Immoral Moral Philosophers


In a recent post at The Splintered Mind, Eric Schwitzgebel (UC Riverside) asks whether it matters “if ethicists walk the walk.”

The thought he’s investigating is this: “Of course it’s disappointing when anyone behaves badly. But it seems especially bad when an ethical thinker goes astray.” He agrees with this thought, but spends the post presenting and considering arguments against it, and instead for what he refers to as the “Schelerian separation between an ethicist’s teaching or writing and their personal behavior.” (The idea is named for Max Scheler, an early 20th Century Catholic German ethicist who did not seem particularly troubled by the discrepancy between the ethics he taught and his “horrible personal behavior”.)

The argument for Schelerian separation Schwitzgebel thinks fares the best, though he says it is too simple, concerns the aim of academic ethics: “ethicists are supposed to be scholars, not saints.”

Ethicists succeed without qualification if they find sound arguments for interesting ethical conclusions, which they teach to their students and publish as research, engaging capably in this intellectual endeavor. How they live their lives matters to their conclusions as little as it matters how research chemists live their lives. We should judge Scheler’s ethical writings by their merit as writings. His life needn’t come into it.

He adds:

Those who favor a primarily intellectualistic approach to ethics might even justifiably mistrust their academic ethical thinking—sufficiently so that they intentionally quarantine it from everyday life. If common sense and tradition are a more reasonable guide to life than academic ethics, good policy might require not letting your perhaps weird and radical ethical conclusions change how you treat the people around you.

He also notes an intellectual benefit to Schelerian separation, consonant with its scholarly aims:

If there’s no expectation that ethicists live according to the norms they espouse, that also frees them to explore radical ideas which might be true but which might require great sacrifice or be hard to live by. If I accept Schelerian separation, I can conclude that property is theft or that it’s unethical to enjoy any luxuries without thereby feeling that I have any special obligation to sacrifice my minivan or my children’s college education fund. If my children’s college fund really were at stake, I would be highly motivated to avoid the conclusion that I am ethically required to sacrifice it. That fact would likely bias my reasoning. If ethics is treated more like an intellectual game, divorced from my practical life, then I can follow the moves where they take me without worrying that I’ll need to sacrifice anything at the end. A policy of Schelerian separation might then generate better academic discourse in which researchers are unafraid to follow their thinking to whatever radical conclusions it leads them.

I like this “philosophers are people, too” move. We shouldn’t overestimate the extent to which philosophers are resistant to motivated reasoning, cognitive biases, and the like, and we should be attentive to how different situations—characterized by disciplinary norms and expectations, among other things—might affect our susceptibility to them.

I imagine that one set of objections to this point in favor of Schelerian separation concerns the epistemic value of living in accordance with the principles or ideas one is arguing about. On relatively thin assumptions, the “what-it-is-like-to-live-in-accordance-with-it” of a moral principle, what we can call “moral qualia,” is a relevant factor in assessing its plausibility. If philosophers aren’t expected to live in accordance with principles they argue are correct, we might think it likely that they’re lacking a piece of evidence relevant to their argument.

But what if we didn’t think the point of moral philosophy is to argue for the truth of particular moral judgments, principles, claims, theories, etc.?

Let’s step back for a moment.

Note that the question Schwitzgebel is considering takes for granted that one thing moral philosophers are supposed to do is argue for particular moral ideas, principles, theories, and the like—and not “argue for” merely in the sense of laying out arguments for a position to see what they are or to assess their strengths, weaknesses, assumptions, and so on, but “argue for” in the sense of espouse, or recommend, or advocate, or claim as correct. There are questions about how we ought to act, what we ought to value, what kinds of persons we should be, and why, and an important part of the job of moral philosophers, on this line of thinking, is to figure out which answers to these questions are are correct and defend them. Call this the answer model of moral philosophy.

The answer model of moral philosophy seems quite popular. Certainly, many moral philosophers conceive of their work on that model. And so I don’t think it is especially odd for Schwitzgebel to assume it.

But what if we rejected the answer model? If moral philosophers did not espouse moral positions as part of their work, then we wouldn’t get to the question of a conflict between a moral philosopher’s work and their personal behavior. The problem wouldn’t arise, so there’d be no need for a “Schelerian separation.”

I happen to think we should reject the answer model. Answers are not philosophy’s strength. Positions should be articulated, the arguments for them explained and considered, the load-bearing assumptions and contingencies identified and acknowledged, and so on. But, in our capacity as moral philosophers, the best we’re entitled to are variably leveraged possible answers.

