Ethics Professors and Ethical Standards

Should ethics professors be held to higher ethical standards in their personal behavior? A post on that topic by Eric Schwitzgebel (UCR) at The Splintered Mind (which I had put in the Heap of Links last week) asks that question.

Schwitzgebel doesn’t have a firm answer, but takes up various considerations along the way to his conclusion that it is a “multi-dimensional” problem. Here are the relevant factors, he thinks (these are just bullet points; see the full post for details).

  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.
  2. Nonetheless, it might be reasonable for ethicists to hold themselves to higher moral standards.

    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.

  3. If we expect high consistency between a professional ethicist’s espoused positions and her real-world choices, then [through charges of hypocrisy] 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.
  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.

Today, Eric Schleisser (Amsterdam) posted a reply to Schwitzgebel at Digressions and Impressions. Schleisser says that some philosophers—well-known ones—act as “aggregators” or representatives of the profession, and it seems that they can be more stringently held to ethical standards:

Aggregators tend to be powerful within the profession, and (without exaggerating their public influence) in virtue of their professional accomplishments also consequential in the policy environment. There are considerations of public prudence that enter into the evaluation of and expectations on Aggregators, who are subject to all kinds of temptations from massaging their message (or selling out) to taking advantage of various ‘success goods.’ Because considerations of prudence tend to be situational, I tend to constrain them in light of an appeal to integrity (which is a mixture of coherence, substantive norms, and role-relative demands). 

You can see the rest of his post for further elaboration.

My brief take on this is that the talk of “ethical standards” here is ambiguous. It could either mean (a) something roughly similar to commonsense morality and (commonsense) supererogation, or (b) the philosopher’s own moral ideas.

I suspect that what is really doing the work in the appeal of thinking that ethicists should be held to higher ethical standards is understanding ethical standards as (a). Yet to the extent we get a defense of the idea from Schwitzgebel and Schleisser it seems mainly based on understanding ethical standards as (b).

To see this, imagine a philosopher, Ed, who defends egoism. Ed is an akratic egoist, though, and most of the time can’t help himself from acting altruistically. In short, Ed behaves largely in accordance with commonsense morality—better than most people, we could suppose. Would as many people believe that Ed is falling short ethically?  I doubt it. That would mean that (a) is doing the relevant work.

If so, we can ask why philosophers whose moral views are not (a) should be held more strictly than others to standards that are (a).

I suspect that both Schwitzgebel and Schleisser would say that they shouldn’t. Rather, they’d say (b) is the relevant sense of ethical standards.

In that case, they’d have to complain that Ed is falling short ethically—at least in this one way. And the same would go for akratic holders of all sorts of unusual views, not to mention any metaethical anti-realists who think their anti-realism has nihilist normative implications (not all do, of course). This goes not just for akratic holders of such views, but also what we can call “inept” ones—one’s whose intentions are aligned with their moral views but who cannot adequately plan or carry out their intentions.

Suppose they accept all of that.

The question then is why think that philosophers are less akratic or less inept than the general population, or that their akrasia or ineptness is more “up to them” than the general population?

These are psychological characteristics that are largely out of people’s direct control and which we should have no reason to expect are affected by philosophical training. (Nor, I think, do we have reason to think that philosophy selects for strength of will or, uh, “eptness”.) And if there is no reason to expect that philosophers are better equipped to live up to their own ethical standards, I don’t see the basis for holding philosophers more strictly to them than we hold ordinary people to theirs.

There is another interpretation of “ethical standards” one might have in mind: (c) the true moral theory.

Insofar as philosophers are trained to seek the truth, or at least what we have most reason to believe, we might think that they are more likely to have knowledge of the true moral theory. And insofar as we can assume they are just as akratic and inept as everyone else, we can expect them to act in accordance with the true moral theory as much as everyone else conforms with their (false) theories.

If so, we could have a basis for thinking that philosophers should be able to act more morally than others and to hold them to that higher standard—not because they act more frequently or to a greater degree in accordance with their moral ideas, but because their moral ideas are more likely to be true.

But for (mainly epistemic) reasons that are too much to go into in this already overlong blog post, I don’t think that (c) is plausible.

So, since there is no reason to hold ethicists more strictly to commonsense morality, nor to think that they are more likely to have the psychology that allows them to act more consistently than others, nor to believe they have happened upon the true moral theory, I think the answer to whether ethics professors should be held to higher ethical standards is no.

Donald Judd, untitled


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