Love of All Wisdom

The obligation to live as one teaches

by on Nov.24, 2013, under Honesty, Morality

I have written before about Eric Schwitzgebel’s studies suggesting that professors of ethics are no more ethical than anybody else. Now what does this finding mean? A while ago, Schwitzgebel reflected some more on these studies – and on the reactions he found to them. (This reaction was recently referred to on the Philosophy Bites podcast and even in the Manchester Guardian.) He pointed out:

Philosophers rarely seem surprised or unsettled when I present my work on the morality of ethicists — work suggesting that ethics professors behave no differently than other professors or any more in accord with their own moral opinions (e.g., here). Amusement is a more common reaction; so also is dismissal of the relevancy of such results to philosophy. Such reactions reveal something, perhaps, about the role philosophical moral reflection is widely assumed to have in academia and in individual ethicists’ personal lives.

I think Schwitzgebel is quite right that the reaction is telling. Few, I think, would be surprised to hear that ethicists aren’t especially ethical. But similarly few even seem to consider this a problem – and that is what troubles me. Schwitzgebel’s post is interesting because it articulates a defence of the unethical ethicist (or at least the ethicist who is no more ethical than anybody else). He puts this defence in hypothetical terms, not stating whether he endorses it himself. It is the defence that a philosophy professor could make if she endorsed Peter Singer’s arguments for vegetarianism but nevertheless ate a cheeseburger in a cafeteria:

Singer’s arguments are sound. It is morally wrong of me to eat this delicious cheeseburger. But my role as a philosopher is only to discuss philosophical issues, to present and evaluate philosophical views and arguments, not to live accordingly. Indeed, it would be unfair to expect me to live to higher moral standards just because I am an ethicist. I am paid to teach and write, like my colleagues in other fields; it would be an additional burden on me, not placed on them, to demand that I also live my life as a model. Furthermore, the demand that ethicists live as moral models would create distortive pressures on the field that might tend to lead us away from the moral truth. If I feel no inward or outward pressure to live according to my publicly espoused doctrines, then I am free to explore doctrines that demand high levels of self-sacrifice on an equal footing with more permissive doctrines. If instead I felt an obligation to live as I teach, I would be highly motivated to avoid concluding that wealthy people should give most of their money to charity or that I should never lie out of self-interest. The world is better served if the intellectual discourse of moral philosophy is undistorted by such pressures, that is, if ethicists are not expected to live out their moral opinions.

There is much, I think, that is deeply wrong with this line of reasoning.

The assumption underlying it seems to be that the truth of an ethical view has absolutely nothing to do with whether human beings are capable of living up to it. The hypothetical philosopher thinks that feeling obliged to live up to ethical views that she herself endorses would make her less likely to endorse demanding views, and that this would create a “distortive pressure” on the views she advocates. But we might just as well ask: why does this “distortive pressure” not work both ways? If one feels no obligation to live up to one’s own views – which is basically to say that one believes it perfectly good to be a hypocrite – then why would this not be just as likely to distort one’s views in the direction of excessive demandingness? Unless, again, it is assumed that whether one can live up to an ethic has nothing whatsoever to do with its truth, and this seems an extraordinarily suspicious assumption when the whole point of an ethic is that it is something to live up to.

Notice that this hypothetical ethicist specifically claims not to “feel an obligation to live as I teach”. What can this even mean? It seems to me that if the concept of ethical obligation means anything, then the most central of obligations – an almost but not quite tautological obligation – is the obligation to live up to the views that one oneself holds. If I am not even obliged to do that, it does not seem to me that I could be obliged to do anything at all. The only way it could even make sense to me that a person was not obliged to follow her own beliefs about ethical obligation is specifically if those beliefs were in fact false – which is to say that that person is not really obliged to live by those beliefs because she is instead obliged to live by other, actually true, beliefs.

