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.
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.