Monday, February 06, 2017

Should Ethics Professors Be Held to Higher Ethical Standards in Their Personal Behavior?

I've been waffling about this for years (e.g., here and here). Today, I'll try out a multi-dimensional answer.

1. My first thought is that it would be unfair for us to hold ethics professors to higher standards of personal behavior because of their career choice. Ethics professors are hired based on their academic skills as philosophers -- their ability to interpret texts, evaluate arguments, and write and teach effectively about a topic of philosophical discourse. If we demand that they also behave according to higher ethical standards than other professors, we put an additional burden on them that they don't deserve and isn't written into their work contracts. They signed up to be scholars, not moral exemplars. (In this way, ethics professors differ from clergy, whose role is partly that of exemplar.)

2. Nonetheless, it might be reasonable for ethicists to hold themselves to higher moral standards. Consider my "cheeseburger ethicist" thought experiment. An ethicist reads Peter Singer on vegetarianism, considers the available counterarguments, and ultimately concludes that Singer is correct. Eating meat is seriously morally wrong, and we ought to stop. She publishes a couple of articles, and she teaches the arguments to her classes. But she just keeps eating meat at the same rate she always did, with no effort to change her ways. If challenged by a surprised student, maybe she defends herself with something like Thought 1 above: "I'm just paid to evaluate the arguments. Don't demand that I also live that way. I'm off duty!"

[Socrates: always on duty.]

There's something strange and disappointing, I think, about a response that depends on treating the study of ethics as just another job. Our cheeseburger ethicist knows a large range of literature, and she has given the matter extensive thought. If she insulates her philosophical thinking entirely from her personal behavior, she seems to be casting away a major resource for moral self-improvement. All of us, even if we don't aim to be saints, ought to take some advantage of the resources we have that can help us to be better people -- whether those resources are community, church, meditation, thoughtful reading, or the advice of friends we know to be wise. As I've imagined her, the cheeseburger ethicist shows a disconcerting lack of interest in becoming a better person.

We can run similar examples with political activism, charitable giving, environmentalism, sexual ethics, honesty, kindness, racism and sexism, etc. -- any issue with practical implications for one's life, to which an ethicist might give serious thought, leading to what she takes to be a discovery that she would be much morally better if she started doing X. Almost all ethicists have thought seriously about some issues with practical implications for their lives.

Combining 1 and 2. Despite the considerations of fairness raised in point 1, I think we can reasonably expect ethicists to shape and improve their personal behavior in a way that is informed by their professional ethical reasoning. This is not because ethicists have a special burden as exemplars but rather because it's reasonable to expect everyone to use the tools at their disposal toward moral self-improvement, at least to some moderate degree, or at least toward the avoidance of serious moral wrongdoing. We should similarly expect people who regularly attend religious services to try to use, rather than ignore, what they regard as the best moral insights of their religion. We should also expect secular non-ethicists to explore and improve their moral worldviews, in some way that suits their abilities and life circumstances, and apply some of the results.

3. My third thought is to be cautious with charges of hypocrisy. Part of the philosopher's job is to challenge widely held assumptions. This can mean embracing unusual or radical views, if that's where the arguments seem to lead. If we expect high consistency between a professional ethicist's espoused positions and her real-world choices, then we disincentivize highly demanding or self-sacrificial conclusions. But it seems, epistemically, like a good thing if professional ethicists have the liberty to consider, on their argumentative merits alone, the strength of the arguments for highly demanding ethical conclusions (e.g., the relatively wealthy should give most of their money to charity, or if you are attacked you should "turn the other cheek") alongside the arguments for much less demanding ethical conclusions (e.g., there's no obligation to give to charity, revenge against wrongdoing is just fine). If our ethicist knows that as soon as she reaches a demanding moral conclusion she risks charges of hypocrisy, then our ethicist might understandably be tempted to draw the more lenient conclusion instead. If we demand ethicists to live according to the norms they endorse, we effectively pressure them to favor lenient moral systems compatible with their existing lifestyles.