Pay particular attention here to the “if instead I felt an obligation to live as I teach” – the implication is that the philosopher here feels no such obligation. She is, in short, a hypocrite. Note also her justification for this hypocrisy; it is based on “my role as a philosopher”. The reasoning here could mean one of two things. Either ordinary people, non-philosophers, have no obligation to live as they teach or preach (it is not as if non-philosophers say nothing about what is right and wrong!) or philosophers have less obligation to live accordingly than do ordinary people. Some of the reasoning offered by our hypothetical philosopher suggests the latter – that moral philosophers should be exempted from the requirement to live as one teaches because to do so would somehow obscure their vision of the truth. But again, in that case it is not clear to me that the “distortive pressure” is any stronger in this direction than the other – and even if it were, it seems to me that the moral philosopher should accept that as an occupational hazard. If you are not willing to practise what you preach, you are discouraging others from practising it either, and it seems that in that respect you are not doing your job. Surely the moral philosopher’s task is not merely to find the truth, but to pass it on to others (thus the requirement that a professional philosopher teach and write).

I should note that I have previously written defending hypocrisy. But I have also made a distinction between the “hypocrisy of weakness” and the “hypocrisy of calculation”. Condemnation is deserved by the hypocrite who doesn’t believe what he says, but says it out of cynical calculation. A defensible hypocrite does believe that what she is doing is wrong – but tries to do better. One does not follow one’s philosophy because one’s efforts to do so have failed, not because one believes that such efforts are unnecessary.

The hypocrisy offered by Schwitzgebel’s hypothetical philosopher seems to me a third type of hypocrisy. It comes somewhat closer to the hypocrisy of weakness than the hypocrisy of calculation, but it is neither. This person (one presumes) is at least not professing a belief in vegetarianism for political or professional gain. But there is also a significant difference from the hypocrisy of weakness as I have previously defined it. The hypocrite of weakness tries to overcome that weakness, and fails. Schwitzgebel’s hypocrite simply shrugs it off, on grounds of appropriate roles: it’s my job to tell people what’s right and wrong, it’s not my job to do it. But I find this special pleading entirely unconvincing. The point of knowing what’s right and wrong, good and bad, is that oneself and others might then do it. It would be a very sad sort of professionalization to split off the knowledge of ethical truth from any reason to act accordingly.

:, , ,

11 Comments for this entry

  • Ben

    I think you do a good job of disassembling this argument, but I think there’s another, (somewhat) more convincing argument that such a non-practicing ethicist might take.

    For ease of phrasing (and proper devil’s-advocacy), I’ll put on that hypothetical mantle for a moment:

    “As an ethicist, part of my job description is as a sort of researcher. I obviously can’t be fixed and settled in my ethical ideas: I need to test alternative possibilities, learn new things, and generally advance our philosophical understanding of ethics. THAT is why I need to not practice what I believe: because when I approach a new ethical framework, I will not understand it successfully if I bring the skepticism of a non-believer. I need to be fully open to it, to embrace it, or else I (having all the normal limitations of a human being) will not be able to give it the full and fair consideration it deserves.

    But these are experimental ethics. I may decide, after hours or days or years, that one of these is a bad choice. I may never be certain. That’s why I need to separate my professional life from my ethical behavior. It’s like being a vegetarian and an animal researcher: you can be both, because the two domains (selfish food consumption vs. scientific exploration) have different goals and different needs. To advance human knowledge, that researcher is willing to sacrifice a whole lot of mice, though she would never eat factory-farmed meat in her personal life. Similarly, I need to push and define the boundaries of ethics in my professional life, in ways different from the ethics of my private life.”

    Fully convincing? Nah. Like Schwitzgebel’s argument (as you point out), it also sounds like a rationalization for “I don’t need to live up to my own standards.” But I think this argument is at least a lot more interesting.

    • Amod Lele

      I like where you’re going with this. Here I think there is the point that we’re never (or rarely) certain of anything, especially when it comes to something as difficult as ethics. It’s easy and common for an idea to show up that seems plausible on its face, which might even strike one as prima facie true, but which, if true, would require a drastic adjustment of one’s lifestyle. And I think it makes sense not to make that adjustment until one is really confident that that new idea is indeed true – else one would constantly be buffeted around by the winds of new ideas as one discovered them, becoming a monk this week, going vegetarian that week, giving everything to charity the next. The question is likely when one becomes sufficiently convinced of an idea that it becomes important to live up to it.

