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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Ian
Ian
4 years ago

I’ve never really understood charges of hypocrisy.
As you point out, the failure to achieve one’s own ideal actions is something that happens to pretty much
So why is hypocrisy even something that we use to negatively evaluate someone?Report

Justin Caouette
Reply to  Ian
4 years ago

Exactly. Further, it doesn’t seem fair to hold someone to ideals.
I argue similarly here: http://www.philpercs.com/2015/06/3-cheers-for-hypocrisy-.html

Hypocrisy aside, contra Justin W I do think we should hold ethicists to higher moral standards. There seems to be good reasons to think they are more psychologicallly capable of sticking with their ethical views BECAUSE of the nature of their position. Because they are constantly being pressed on their view in print and in class it seems that they should feel the force of their view much more clearly. If true, then they are not on par so to speak with others regarding their ethical decision making. Seems like a worst moral failure to NOT act in accordance with your views when you are reflecting on these views MUCH MORE than your average person.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

George Schlesinger once asked me, when I complained about the immorality of ethics professors, whether I expect a mathematics professor to be geometrical.Report

BB
BB
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

Or an arts critic to be a good artist.Report

Eric Schwitzgebel
Eric Schwitzgebel
4 years ago

I have to dash off to a series of meetings, but just to clarify, I intended something more like (c)! The true moral theory, or the moral facts, or if “truth” and “fact” sound too robustly realist, some appropriately watered-down version of that. So my pushback on this one is going to be on the penultimate paragraph, which is the issue that you reasonably set aside.Report

Eric Schliesser
Eric Schliesser
4 years ago

Thank you for your spirited response to the two Eric Ss, Justin! I think you are right about me that I would defend (b), but I think you may be a bit quick to dismiss (b). For, while I agree we have no reason to assume philosophers are less or more akratic than others (even if I had not read John Doris, I am not allowed to assume that because of my methodological analytical egalitarianism [MAE insists on motivational homogeneity unless there are social causes/norms, etc. that explain otherwise]), I have quite a bit to say about the institutional design such that we ought not put Aggregators — which is the special class of philosophers I am interested in — in akratic-likely situations. (Of course, in reality we still do so, but may theory is, in part, normative and a call to change incentives and norms!) My most recent response to Schwitzgebel was, in fact, motivated by his relative lack of interest in institutional design (although he is interested in social epistemology).
Having said, when I speak of ‘prudence’ I often also mean what you mean by (a)–so the ways in which (public) philosophy deviates from common sense is, in fact, itself a central issue.
It’s not that I reject (c), because I allow that for some aggregators to embrace (c), but I have to admit that it’s not what is driving my position.Report

Urstoff
Urstoff
4 years ago

What does it mean to hold someone to an ethical standard in the first place? Is this a statement on when we can morally denounce another person, a statement about what a person should do (isn’t that just ethics?), or something else?Report

DocFE1987
DocFE1987
Reply to  Urstoff
4 years ago

Surely it is a comment on judging others. Is that not what ethics and ethical standards are designed to do? Or, anarchy, ethical anarchy is A-OK? “We can’t judge others” is different than “we have moral standards that are reasonable and that we expect others to abide by.” Elsewise, gang, mob standards are OK? In short, holding one to an ethical standard simply means, “follow boundaries, respect reasonable limits on your behavior, and act as if you were not the only person on earth.”Report

DocFE1987
DocFE1987
4 years ago

Interesting question. Equality would say treat profs equally with others. Yet small claims judges often hold litigants who are lawyers to higher standards. I agree that we should hope and expect ethicists to hold to higher standards. Yet, past being an ethicist, we have a human being with all the flaws, frailties, etc… of others. Very interesting question and I am still mulling it over. I guess my view now is that we cannot expect, legislate or demand higher standards, but we surely are justified in expecting, hoping, and wishing for higher standards from those who write, preach, and teach ethics.Report

analogy
analogy
4 years ago

Maybe it’s worth thinking about some dis/analogous cases:
(a) a good doctor who is sick all the time due to self-negligence and lack of self-care;
(b) a financial adviser who doesn’t practice the kind of financial advice she herself dispenses to clients [of similar networth];
(c) a personal trainer who does not work out or train a lot;
(d) a formerly world-class tennis player who doesn’t quite play like she us to but uses her expertise to coach others.

Propose that (a)-(c) seem a bit strange, and perhaps the strangeness in each is present in the ethics professor who has a personal failing in some sense. (d) doesn’t seem *as* weird, and perhaps there’s a sense of (d) that’s present in the ethics professor as well.Report