It won’t be a surprise to learn that not everyone agrees with me on this (yet), and so in the meanwhile, we will continue to have moral philosophers taking their job as moral philosophers to involve the defense or espousal of particular normative ideas, and so we will likely continue to be confronted with the question: “is there something especially bad about a moral philosopher acting in ways their espoused views say are wrong, in comparison to others acting in the same way?”

My answer to this is yes—but not because of any supposed extra moral badness in the moral philosopher’s putatively morally wrong actions. Rather, it’s because of a problem with their philosophical methodology: the answer model. The moral philosopher is defending answers or espousing judgments in their work with a certainty that’s strong enough to underpin a criticism of their behavior, but too strong to be warranted given the nature of the philosophical enterprise. (If you don’t think this is so bad, then it will turn out that the immoral behavior of moral philosophers isn’t very much worse than the same immoral behavior when performed by others.)

At this point you might be thinking I’m contradicting myself. I’m putting forward an idea—reject the answer model in moral philosophy—and at the same time giving an answer to a question about moral philosophy about the relative badness of different kinds of agents acting wrongly. So on the face of it, I’m acting in ways I argue one should not.

Is this a problem? For a few reasons, I don’t think so. But this post is long enough, so I’ll leave it you, dear readers, to figure those reasons out, should you care to do so.

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Curtis Franks
5 months ago

Just please don’t hold logicians to the analogous standard!

Mark Wilson
Mark Wilson
Reply to  Curtis Franks
5 months ago

Most people never even purport to be giving deductively valid arguments when they are trying to convince you of something, so I don’t see any analogous risk.

Milan Ney
Milan Ney
Reply to  Mark Wilson
5 months ago

Max Scheler apparently never purported to live a morally good life. Doesn’t get him off the hook.

Will Fleisher
Will Fleisher
5 months ago

The answer model has some advantages. You might think that it promotes productive debate, better distribution of cognitive labor, and helps to avoid premature consensus. A few of us have defended something like what Justin is calling the answer model while trying alleviate worries about irrational belief and hypocrisy.

For those who are interested:

Goldberg, “Defending philosophy in the face of systematic disagreement
Fleisher, “Rational Endorsement
Barnett, “Philosophy without belief
Palmira, “Inquiry and the doxastic attitudes

Moorlock
5 months ago

Our present inquiry has not, like the rest, a merely speculative aim. We are not inquiring merely in order to know what excellence or virtue is, but in order to become good; for otherwise it would profit us nothing. [Nicomachean Ethics II.2]

Consider that maybe the whole discipline took a wrong turn after Aristotle.

Leslie Glazer PhD
Reply to  Moorlock
5 months ago

one doesnt have to go that far back in time. consider kierkegaard, nabert, weil, levinas, or iris murdoch. the question is whether ethical philosophizing is just an intellectual or academic game, a theoretical exercise, or an existential/experiential question [or some combination].

Kevin
Kevin
Reply to  Moorlock
5 months ago

I don’t think you need to be an Aristotelian to think that habituation plays an important causal role in producing ethical behavior. That strikes me as a widely accepted view. Nor do I think being an Aristotelian guarantees a higher likelihood of ethical behavior–but I’d totally love to see an empirical study on whether there’s a correlation between the ethical theory one adopts and one’s behavior.

Gorm
5 months ago

I have personally been very disappointed with a number of “professional” ethicists that I have known or worked with. I have seen behaviours that are really on the far edge of bad behaviour in our profession. It makes me quite sad and concerned. Teaching and learning ethical theory seems to have little impact on people. To echo another remark, above, we may have taken a wrong turn after Aristotle. Ethical behaviour issues from acquired habits (and more of course).

Matt L
Reply to  Gorm
5 months ago

I’ll admit to thinking that this whole way of approaching the issue seems, at least, too fast to me, and maybe just confused. But, I do think that, at least sometimes, there is a bit of a “walrus and the carpenter” type phenomena with people (not just philosophers) where, by “doing good” in one way (including, maybe, writing about ethics) they allow themselves, psychologically, permission to do a lot more of other dubious things they want to do in any case.

Caligula's Goat
Reply to  Matt L
5 months ago

It would be really interested in seeing if moral theorists (philosophers, psyhologists, clergy, etc.) are more subject to moral licensing effects in the way that’s being suggested here. I actually don’t know if such research has been directly carried out.

