I’ve been waiting for these survey results, by philosophy professors Eric Schwitzgebel and Joshua Rust, to come out. (Schwitzgebel is a fellow blogger whom I referred to last time.) I was among the 200 philosophers they surveyed at the 2007 APA conference, identifying myself as an ethicist. The answers I gave appear to match the answers most other people gave: ethicists are not usually better people than non-ethicists. That is (respondents said when they elaborated their opinions), ethicists are not typically more conscientious, fair, generous, honest, kind, selfless or thoughtful than other philosophers, or than non-academics.
Schwitzgebel and Rust surveyed philosophers as the people who presumably knew ethicists the best. Obviously there are problems with the extremely non-random sample in the survey methodology (whoever wanted a cookie or candy at the conference filled out the survey). Still it’s useful because the result is, on the one hand, pretty obvious to anyone who hangs around philosophy departments (I had no doubt the results would turn out as they did), and on the other hand, somewhat troubling. If studying ethics doesn’t make us more ethical, in some sense, then is it worth doing?
The question is unfair to some extent. Many ethicists focus on the application of ethics to very specific contexts, where it’s not obvious what the right thing to do is. Others focus on the nature of ethical claims: how can we really say something is good or right, in the first place? Answering either of these questions isn’t really supposed to make us more virtuous people, any more than studying sociology or physics is.
And yet there’s still a problem here. What if we do want to be better people? Academic ethics, at least in some cases, should teach us what it is to be a good person. But that doesn’t make us good people, any more than we become good soccer players just by knowing what a good soccer player does. It might help, but really we need something else. What is that something else? I’ll try to say more in my next post.