  • Jamey

    A few observations, incidentally from someone who teaches ethics:

    * Much of what I teach is completely different from what I believe (Kant’s ethics, say), because I am teaching a survey of influential views in an undergraduate course. In fact, my precise view on morality isn’t something I generally teach at all. Since a major point of undergrad philosophy courses is to encourage critical reflection, rather than memorizing right answers, I think it is generally correct to keep one’s own views below the surface.
    So, the accusation of hypocrisy based on what one *teaches* seems misguided.

    * I agree that it seems like a problem if ethicists are no more ethical as a result of studying ethics, but this is not necessarily the same thing as the population of ethicists being no more ethical than average. The pool of people who choose to enter a specific field is often quite different from the general population to begin with. For instance, addiction medicine is sometimes criticized for having a high number of practitioners with a record of misconduct, but this does not show that the field has a bad effect on people, but only that it is a specialty that is understanding of doctors recovering from substance abuse.
    Perhaps the discipline of ethics is of greater-than-usual interest to people who are curious about it (due to lacking a strong internal ethical impetus), or to people who find it challenging to act ethically. Certainly, someone who is naturally inclined to be a moral paragon likely has little to gain from studying ethics.
    All of this is to say: I would be curious to hear whether ethicists report being no more ethical now than they were prior to studying and teaching ethics, as I expect it’s an atypical pool of people to begin with.

    * Pointing out the absence of motivation to back up one’s intellectual moral beliefs isn’t always a hypocritical cop-out, especially when what one believes is quite demanding. Does the fact that it is really difficult to get oneself to give all (or even a substantial portion of) one’s wealth to charity make one a hypocrite for believing that one should? Hypocrisy of weakness is incredibly wide-spread, so it seems unrealistic to judge it too harshly. (After all, wouldn’t we rather people believe in difficult ideals and be weak-willed hypocrites, than be contentedly immoral?)

    • Amod Lele

      Welcome, Jamey; it’s great to see you here!

      Point by point:

      * I’m using the term “teach” in a broad sense; perhaps “preach” would be a little more accurate. I don’t mean “explain in a classroom”, I mean “expound as correct” – as Schwitzgebel’s hypothetical professor does, saying she endorses Singer’s view as correct. I agree that it’s often (though perhaps not always) good pedagogy to keep one’s own views out of the way in order to encourage students to think for themselves.

      * Interesting thought. Perhaps something for the next round of ES’s data collection? :)

      * I agree that one shouldn’t judge hypocrisy of weakness too harshly. (My previous post on the subject said exactly that.) But there is a crucial difference between the hypocrisy of weakness and the kind of hypocrisy practised by Schwitzgebel’s hypothetical philosopher, which is that the hypocrite of weakness tries (and fails) to be better. The hypothetical objector here sees no need even to try, and that is what I judge harshly. In many respects I would prefer that the objector advocate for what s/he actually aims to practise, even if I disagree with it, then advocate the behaviour that I agree with and blithely paying no respect to it in practice.

  • Eric Schwitzgebel

    Very interesting post and comments!

    Amod: Could you clarify a bit more why you think that having no pressure to live up to your views might lead you to distort your ethics toward excessive demandingness? And then also: Suppose it is the case that both (1.) the demand that a philosopher live up to her ethical theories creates distortion toward laxity, and (2.) the lack of demand that a philosopher live up to her ethical theories creates distortion toward stringency or demandingness. Might there be some territory where the pressures cancel — e.g., that there be a weak expectation that one try a little bit to live up to one’s theories?

    Ben: That’s an interesting variation on the cheeseburger ethicist’s arguments, I agree.

    Jamey: I do think that’s an interesting and live possibility. Josh Rust and I discuss a version that possibility a bit in our forthcoming paper “The Moral Behavior of Ethicists and the Power of Reason” Part II, subsection “Compensation for Deficient Intuitions”.

    • Amod Lele

      Eric: The question of distortive pressure seems to me tied to two other questions: the degree to which ought implies can, and the extent of internalism/externalism with respect to moral motivation. If one were to believe that the truth of an ethical doctrine has absolutely nothing whatever to do with whether anyone could live up to it or even whether they would have a motivating reason to want to, then there would probably be no such thing as distortive pressure in the direction of excessive demandingness. But that does not seem to me like a position that can be accepted without significant additional justification.