Hermias
Hermias
5 months ago

The philosopher is a sage. Cleanse your nous through appropriate ethical behavior and ritual participation, otherwise you are just a jobsworth, a functionary. Your thoughts – what occurs to you, what seems plausible to you – are a product of the way you live; if you are trapped in a car-based suburb, guzzling taco bell, fapping, etc., you will never apprehend the Good, you’ll be some kind of wretched utilitarian, Rawlsian. [offense intended]
 
 
That said, I think that philosophers often write about things that are difficult or obscure to them. That is, to the normal person its obvious that “X is right/wrong” but the philosopher is someone confused, who has to make it clear to themselves the whys and wherefores in excruciating linguistic detail.

Master Debater
Master Debater
Reply to  Hermias
5 months ago

Wait, what’s wrong with fapping?

Hermias
Hermias
Reply to  Master Debater
5 months ago

Being very brief:

(a) opportunity costs. Sexual energy is energy, better used elsewhere. Cf.; gymnosophists, taoists. Can’t find the quote, but a great author once said (paraphrasing) “Every time I orgasm I think ‘there goes an essay’”. Again, if, like me, you’re a disagreeable and introverted male, you might find that the only impulse that leads you into human fellowship is the sexual impulse, so it’s best not to short-circuit that. ‘homo incurvatus in se’

(b) basic natural law. Food go belly. Air go lungs. Seed go waifu.

(c) In one Egyptian creation myth, the creator Atum says:

I planned many living creatures;
All were in my heart, and their children and their grandchildren.
Then I copulated with my own fist.
I masturbated with my own hand.
I ejaculated into my own mouth.

Atum is androgyne, his hand and mouth playing the passive/receptive role. The sexual act is dyadic. Masturbation does not make it monadic, but reproduces the dyad within the one participant. The confusion of categories is, more or less, a definition of the monstrous. Cf.; ‘seeking more extreme content,’ Admiral Ackbar.

Glad we are agreed on Taco Bell though, haha.

T.J.
T.J.
Reply to  Hermias
5 months ago

(a) Even if I believed that masturbation is so taxing that it makes a noticeable impact on one’s productivity in other areas, surely, for the person with an urge to masturbate, the energy spent resisting the urge is better spent elsewhere. Just jerk off and move on with your day.

(b) This natural law stuff is nonsense. Even if I thought that biological function had some moral importance, why shouldn’t I think, given the ubiquity of masturbation not just among humans but among our near (and in some cases not so near) evolutionary relatives, that part of the function of the sex organs is to facilitate masturbation?

You’ll also find that about half of the population doesn’t have seed that goes to waste after masturbating, so, at best, this is only a reason for men not to masturbate.

(c) Masturbation seems like a counterexample to the claim that the sexual act is dyadic. Some sexual acts are, others, like masturbation, are not.

Meme
Meme
Reply to  Hermias
5 months ago

When you find yourself writing in this pseudo-cryptic, edgy-internet style, it’s probably time to—as the kids say—“touch grass.” Now, if you’ll excuse me, consistency demands that I also go outside.

Paul Wilson
5 months ago

A time-honored alternative to the “answer model” would be the “exemplar model” — exemplary in reason and a model for philosophy as a way of life.

Socrates, Aristotle, Stoics, and a great many virtue ethicists of all types — spread across many cultures and over a few millenia — have made large and positive impacts on a huge number of people worldwide.

That most such “exemplary models of moral philosophy” have *not* been professional philosophers is an open research problem, of practical import.

Last edited 5 months ago by paulscrawl
William Leslie
Reply to  Paul Wilson
5 months ago

I heard this story about Mahatma Gandhi.
A woman approached him with her son. “Mahatamji, my son wants to eat sugar all day long. Sugar for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Please tell him to stop eating sugar.”
Gandhi replied “Please come back in three days.”
After three days she comes back and Gandhi tells her son, “Stop eating sugar.”
“Why didn’t you tell him that three days ago?” the mother asked., somewhat exasperated.
“Because I was still eating sugar” Gandhi replied.

Logan Mitchell
Logan Mitchell
5 months ago

I am reminded here of Nomy Arpaly’s work on moral concern. If you care about something a lot, you are probably going to spend a lot of time thinking about it, it’s going to motivate you to act in certain ways, etc. (she says it better than that!). If a moral philosopher really care about morality, I would expect them to be motivated to try and invest a lot of time into becoming a moral person. Not that they need to be a saint, but they should probably still invest a significant amount of time in attempting to cultivate morally good habits and curbing morally bad ones.