(ETA: Based on personal experience, and my sense of the sociology of the field, and one empirical study, it does seem that professional reflection on ethical issues, in contemporary Anglophone academia, coincides with a tendency to embrace more stringent moral norms and to see our lives as permeated with moral choices.)

4. And yet there's a complementary epistemic cost to insulating one's philosophical positions too much from one's life. To gain insight into an ethical position, especially a demanding one, it helps to try to live that way. When Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. talk about peaceful resistance, we rightly expect them to have some real understanding, since they have tried to put it to work. Similarly for Christian compassion, Buddhist detachment, strict Kantian honesty, or even egoistic hedonism: We ought to expect people who have attempted to put these things into practice to have, on average, a richer understanding of the issues than those who have not. If an ethicist aspires to write and teach about a topic, it seems almost intellectually irresponsible for them not to try to gain direct personal experience if they can.

(ETA 2: Also, to understand vice, it's probably useful to try it out! Or better, to have lived through it in the past.)

Combining 1, 2, 3, and 4. I don't think all of this fits neatly together. The four considerations are to some extent competing. Should we hold ethics professors to higher ethical standards? Should we expect them to live according to the moral opinions they espouse? Neither "yes" nor "no" does justice to the complexity of the issue.

At least, that's where I'm stuck today. I guess "multi-dimensional" is a polite word for "still confused and waffling".

[image source]


Anonymous said...

I think the main issue is not her being an ethicist but rather her having considered the issue at length and having concluded that it is definitely wrong. There is something about these two things that certainly makes it worse. Her response being so in-your-face has an impact as well; if she responded that even as an ethically imperfect omnivore she still considered vegetarianism to be morally right, it would seem much less objectionable.

As for #3, I do see a problem with charges of hypocrisy around every corner but not with it inducing leniency. Why assume that stricter ethical beliefs are better than lenient ones? One might argue that beliefs so strict that an ethicist would refuse to adhere to them for that reason alone are also perhaps too strict to inflict on the rest of the population and too far removed from practice or, to be symmetrical, that creating ethical systems one has no intention of actually following is an inducement to make them unnecessarily strict. (In any case, this very much depends on the issue, i.e. how morally objectionable non-adherence is and how much effort adherence would take etc.: the worse the infraction and the less effort avoiding it would take, the more likely and the better-founded the charges of hypocrisy.)

As for #4, it seems it always helps if you act upon your convictions, especially if convincing other people is your trade, but this is not unique to ethicists.

howie berman said...

To me the crux is simple- knowledge of what is right is not enough- one need have the social skill and wherewithal to overcome personal and situational pressures that mitigate against doing what is right- you allude to this somewhat- but even very smart people with clever arguments have trouble resisting social pressures- perhaps what is needed is one half saint and one half entrepreneur
The other thing is that as far as society si concerned public intellectuals are sidelined and have the role of teachers and thinkers and not leaders. The problem is the old line of Plato- philosophers are far from Kings

V. Alan White said...

Brutally honest piece--thanks so much.

Philosophers are no less susceptible to akrasia than anyone else. But akrasia in academia is at least self-analyzable: just because one has weak-will with respect to idealized action entails nothing about one's reflective acumen about those ideal moral assessments.

When I present Singer's arguments I concede their strength given consequentialist assumptions--which I also readily admit as reasonable. But then I present myself as a model of akrasia, but in contrast to my late colleague Helene Dwyer, who taught Singer but then also changed her life to live it as well--in not just practice but advocacy. She's my archetype of life plying the tossed seas of reason with a steady rudder. Students need to see an example of praxis glued to theoria: I'm just not it--but at least I get her ideal example to offer to students with the potential to avoid my own embarrassment of an imperfectly aligned life.

Tim said...

