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Ethics and ethicists

Eric Schwitzgebel, a philosophy professor at the University of California has an article in Aeon Magazine discussing his series of investigations into whether academics who study ethics tend to behave more ethically than ordinary people. It's very interesting and well worth reading.

The headline finding is that they don't. Being a professor of ethics or moral philosophy doesn't make you any more likely to be ethical - to vote in elections, be vegetarian, donating blood or organs, giving to charity, or even staying in touch with your parents. This is a finding that's been around for a while and occasionally pops up in articles - usually not as good as this one - which are shared by students who don't want to write their ethics essays.

I find it hard to see what the paradox or surprise is meant to be here, because I see basically no reason to expect that academic ethicists would be better at following moral rules. Schwitzgebel talks in the article about discussions with some ethics professors who tried to explain why this was, or justify their failure to be more moral, but none of what they say quite gets to the point I have in mind. The thing is: professors of ethics by and large don't spend their time thinking about what the right thing to do is.

What do they do? Quite a lot of them study meta-ethics: trying to figure out what sort of sentence "murder is wrong" is (more like an instruction, or a fact, or a shriek of disapproval?) and whether those kinds of sentences could ever be true, without worrying much about whether any particular moral statement is true.

Another set of moral philosophers work in conceptual areas like value theory, which I did my undergraduate dissertation on: what do we mean when we call a thing good? What sorts of things can be good? But again, you can answer those questions without it involving any specific ethical questions - you might conclude that people and umbrellas can be good, but smudges and pebbles can't, because if someone said "This, right here, is a good smudge", what could they mean?

Obviously not all ethicists research questions like those ones, and a large number still do spend a lot of time on what they call 'first-order normative ethics': what actions are right, and why. Even among them, though, there's not much that you'd recognise as reflection on what's the right thing to do. Many works in this area are about trying to find a master ethical theory, which can tell us by application what is right to do in every case. But this research largely involves taking an ethical theory and holding it up against things we already know to be right or wrong. (Or, at least, against views we already have about rightness and wrongness.) So consequentialist ethical theories are criticised for not taking sufficient account of equality - which is a problem because we already know that giving a billion dollars to a single person isn't just as right as giving $1000 to a million people in need.

And when you get to articles and books that do tackle specific questions about what's right, the issues are complex and divisive - think of euthanasia, for example - so that ethicists don't agree on the answer (they wouldn't be writing about it if they all agreed!) and there's no easy way of saying whether the way they behave is more or less moral than the way other people behave.

So that's one problem: professors of ethics mostly don't do any work that should make us think they'd be any better at figuring out what the right thing to do is, let alone actually doing it. And hidden in that sentence is the second problem - at best, what ethicists do is study what's right. So maybe they should be better at knowing what's right, but that still leaves a big gap from knowing to doing, and it's not obvious why we should expect professional academic philosophers to have stronger willpower than ordinary people.

Add to that this fact: pretty much everyone knows they should give more to charity, be nicer to their family and friends, not steal, and so on. All the behaviour examples mentioned in these sorts of studies (with one interesting exception*) are ones where everybody already knows what's right. That's not an accident, or an error - those are the sorts of examples you have to choose, to avoid your study collapsing in controversy over what counts as 'being more ethical'. It does mean, though, that there's even less reason to expect ethicists to behave better than ordinary people: their only advantage is in figuring out the truth about what we should do, but these are all cases where the figuring-out is clearly the easy bit.

When you get down to it, in my view, it's not really a surprise that moral philosophers are about on par with everyone else when it comes to their ability to do the right thing even when it's better for them, or just easier or more convenient, to do something else instead. That's obviously not a skill or character trait that we should expect to be best developed by writing journal articles and marking essays.

* Here is the one I find interesting: moral philosophers tend to have stricter views about meat-eating, and are a lot more likely to think it's immoral. So in this case, unlike most of the others, the academic reflection really does produce a change in what ethicists think is right. And yet it still doesn't seem to produce any significant change in what they do.  Why not? I still don't think this is much of a mystery: people do things which they don't really believe are justifiable all the time. But it's more interesting, at least, because it suggests that philosophers actively think about the issue of meat-eating, change their minds en masse about its acceptability, but then don't change their behaviour in light of that - which seems like unusually weak willpower.

A bit of mild speculation: I have heard philosophers (including moral philosophers) be very surprised to learn that ethicists are no more likely to be vegetarian than anyone else, because that seems to run contrary to their experience at conferences and so on. So maybe philosophers just change their minds as part of a group effect, because everyone around them seems to think vegetarianism is right. In that case it's less surprising that they don't change their behaviour than it would be if they'd changed their mind through careful individual deliberation. But who knows!