In fact, one reason why I decided to study ethics was because I thought it would help me become a better person. And it has, but not by studying alone. The studying has served as a useful foundation for the daily work of trying to cultivate more compassion, kindness, generosity, etc. in my daily life.

When I discovered just how many ethicists are only interested in answering theoretical questions about ethics (and can be quite dick-ish), I was very disappointed. To me, this betrays an asymmetry of concern – many ethicists care more about answering the questions than actually implementing the answers in their daily lives. And I think, perhaps unlike many other fields, that genuine moral concern should be what really motivates us. Genuine moral concern, in addition to being morally better, seems more likely to help us get the right answers (though I’m sure some will disagree), and this concern can (and often does) fuel study and research and all that stuff, but would also motivate people to not be a dick, to not treat graduate students poorly, to speak kindly to all people, to not eat factory farmed meat, to be trans-affirming, etc. (I know a handful of DN commenters will object to those last two… but I digress).

So, when I see moral philosophers being a dick (etc.), I consider their motivations for doing moral philosophy to be deficient in a very important sense. And I do, in fact, take their work less seriously and give their conclusions less credence than I otherwise would. Maybe that’s irrational! But it is something I’ve found to be true in my own life.

Leslie Glazer PhD
5 months ago

Philosophers are people too. a truism if we ever saw one. subject to all the flaws and weaknesses of everyone else; hypocracy, akrasia, egoism, narcissism, and temptation being always possibilities. But, even so, it is not meaningless whether and how the philosopher lives their life, and for at least two reasons. First, there is the issue of purpose. The purpose of ethical philosophizing is essentially connected to the very human struggle to live well, live a good life, and realize values in a world with others, usually entailing some notions of community and justice and the adjudication of conflict. So if ethical philosophizing is an outgrowth of the stuggle to live ethically, in other words, how could the unethical living of those philosophers not matter? So while not saints they can be judged as we judge anyone in terms of whether they are walking the walk or are self-deceptive and full of s–t. Second, it is arguable that part of ethical philosophy is related to ethical perception, both in the sense of an effort to articulate our intuitions and experiences, but also to cultivate our experience. Think here of the arguments of simone weil and iris murdock. Again, if one philosophizing is completely detached from ones actual life one could and should ask whether that means the philosopher is himself deficient experientially, and consequently his arguments are missing something important.

Luke G
Luke G
5 months ago

There’s a way to grant the ‘answer model’ and resist the Schelerian separation that has roots in Aristotle (and even before him Augustine) and that surfaces in some 20th century moral philosophers (arguably McDowell) which says, very roughly, that it is not possible to grasp the good or arrive at correct beliefs about morality without having the right sort of broadly affective or orectic states/constitution. On this view, one could potentially believe that the primary aim of ethics is to produce true beliefs while also holding that in fact the only way to attain this aim is to be a good or decent person (i.e., one with properly attuned affections, desires, motivations, etc.). I’m not sure how plausible this idea ultimately is but I don’t see it addressed so far.

Luke G
Luke G
Reply to  Luke G
5 months ago

Sorry, Augustine was after Aristotle, obviously, It’s Friday afternoon

V. Alan White
5 months ago

I’ve always thought the real pursuit of truth involved an attitude of being earnest about it. Otherwise it is some aloof exercise of the mind unattached to the ongoing life bearing that mind. Being earnest is a character trait–maybe the root of the Aristotelian pursuit of virtue, ethically speaking, as some note here. But it resides as a ground for being uncomfortable about oneself when one sees akratic patterns in one’s life at the very least. Without that discomfort, we get not just hypocrisy, but the extremes that dominate our current politics without any regard for truth at all. Many scientists seem to embody an earnestness about truth, but maybe that earnestness is harder to attach to matters of personal desire, which ethics cannot ignore in its own seeking of truth.

Ian Douglas Rushlau
5 months ago

Moral declarations are problematic?

Is genocide immoral? Human trafficking?

And if so, should individuals and communities be expected not to participate or facilitate either?

I’ll venture to say that someone who is unable to identify the abundant examples of manifest immorality, such as genocide and human trafficking, occurring around the world at this moment (as it has through history), and is similarly unable to articulate and personally adhere to standards of moral conduct opposed to such immoral acts, is ill-equipped to speak about moral philosophy in a more general, let alone systematic, way.

Immorality like genocide and human trafficking is predicated on the conscious decisions of groups of individuals. People do these things to other people, knowingly.

