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Aeon magazine recently published an excellent popularized version of Eric Schwitzgebel’s reflections on his research indicating that professional ethicists are no more ethical than anybody else. I’ve already blogged here both about the research and about the reflections. Betsy (Elizabeth) Barre shared the Aeon piece on her Facebook feed, leading to a lively conversation on Facebook which provoked me to think further about deeper issues around it.

In that conversation I shared my earlier reflection on the topic. In response, among other thoughts, Barre noted she was surprised that Schwitzgebel hadn’t presented the reflection in terms of the standard distinction between “what is moral?” and “why be moral?” And she asked me: “I take it that you think the latter question is not as problematic as some philosophers and ethicists do?”

That question came as a surprise. I have long thought the question “why be moral?” quite problematic indeed. It was perhaps the question I asked myself most often as an undergraduate, struggling with utilitarianism. But looking back on my blog entries, I realized it is also not a question I have asked much here, and I realized also that there’s a reason for that. What I have asked here instead was: why should we do anything at all? In this post and the next, I’d like to say some more about why I no longer find “why be moral?”to be the big problem I once thought it was.

Part of the issue here, I think, is the way in which contemporary analytical ethics tends largely to be derived from some combination of utilitarianism and Kant. Both of these, I think, see themselves as dealing with a morality or ethics understood largely in terms of obligation – of what we are in some sense required to do. And it is there that I think they run into trouble.

The notorious utilitarian Peter Singer, as I discussed before, is very explicit about saying that giving one’s money to the poor is an obligation, a duty:

The traditional distinction between duty and charity cannot be drawn, or at least, not in the place we normally draw it. Giving money to the Bengal Relief Fund is regarded as an act of charity in our society. The bodies which collect money are known as “charities.” These organizations see themselves in this way – if you send them a check, you will be thanked for your “generosity.” Because giving money is regarded as an act of charity, it is not thought that there is anything wrong with not giving. The charitable man may be praised, but the man who is not charitable is not condemned. People do not feel in any way ashamed or guilty about spending money on new clothes or a new car instead of giving it to famine relief. (Indeed, the alternative does not occur to them.) This way of looking at the matter cannot be justified. (from “Famine, affluence and morality“)

It is no coincidence that Schwitzgebel’s key example of a “cheeseburger ethicist” (an ethicist who refuses to live up to her own principles) is a follower of Singer. Nearly every Singerian is likely to be just that: living a life that wallows in guilt over the fact that she is not doing her duty, not doing the things that she is morally obliged to do. After all, on Singer’s view we are all effectively murderers, except for the likes of Gandhi and the possibly fictionalized Karl Polanyi, who lived austere ascetic lives that they might sacrifice everything to the poor and hungry. It is important in this regard that Singer himself does not live up to his own philosophy and does not claim to; he gives to charities at a level most people would consider generous, but not nearly as much as his own theory says we are obliged to do. There is a great deal of money Singer could be giving to charity and is instead keeping for his own comfort in his Manhattan apartment, and there are many poor children dying right now whose lives would be saved if Singer gave that money away. On Singer’s own account, where the (intended) consequences of an act are all that matters, this is not significantly different from literally stabbing all those innocent children in the heart.

What I have articulated about Singer is at least closely related to what is known as the demandingness objection to utilitarianism. Readers may recall I recently argued against Stephen Harris that Śāntideva’s thought does not fall victim to that objection, and in the conversation over Schwitzgebel I realized more clearly why that point is important.

Śāntideva is suspicious of the very concept of blame; he rejects the idea of free will, in many respects for just that reason. For that reason, one can even describe Śāntideva’s work as ethics without morality, depending on one’s definition of those terms. He does not speak in terms of obligation, of duty, of what one must do, what it is wrong not to do. Any demands in his theory are made not by the theory, but by the world, and so those who do not live up to it should not be condemned, but should receive compassion. They will suffer as a result of their bad actions, and we should have compassion for that suffering like any other. So while Śāntideva thinks the good life can involve acts of self-sacrifice even greater than those called for by Singer – including the sacrifice of one’s own life – it is not in that sense demanding.

The point in this context is that in an important respect for Śāntideva, the bodhisattva path could be said to be supererogatory. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia entry, “supererogatory” is a biblical term, appearing first in the Latin translation of the Gospel of Luke’s parable of the Good Samaritan, to describe acts that are good beyond the call of duty: things that it is good to do, but that we are not obliged to do. There is a long theological history to the idea of the supererogatory, especially in the works of Thomas Aquinas. It has been picked up in recent secular analytical moral philosophy, as a way to explore those good acts that are not a matter of duty as such. I think the concept is useful and valuable, and in that respect it is good that it has been revived. But I think it has been revived in the wrong way, or at least to the wrong degree, and next time I’ll say more about why.