I don’t know if that is a concern of yours, but I’m very much interested in exceptionalism/non-exceptionalism: Are ethicists exceptional in that regard or is there a general authenticity demand in play? Here is my favourite analogy: Suppose I run a shop for runners selling shoes and other equipment. Secretly, I hate running and don’t do it myself, I believe that running is unhealthy and that runners are all neurotic men in mid-life crisis, I can’t stand people bragging about their latest marathon on facebook, and so on. It seems to me that all of your points apply here as well: It’s unfair to demand something of me we don’t demand of others. We should demand more of ourselves. We want us to be openminded and not believe that running is great just because it’s part of our job description. To gain insight into our customer we should be runners ourselves. I guess my question is what you think about this analogy: Is ethics special?

Anonymous said...

Re: #1, I don't think ethics professors are being held to a higher standard because of their chosen profession. Rather, other factors (like their knowledge of moral truths) is what brings the higher standard. For people in general, regardless of profession, that they know something is wrong but choose to do it anyway is worse than if they didn't know it was wrong and did it. Ethics professors just happen to have a lot more moral knowledge than others (in part because of their choices, yes, but so what? A person who educates themself about morality would also have more moral knowledge because of their choices, yet we wouldn't say they get a special exception for that).

It's nothing to do with the employment contracts or special role-based duties of ethicists and everything to do with the fact that they know better, and so should be expected to act better.

Amod said...

I think the biggest question for me is: do ethics professors themselves have higher standards for conduct than other people do? It's pretty hard for me to imagine not holding people to their own standards. If you demand that other people be vegetarian, damn right they're entitled to demand that you be vegetarian too.

Regarding freedom to experiment: I think that's where the point gets interesting (as in Ben's old comment on my related post). There I think the question might be "what do we actually mean to hold a standard?" If I'm trying to explore the question of whether to be vegetarian, I may well keep flipping back and forth on the subject, and it does seem unnecessarily demanding if (say) I think about the question in the morning and suspect we probably are obliged to be vegetarian so I am obliged to be vegetarian at lunch, but then think about it again and suspect we probably aren't so obliged, and then I'm no longer obliged to be vegetarian at dinner.

I think that's a problem in part because the effort of trying to be a good person is exhausting in its own way - especially at times of personal crisis. I've tried to think some about the question of how to act at times when one is really undecided (perhaps in what MacIntyre would call an epistemological crisis). I tend to say "stick with your preexisting beliefs until you're fairly confident in the new ones". Obviously "fairly confident" is a gray zone, but I think there's a certain benefit to be gained from erring on the conservative side with respect to practice - your previous reflection took you to this point, it's ingrained, let it stick until you are really feeling the alternative.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks!

Anon 03:36: Yes, I agree that it more concerns the amount of time and sophisticated reflection, and the conclusion that it is definitely wrong. I would expect, empirically, that professional ethicists would tend to give much more time and sophisticated reflection to ethical issues, since they make a career of it. For example, the average ethicist will be able to talk in more a sophisticated way about the pros and cons of the case for vegetarianism compared to the *average* non-ethicist of similar social background. On #3, it's not that I want to assume that strict is better than lenient; it's just that I don't want to create any more self-interested pressure than there already is to answer that question in favor of lenient. I do agree with your concern, though, that there's something potentially worrying (maybe not fatally worrying) about moral views so strict that even their advocates don't choose to live by them.

Howie: I'm kind of glad that philosophers can be merely scholars rather than kings, saints, and role models. But I also feel that there's something wrong in trying to insulate one's scholarly career from one's practical life. Hence all my multi-dimensional waffling, I suppose!

Alan: Someone who is simply cheerfully akratic, "I should do X but I just can't oh well, hm, let me enjoy some sin now!" triggers my suspicions that there's something inauthentic going on. The anxious, self-critical akratic, who strives and fails and is disappointed in herself -- that I understand better. Also I understand the person who honestly says, "well ethics is important to me but not *that* important and all things considered I'd rather have my cheeseburgers". What do you think?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Tim: I don't think ethics is special in that way. But maybe an even closer analogous would be a nutritionist who eats badly!

Anon 09:31: Yes, at a first pass I meant to be agreeing with that. That's what I think is correct about the reasoning in #1.

