risk of sophistry, one might call it: anyone who studies reasoning itself is studying some rather potent and dangerous stuff. It's like teaching undergraduates about informal fallacies -- it can help them reason better, but it also runs the risk of making them less rational, by giving them tools that can be used incorrectly to defend just about any position from good argument, if there's no one to catch them at it.

Wow, I really like this post and will want to ruminate more on the questions you present here. But I wanted to share that I got Sarte, Kant, and Mill as my top three as well, and I have often found myself taking the position of a Kantian against criticizers, often for the same reasons as you - I see a lot of value in referencing Kant's Categorical Imperative and conception of Duty, and while it is not a sufficient paradigm to derive morality or ethical conduct, it is certainly useful when used as a way to eliminate some immoral or unethical choices or to bring perspective into a conflict ("am I treating this person as a means or as an end?"). I think many people are discouraged by Kant because it is much easier to declare something immoral than to declare it moral, and that is frustrating for people who want to "get 'er done." But I believe that to be an effective ethicist today, one needs to be able to access a variety of philosophies depending on the situation and to transparently apply them as appropriate.

On the subject of philosophers, I recently picked up a book by James Cornman; he dissects a variety of ethical/moral theories, and coins a new combination theory: the Utilitarian Kantian principle, whereby we treat as many people as ends and as few people as means as possible. I anticipate that it will be very useful as I continue my training as a bioethicist.

Thanks for the neat post, Janet! I like your list of options at the end -- those seem like some of the most appealing. (However, you do leave out the possibility that ethicists *start out* morally worse than everyone else and ethicical reflection brings them up to average.)

To buttress your point about the possible perception/reality gap, let me suggest that ethicists might be held to higher standards than non-ethicists, so when they engage in ordinary, everyday immorality it is somehow more striking or held more against them.

It seems that there could be an explanation for the last option: that ethicists follow an ethics they hold but that their colleagues don't hold, so, on average, they are viewed to be as ethical as others, but according to their ethics, which are "better" because they have been thought through more, they are in fact more ethical.

Or maybe they don't like to make others feel bad by appearing to be the most virtuous and so they don't rub their ethical behavior in others faces.

The newest ethicist at my school seems to fall in this last category. He makes self depreciating remarks about behavior that he does for ethical reasons all the time.

I wonder if you could test the first idea I had. Maybe you could ask the ethicists' and others' views on vegetarianism or some other possible ethical stance and see if the ratio of ethicists that are vegetarian and those who think being vegetarian makes you more ethical matches the ratio in the rest of philosophers.

Hang on a minute - doesn't the very question of whether a given behaviour is considered ethical hang on what ethical system you use to make the judgement? So basically "my conclusion is that you're safest with utilitarians and virtue theorists, and in mortal danger around Kantians" simply means "I disagree with the Kantians, because I'm not a Kantian"?

I like the idea of seeing whether ethicists are more likely to be vegetarians, to donate to charity, and the like. But I won't trust self-report! So, how to get at that experimentally...?

Most of the types of behavior I have in mind, and others seem to have in mind, when evaluating the character of ethicists vs. non-ethicists are behaviors on which all mainstream ethical views will agree -- e.g., not stealing library books, adhering to one's responsibilities in the department, not cheating on one's spouse. These are not fine points on which Kantians and consequentialists disagree.