Ethicists should look less ethical

Are ethicists more ethical than other people? Philosopher Eric Shwitzgebel has investigated this at some length and basically says no. He suggests this is because ethicists think of themselves as employed to think about ethics, not to be personally more ethical, and they are just not any more ethically ambitious than other people.

To find out if ethicists are more ethical, he checked how well they behave according to commonly held moral views. How much they steal library books, how much they call their mothers, how often they eat meat, and so on.

This seems like a poor way to judge the ethicalness of ethicists. Unless I am mistaken, the whole point of doing ethics research is to change our understanding of ethics. Successful ethics research then should lead to aiming to be ‘less ethical’, all things equal, if the measure of ethicalness is agreement with pre-existing or commonsense ethical norms.

Similarly, if your navigator directs you along a different route to the one you would have guessed, this suggests your navigator might actually be adding value.

The more troubling claim is that ethicists are apparently about as ethical as other people, rather than less ethical. This is not all that damning, since popular ethics is mostly deontological, and you could rearrange a lot of human behavior without much affecting adherence to a few deontological constraints. For instance, you can change which charities you give to substantially without affecting whether you give to charity and whether you kill anyone directly. Also, presumably a given ethicist studies some narrow set of activities, and is unlikely to have made progress on calling her mother aberrantly or whatever you happen to ask her about.

Ethicists like Peter Singer do manage to have views that at least sound like an ethical step backwards to the average person. Which seems like a good sign about whether they might be getting anywhere with the research.

I actually doubt that ethicists are much more ethical than other people. I just object to concluding that they are not with experiments that wouldn’t tell you if they were.

4 responses to “Ethicists should look less ethical

  1. Good point. The “stealing library books” measure seems fine to me, though. As far as I’m aware, the view that stealing books is wrong is overwhelmingly held *among ethicists*. So it doesn’t seem plausible to me that the number of stolen books can be explained by ethicists’ non-mainstream views on the morality of stealing books. Am I missing something?

  2. We can distinguish what % of your effort or resources to being ethical, from how to spend that %. Your post works regarding the latter, but many perceive ethicists to be arguing for a higher %. Most people only think ethics to be a moderately important consideration in most contexts, but see ethicists as claiming ethics to be much more important. If this perception were correct, ethicists should display a larger %, and hence act more moral according to the usual standards.

  3. I think the particularly damning part is surveys showing that ethicists tend to endorse a ‘beefed-up’ version of ordinary morality, whereby people should donate lots to charity and not eat meat, etc. The complaint is that ethicists aren’t following the ethical conclusions that they endorse, and I think the linked paper provides good evidence for this.

  4. Pingback: Ethicists Are Less Ethical | Thing of Things

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