      By contrast, it seems to me that the point (or at least a point) of exploring ethical theories – as opposed to metaphysical theories or scientific theories – is that they be guides to life, something that can be lived up to. That nobody would want to live up to a given theory, or that nobody would be able to, strikes me as at least a prima facie case against it – one that a thinker who refuses to live up to a theory is now able to ignore, to the detriment of that thinker’s theorizing.

      It does strike me that discussion on these points may not get much further in the abstract – i.e. without connection to the substantive content of ethical theories, or more precisely of metaethical theories. To know whether stringency or demandingness distorts one’s theorizing may wind up hinging on which theory is actually true.

  • elisa freschi

    Amod, interesting point. I think, however, that there are two different problems, one being knowing abstractly what would be ethically the *best* course of action and the other being investigating about what is the best way among the ones which are *humanly* possible. For instance, in the first case one might conclude that among deciding whether to throw down (and thus kill) from a tower n children or n+1 children, one should always decide to throw down the first group. In the second, one might add that, if in the n children group there is one’s own daughter, one cannot help but protecting her first. I do not think that ethics *ought* to deal only with the second problem, although I am personally more interested in it.

    By the way, I uphold a similar position re. epistemology. I see that people might be interested in ascertaining what is *truth* or *valid knowledge* independently of human possibilities, but I am more attracted to humanly possible valid cognition (e.g., I am not interested in criteria which are so strict as to be impossible to verify).

    • Steven Schmidt

      And both questions are philosophical. It’s not that if we settle what are the best decisions then the best way a human make decisions is a straightforward, although complicated, constrained optimization problem, as if we understood human nature, and our individual natures perfectly.

      • Amod Lele

        I think these points relate closely to what I said to Eric in the previous reply. I agree with what I think Steven is saying: it is itself a philosophical question whether “the best thing to do” is a different question from “what is humanly possible”. And I am not sure I want to make the gap very wide. If we can talk about “the best thing to do” separately from what is possible or humanly possible, then surely the best thing to do in every situation is to transport everyone to a perfect world of infinite bliss using the power of one’s mind.

        Having said that, I think what Elisa is talking about is a bit of a different question. I think it is possible for a mother to sacrifice her own daughter to save a larger number of people; I suspect there are historically attested cases where just this has happened. To say “one cannot help” saving one’s own daughter raises related questions of free will. A determinist might argue that one cannot help doing anything that one does.

  • Lantern Jack

    Suppose that a young professor of philosophy had produced and published these same results about the behavior of ethics professors and that he further believed, as you do, that this does in fact indicate a kind of hypocrisy on the part of ethics professors. Would he really be able to make that further opinion public without jeopardising his future prospects and reputation in academia? And wouldn’t such a declared opinion call into question the motivations and objectivity of the study?

    There are many conceivable reasons why the publisher of such a study might give ethics professors the benefit of the doubt publicly. Isn’t it more interesting to look at the study itself and ask ourselves why ethics professors aren’t more ethical? (esp. since you wrote in a previous post that the not-particularly-ethical behavior of ethics professors is obvious to anyone whose been around a philosophy department) Are virtue ethicists e.g. any more virtuous than ethics professors of analytic stock? Is philosophy perhaps not what it used to be? Was it ever?

    • Amod Lele

      Thanks and welcome, Jack, and sorry for the delay in replying.

      I do think it’s an important question why ethics professors aren’t more ethical. I think the biggest thing has to do with the fact that materially, being an ethics professor or an ethics student are reduced to no more than professions – there is no element of confession or other practice attached, as part of the modern secular university. There are a number of significant philosophers (like Alasdair MacIntyre and Paul Griffiths) who critique the modern university on related grounds. It would be interesting to conduct this sort of study at universities that actually had codes of conduct for professors and students.

Looking for something?

Use the form below to search the site:

Still not finding what you're looking for? Drop a comment on a post or contact us so we can take care of it!