Amod: Interesting to phrase it as "demand". I'm inclined to think that if I demand that others be vegetarians then (barring some reason I am exceptional) then I should hew to that standard myself. But I feel less clear when it's phrased in terms of a factual conclusion that such-and-such behavior is unethical and that all things considered you should not do it. Somehow that seems milder. Interesting observations in your second two paragraphs. I tend to agree.

Michael Pershan said...

When I think about the cheeseburger ethicist, I share your disappointment in her insulation. At the same time, I'm not surprised. Many of us profess moral beliefs that we don't live up to.

I think I would feel differently about an ethicist whose sole research focus was on applied moral self-improvement. This ethicist takes as her primary locus of research the methods an individual can use to successfully improve their moral behavior. It would seem not just disappointing, but outright strange if she didn't take her own views on moral self-improvement seriously in her personal life.

It seems to me that there is generally a weak relationship between one's moral beliefs and one's behavior. The vast majority of ethical philosophy I've seen focuses on exploring correct ethical beliefs. If ethical philosophy studied moral pedagogy or moral self-improvement, I would expect different things from ethicists.

As it stands, though, I give ethicists wide latitude in their personal lives because of the weak relationship, in general, between correct beliefs and good behavior.

Amod said...

Eric, I think you raise a key point here (one I've talked about a bit in another related post). Part of the question is what we mean by "ethical" and "unethical" behaviour. To say we are obliged not to do such a thing - or that we are forbidden to do it - seems to me to imply a demand. But to simply say that something is bad - well, we do bad things all the time. If our ethics professor says that vegetarianism is not an obligation but merely good and praiseworthy, then there's no serious problem if the professor eats meat - just as there would be no problem, in the professor's view, if someone else ate meat. (Relatedly I think ethicists should be recognizing a lot more supererogatory acts than they do, and putting less thought into obligation and more into supererogation.)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments!

Michael: Yes, I think that the relationship between explicit moral judgment and chosen moral behavior is generally only small to moderate -- for ethicists as well as for non-ethicists. So it's just part of the human condition, and I favor not being too harshly judgmental about it. I reserve my right to be mildly disappointed, though! (In myself, too.)

Amod: I confess to being kind of negative about the concept of supererogation and the use to which it is put when applied to one's own moral choices. (I'm contemplating a post on this topic in the near future.) I prefer a scalar very bad to very good, along with a frank (but not too harsh) recognition that every failure to be less than morally ideal is a moral failure. The concept of supererogation, I'm inclined to think, leads to moral self-excuse (at least I didn't cross such-and-such line, so I'm not really blameworthy) and unrealistic attachment to a picture of yourself as nearly morally flawless (as long as your standards are low enough you can preserve the idea that you almost never actually do anything wrong).

Amod said...

Eric, good points. I wonder if what's at issue there is the concept of blame itself? And perhaps relatedly of shame (as with the tendency on social media in recent years to criticism of "x-shaming"). I've argued that Śāntideva's ethics intentionally tries to dispense with blame entirely, and musters a hard-determinist attack on free will in order to do so. I am tempted by this account - that the very idea of blame is a thing we should move away from.

Something along those lines seems especially important when we say that "every failure to be less than morally ideal is a moral failure". I don't know anybody who's morally ideal. I don't know of anybody who's morally ideal. (Didn't Susan Wolf write something saying she didn't want to know anybody who's morally ideal?) It seems then important to come to terms with the fact of moral failure as an ineradicable feature of the world and its moral landscape, and I wonder if blame is a hindrance in doing so. Doug Berger had an interesting recent Facebook post about pessimism which pushed my thinking further along those lines. Badness is there. Let's try to fix it, in ourselves and others, when we can. But should blame even play a role in that process?

Callan S. said...

Surely there's a difference between A: the anthropological study of ethics and B: trying to argue ethics in a way as to convince others? Is the latter a professor or a preacher?

