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.