A study of ethics may lead to justifying behaviour considered immoral. But that doesn’t mean we should give up on philosophy, says Eric Schwitzgebel in a talk.
Eric Schwitzgebel, professor of philosophy, Berkley, is doing empirical research on whether ethicists behave ethically. Is it not natural that we expect them to?
“We have a variety of ways of looking at it…a survey was sent out to professors, ethicists and others where they talk about their normative ethical opinions and how they would behave under similar circumstances. We also have some observational measures. One of the questions we asked, for example, is, if it is morally good, bad or neutral to regularly eat the meat of mammals… like beef and pork…60 per cent of U.S. professors teaching ethics said it was morally bad, 45 per cent of non-ethicist philosophy professors said it was bad, and only 19 per cent of professors other than philosophy said it was bad…that it is bad to eat meat seems to be the majority opinion. Later in the same questionnaire we asked if in their last evening meal they ate the meat of any mammal and there we found no significant difference in the statistics…so there seems a big difference in people’s expressed moral opinion and little or no difference in their actual meat eating behaviour.”
In another survey the researchers found that the donations made by ethicist and non-ethicist philosophers were similar, while non-philosopher professors donated a little less. The questionnaire had a section wherein the respondent was asked to talk of charitable behaviour and was given an incentive saying: if you fill in this part of the questionnaire we will donate $1 to some respectable charity…non-philosopher professors reacted more to this than philosophy professors of any type. “So,” says Schwitzgebel, “this is a mixed bag, we do not think ethicists philosophers donate any more than others though they are more stringent on saying how much should give to charity.”
Does that mean people teaching ethics are not inclined to behave more morally than others? Eric finds the answer in the affirmative. He draws an interesting distinction between ancient philosophers like Socrates, Diogenes and others who invited people to look at their lives…they lived their philosophy…and contemporary ethical philosophers who talk about what should be morally but do not show themselves as examples.
Schwitzgebel says that it may be demanding too much of a person to say that if you are teaching ethics you should be prepared to drink the hemlock if it comes to it. But, the punch to the talk comes with Schwitzgebel saying that ethicists can rationalise everything. To justify his statements he says that the first step in his research was taken when he found the maximum number of books that disappear from a library are books on ethics.
“I am picturing an ethicist wanting to steal a book. Normally you would not right? Well, but if you do, the ethicists can think of utilitarian consequential justification, according to normative principles, according to virtue ethics…so if you are tempted to behave in some manner, and if you are a talented ethicist you can concoct some rationalisation and then you may actually behave worse…with license. Sometimes you reflect, you feel something is not ethical and you change your course of action…that way ethics has pointed in the right direction. But sometimes you reflect and rationalise obnoxious behaviour.”
So, says Schwitzgebel, that though his area of research lies somewhere at the intersection of philosophy and psychology, he does believe that each one of us has a moral compass inside us and if we let it guide us we could know the right from the wrong. “Action without reflection may be misguided and philosophers and reading great philosophical works may help you reflect on what is right, wrong, good, bad…something important will be lost if we just gave up and do not do that. But at the same time, I do not think it is really straight forward that doing that actually does have positive influences on your behaviour, in fact in some cases it may even have negative influence. But the answer is not to give up on philosophy,” says Schwitzgebel.