Does B even happen? And if it does, is it much different from people who cherry pick from their religious text of choice as to what they press must be done and what they just kind of overlook and don't mention but the text could easily be taken to be saying must be done?

Callan S. said...

It also seems to be being convinced by a set of ethics so that one wants to teach them, but not convinced to practice them? What would convince someone to just teach them as the only set of professed ethics to learn, but not practice them?

It'd be like a music teacher teaching only one type of music as if you never have to learn or even have a vague knowledge of any other music, but never playing out that music on an instrument themselves.

V. Alan White said...

Thanks for the reply Eric.

Your distinction falls along the lines of Frankfurt's willing and unwilling addicts, and when it comes to this issue (moral eating habits), I'm somewhere on the spectrum toward the unwilling side. Gleeful addicts might exist (though probably not many), but there are tons of gleeful carnivores for sure. (Ted Nugent, e.g.) I've stopped eating any form of veal for over 25 years--I even avoided buying veal-labelled cat food. I buy only cage-free eggs. But I am omnivore, and I certainly cannot misrepresent myself in class while presenting the arguments.

Again, thanks for a thoughtful and challenging piece.

Callan S. said...

"every failure to be less than morally ideal is a moral failure"

Morality doesn't really self reflect much on whether it itself is moral, does it?

howard said...


A further thought: would you argue that expecting ethicists to behave ethically is like expecting designers of cars to be good drivers or designers of computers to be great programmers?
So can it be looked at from the perspective not of consistency but applying ideas, like any scientific ideas

howard said...

An analogy, perhaps instructive, though a side point: would you expect lawyers or legal scholars or cops to act legally?
How is your case different?

howard said...

To look at the issue psychologically, your cases speak of how either knowledge itself does not lead behavior or that something resists change in moral habits in the real world- which provokes wonder at the exact place of ethics

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing conversation, folks!

Amod: Getting rid of blame is pretty radical. (Of course, there are lots of respects in which the Buddhist tradition is radical.) Rather than take that radical path, I prefer that we aim (a) to be not overly harsh in our blaming practices, and (b) work on being able to regard ourselves as morally blameworthy in what I think of as a mature, subtle way, that is, accepting the real sting of it (so not just saying "morality, who cares?") but also not being paralyzed or terrified by that sting.

Callan: I think one can teach ethics hoping that people will be moved to change their behavior for the better without being a preacher in any negative sense. For example, someone could teach the arguments for and against vegetarianism in a fair and responsible way, while hoping that students will see that the arguments on one side really are more compelling, and then change their behavior accordingly. I don't think you always have to put in to practice the ethical issues you discuss -- e.g., the death penalty. I'm not quite sure what you mean by your last question.

Alan: Thanks for the kind comment. Yes, I do think this will relate to Frankfurt on addiction -- though perhaps not entirely neatly.

Howard: I prefer to look profession by profession rather than trying to have a general theory about all professions. Some professions do plausibly influence choices in daily life, e.g., nutritionist and investment advisors probably eat and invest on average differently from others. I agree with your last point: It's hard to change moral habits. That can be the source of some of the difficulty and of the weaker-that-you-might-have-expected relationship.

Callan S. said...

Surely one can muse on the idea of morality reflecting upon itself - while a bit of an out there notion, it's not that out there, surely?

howard b said...

Here's a reductionist idea: using the big five, conscientiousness might predict ethical behavior and proclivity for ethical behavior: perhaps ethicists are driven by orderliness or have an openmidnedness for ideas but aren't open to new experiences, which heeding new ethical standards would bring.
Make sense?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting idea. There was a Big 5 test of professional philosophers several years ago, but sadly the data disappeared. I would be very interested to see it. I did get a look at some preliminary results and ethicists seemed to be higher on C. My guess is that philosophers in general will tend to be high in O, but I don't have a specific memory of seeing those results.

There are questions within C and A that seem to be self-reports of ethical behavior. I once went through the Big 5 and tried to pull out those questions specifically, but I haven't done anything with that.