It is not only appropriate to condemn, and utilize legal and political mechanisms to attempt to intervene and prevent genocide and human trafficking (and at times, perhaps, physically intervene, even if this entails some degree of personal risk), it is, by definition, moral to do so.

Modest suggestion- don’t do genocide and human trafficking.

If your moral philosophy can’t say that much, the concepts ‘moral’ and ‘philosophy’ have been misapplied.

Animal Symbolicum
5 months ago

Perhaps, through ever greater pedantry, cleverness, tactical prowess, scholasticism, and professionalization, philosophers have simply stopped thinking about the right things in the right way.

It would then be pretty much a matter of course that thinking about being good, acting well, and living meaningfully would become less integrated with being good, acting well, and living meaningfully.

In other words, maybe the ancients were correct in seeing a connection between philosophizing and living well, but we’re falling short of philosophizing.

Last edited 5 months ago by Animal Symbolicum
Philip-Neri Reese, OP
5 months ago

I’d like to make a brief plug in favor of what Justin is calling “the answers model.” I have two reasons for doing so, and I think they should resonate with pretty much everyone – including the Aristotelians who have already commented:

(1) There’s a difference between the virtue of prudence and the science (i.e. the study) of ethics.

(2) An accurate account of the moral phenomenon of akrasia implies the possibility of discovering moral truths regardless of whether one is inclined to act on them.

If either of those are true (and I think it’s obvious that they’re both true), then at the very least “the answers model” of ethics is a pursuable intellectual project. Maybe there are reasons to prefer other projects (like fostering the virtue of prudence or learning to overcome akrasia), but those are just that – different projects. And anyone who wants to insist that those other projects are what we should call “ethics”, rather than the answers model, will just be engaging in a verbal dispute.

Lu Chen
Lu Chen
Reply to  Philip-Neri Reese, OP
5 months ago

Discovering new moral knowledge without the inclination to act on it via akrasia should be exceptional cases not a rule, maybe? I find it plausible that ethicists are generally better people in everyday life than other philosophers, although they do tend to have the vice of making me feel bad 😉

Gordon
Gordon
5 months ago

, I wonder if first person acquaintance with one’s dark side might make a better moral philosopher insofar as understanding evil is part of moral philosophy?

Axel Eljatib
Axel Eljatib
5 months ago

Stevenson says moral language is about advocating or recommending an action. To say “stealing is wrong” is to say “I don’t do it and you shouldn’t either!” If the philosopher steals, then it is false that she doesn’t do it; so there is a contradiction in the argument.

Axel Eljatib
Axel Eljatib
Reply to  Axel Eljatib
5 months ago

Maybe I’m wrong and it’s not a contradiction (a pragmatic contraction?) and it’s not even an argument! Ethics is more about persuasion and rhetoric, but in that case, the philosopher getting caught stealing would definitely be a big problem for that purpose.

Drew Cavallo
Drew Cavallo
Reply to  Axel Eljatib
5 months ago

It might be valuable to make some adjustments to such a gloss of “stealing is wrong” to allow for a meaningful distinction between a hypocrite and someone trying to change. Sometimes, in practice, without sufficient understanding of the person, the difference can be hard to identify, but that does not mean it is not real.

Can someone meaningfully and honestly say that stealing is wrong when they actively struggle with strong urges to steal in an attempt to be a better person, but sometimes give in? Is it different, and hypocritical, in the case of someone who says not to steal but does so with no regret or internal struggle?

On a different note, what about someone who only ever claims “if you accept this way of understanding ethics and these premises then it follows that stealing, which within this ethical framework woul be precisely defined as follows…, is wrong” without allowing anyone to pin down whether or not they accept the framework, or even someone who openly doesn’t? Surely their ethical claims also manage to couch any obligations they might possess into hypotheticals alongside the conclusions. So long as one cannot be held to be committed to the truth of their ethical ideas there is no contradiction between officially presented beliefs and their actions.

Axel
Axel
Reply to  Drew Cavallo
5 months ago

Yes, you are right. A good argument by an “immoral philosopher” is still a good argument.

Kevin
Kevin
5 months ago

I’m surprised by the number of people claiming that ethicists affter Aristotle have forgotten the importance of habituation for producing ethical behavior. That strikes me as a straw-person argument–I always took this to be a lasting insight that many, perhaps most, ethical theorists working in various traditions have adopted, even if they disagree with Aristotle about whether and how its relation to habit explains that an act is right.