Why Moral Philosophers Aren’t More Moral Than the Rest of Us

2 02 2011

Brace yourself. Or sit down. Or both. Eric Schwitzgebel and compatriots have uncovered a startling revelation: professional ethicists don’t behave any more morally or courteously than non-ethicists.

Full abstract of their paper:

If philosophical moral reflection tends to promote moral behavior, one might think that professional ethicists would behave morally better than do socially comparable non-ethicists.  We examined three types of courteous and discourteous behavior at American Philosophical Association conferences: talking audibly while the speaker is talking (vs. remaining silent), allowing the door to slam shut while entering or exiting mid-session (vs. attempting to close the door quietly), and leaving behind clutter at the end of a session (vs. leaving one’s seat tidy).  By these three measures, audiences in ethics sessions did not appear, generally speaking, to behave any more courteously than did audiences in non-ethics sessions.  However, audiences in environmental ethics sessions did appear to leave behind less trash.

I love it. But it’s actually not a startling revelation at all. In fact, it just lends weight to a point that myself and many others have been making for quite some time, that abstract moral reasoning is quite far removed from the nitty gritty mechanisms that govern and steer moral behaviour.

It’s like saying that couch potatoes who studied a booklet on the rules of basketball were found to be less proficient at shooting hoops than individuals who have practised shooting hoops.

Moral behaviour is a practice. It is knowledge-how, not knowledge-that. One can know that lying to cover up a misdeed is wrong without being very good at putting that knowledge into practice.

Certainly, an increased awareness of the knowledge-that and being practised in moral deliberation might help with particular moral conundrums, such as moral dilemmas, where various positions need to be weighed up. But these moral dilemmas often pit one value against another, or one morally undesirable outcome against another – like whether to kill one innocent individual to save five. A knowledge of moral philosophy might help someone navigate this difficult conceptual terrain.

However, even with moral dilemmas, there’s no guarantee that a moral philosopher, once they’ve come to their conclusion about the most moral course of action, would be any more inclined to carry it out. Say they decide the moral thing to do is sacrifice one innocent to save five – could they do it? Could they kill an innocent person in ‘cold blood’? Could they act contra to their deep-seated emotional proclivities?

The situations observed in the paper above are also different from the moral dilemmas that philosophers love oh so much. These situations observed are simply where a moral – or socially desirable/responsible – action is pitted against a self-interested or lazy action. If asked, many of the professional ethicists at that conference would probably agree that slamming the door or leaving trash is not morally ideal behaviour. But what they lacked was either the willpower to prevent their actions or the desire to act morally in that situation.

Moral behaviour is directed by very different psychological mechanisms than moral deliberation. We should no more expect professional ethicists to be virtuous as we would a gymnastics coach to be able to pull off a flawless floor routine.

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9 responses

2 02 2011
John S. Wilkins

Well that’s not news. I have known ethicists :-)

2 02 2011
Nick Smyth

I’m sorry, but the entire premise of these “studies” is infantile. Why, when studying moral philosophers, does Eric get to use the word “moral” in a loose, “common-sense” way in order to measure immorality? Surely the existence of moral philosophy is itself a testament to the fact that the meaning of this term is highly contested, and that the phrases “more moral” and “less moral” are quantitatively meaningless.

Consider, for example, a Nietzschean moral philosopher who believes in a morality that involves raising “superior” types and hindering inferior ones. Such a person would be acting contrary to their moral principles if they helpfully responded to “challenged” or academically inferior students via email. Yet, according to Eric, not responding to student emails is an indication of immoral behaviour. What are we to say to this Nietzschean? More importantly, how do the Nietzschean’s survey results indicate immoral behaviour? They do nothing of the sort.

I fear that this is the sort of “result” that gives Experimental Philosophy a bad name. Philosophy is, at least, an attempt to get clear on some of our most general and central concepts. “Morality” is just one of those. to try to measure morality before a broad consensus is reached on the meaning of the term is to completely ignore philosophy itself.

2 02 2011
baalbek.org » Are ethicists our moral betters?

[…] Josh Rust and Eric Schwitzgabel find that the answer is “no”; but is this just because doing good is know-how, rather than descriptive knowledge? […]

2 02 2011
James Gray

This study could not possibly prove the ambitious conclusion that you would like it to. Do philosophers tend to be violent, dogmatic, fanatical, and so on? I think philosophy itself is an alternative to such irrational behavior.

Of course, I agree that abstract reasoning alone isn’t going to guarantee moral behavior. That said, abstract reasoning can definitely help. It can help us see when we are being hypocritical, have unfair moral demands, have unjustifiable prejudice, and so on.

I would love to interrupt people and I don’t think it’s such a big deal that I should waste my life to achieve the virtues of courtesy when more productive virtues can be achieved. However, I do listen to people’s criticisms of my behavior and I am a lot better at being courteous etc. than I used to.

2 02 2011
Tim Dean

I can’t believe you don’t accept this paper as being paradigm changing stuff?!

Heh. Actually, I agree. I read the paper as being tongue-in-cheek (I, too, would be worried if it was terribly serious), but saw it as an opportunity to make my point about moral practise versus moral reasoning.

3 02 2011
Why Moral Philosophers Aren’t More Moral Than the Rest of Us (via Ockham’s Beard) « Pilant's Business Ethics Blog

[…] Brace yourself. Or sit down. Or both. Eric Schwitzgebel and compatriots have uncovered a startling revelation: professional ethicists don't behave any more morally or courteously than non-ethicists. Full abstract of their paper: If philosophical moral reflection tends to promote moral behavior, one might think that professional ethicists would behave morally better than do socially comparable non-ethicists.  We examined three types of courteous a … Read More […]

3 02 2011
Paul

The paper may be tongue in cheek, but the general idea behind it, that morality consists of behaviors that can be measured, seems like a serious and valid point. Who cares if we achieve more clarity on some of our most general and central concepts, if such clarity doesn’t lead to a change in behavior. The project of actually attempting to understand how and when thinking, especially philosophical thinking, actually influences behavior, is a serious and important project. The first attempts of most any science or discipline are likely going to be misguided in their method. That fact doesn’t change the validity of the endeavor.

12 06 2011
Why aren’t ethicists always our moral betters? | baalbek.org

[…] Rust and Eric Schwitzgabel find that the answer is “no”; but is this just because doing good is know-how, rather than descriptive knowledge? This entry was posted in philosophy, society and tagged culture, ethics. Bookmark the permalink. […]

17 03 2012
Why Moral Philosophers Aren’t More Moral Than the Rest of Us (via Ockham’s Beard) - Pilant's Business Ethics | Pilant's Business Ethics

[…] James Pilant Brace yourself. Or sit down. Or both. Eric Schwitzgebel and compatriots have uncovered a startling revelation: professional ethicists don’t behave any more morally or courteously than non-ethicists. Full abstract of their paper: If philosophical moral reflection tends to promote moral behavior, one might think that professional ethicists would behave morally better than do socially comparable non-ethicists.  We examined three types of courteous a … Read More […]

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