Cheeseburger ethics
July 15, 2015 2:03 AM   Subscribe

How often do ethics professors call their mothers? My son Davy, then seven years old, was in his booster seat in the back of my car. ‘What do you think, Davy?’ I asked. ‘People who think a lot about what’s fair and about being nice – do they behave any better than other people? Are they more likely to be fair? Are they more likely to be nice?’ Davy didn’t respond right away. I caught his eye in the rearview mirror. ‘The kids who always talk about being fair and sharing,’ I recall him saying, ‘mostly just want you to be fair to them and share with them.
posted by elgilito (76 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
 
Invalidating someone's arguments or reasoning because they don't personally embody those arguments is a logical fallacy (tu quoque), otherwise known as an appeal to hypocrisy.
posted by LtRegBarclay at 2:31 AM on July 15, 2015 [22 favorites]


On the contrary, if someone's engine is belching black smoke I'd conclude that they lack knowledge of how to maintain a car.

since ethicists don’t behave better or worse than others, philosophical reflection must be behaviourally inert

That's going beyond the data, which only tells us that 21st century analytic ethics is behaviorally inert. Other, older schools of ethics (e.g. the Stoics) had a deserved reputation for radically changing the behaviour of their students. It's a pity they're no longer around, and not only because they would be interesting to study.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 2:41 AM on July 15, 2015 [7 favorites]


After reading that article and listening to the Awesome Etiquette podcast for more than a while now, I might have become convinced that following Lizzie's and Dan's core etiquette values of Respect, Honesty, and Consideration may actually be the most ethical approach to life of all.
posted by hippybear at 3:05 AM on July 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


Other, older schools of ethics (e.g. the Stoics) had a deserved reputation for radically changing the behaviour of their students.

I don't know all the names for fallacies, but I'm pretty sure there's one for judging a philosophy by its adherents' testimony of its effects. I mean, this is like saying, "well, Christianity had a lot of miracle working saints, right? Must be true!" We know very little about how actual Stoics lived, how widespread their philosophy was, what proportion of Stoics lived up to their own standards. Essentially nothing, in fact, as the evidence is almost entirely backwards looking hagiography.
posted by AdamCSnider at 3:08 AM on July 15, 2015 [6 favorites]


eating the meat of mammals

Man, this dude doesn't care about birds very much.
posted by Greg Nog at 3:13 AM on July 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


Here are the measures we looked at: voting in public elections, calling one’s mother, eating the meat of mammals, donating to charity, littering, disruptive chatting and door-slamming during philosophy presentations, responding to student emails, attending conferences without paying registration fees, organ donation, blood donation, theft of library books, overall moral evaluation by one’s departmental peers based on personal impressions, honesty in responding to survey questions, and joining the Nazi party in 1930s Germany.


There's something a little iffy about a study that doesn't seem to apply a quantitative difference between door slamming and, say, being a card carrying Nazi.

I mean, I'm a Nazi, but I always close doors very quietly.
posted by crazylegs at 3:15 AM on July 15, 2015 [42 favorites]


There's something a little iffy about a study that doesn't seem to apply a quantitative difference between door slamming and, say, being a card carrying Nazi.

Yeah, agree. I also didn't like their list of measures because it's so short! I might have felt differently about the whole project if the list was long and broad. This seems token and shallow so it can't take into account so many kinds of ethical behaviour. I am some kind of ethicist and something I see often is that ethicists (and other ethically minded people) zero in on the things they can do, especially easily. So if you can do effective altruism you don't fret about not being able to resist buffalo wings. If you're a professor, spreading ideas and discussion and encouraging research, maybe you give yourself a pass for being tardy with emails.

I love LtRegBarclay's comment. I'm a big fan of admitting hypocrisy. I want people to admit it rather than pretend the other person's argument is bad/wrong. I want people to just say 'yeah, okay, eating chickens is bad, but i love buffalo wings and would rather enjoy them than give them up.' Instead, I find people very reluctant to shift their position and will get irrational or nasty.

But interesting that there isn't other research on ethics education and its translation into behaviour. Is that true? Has anyone seen other studies? I've seen studies where ethics education leads to people being able to better identify morally relevant situations/issues but not whether it leads to living more ethically (however you define it).
posted by stellathon at 3:35 AM on July 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


To be fair, it sounds like the study design asked people to rate whether they personally believed each item was ethically wrong, and how wrong, on a scale, and then compared that to their actions. So first, it does distinguish between being a Nazi and slamming doors (as long as the respondent does), and second, it was measuring whether ethicists acted on accordance with their own beliefs, rather than according to some absolute moral judgement.
posted by lollusc at 3:46 AM on July 15, 2015 [7 favorites]


None of the classic questions of philosophy are beyond a seven-year-old’s understanding.

I get what the author is getting at with that opening line, but it doesn't exactly inspire confidence in their grasp of the field's "classic questions."
posted by Xavier Xavier at 3:47 AM on July 15, 2015 [8 favorites]


Not actually convinced that someone who expounds the truth of vegetarianism and then chooses to snarf down a burger really has any coherent theoretical defence.

The problem is that if people claim to understand what's right, but don't do it, we are entitled to question their understanding or belief in what's right (OK, also weakness of will, but putting that on one side). So a moral philosopher who behaves badly invalidates their own claim to understand ethics.

Thing is, I doubt most academics make that claim quite so baldly: they are actually in various degrees sceptical or in doubt about the topic they explore and teach and generally offer only tentative views and partial clarifications.
posted by Segundus at 3:48 AM on July 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


Are professional ethicists good people? According to our research, not especially. So what is the point of learning ethics?

Schwitzgebel ignores self-selection bias. Who goes into the study of ethics? People who don't naturally understand morality at a gut level. For any topic X, the people drawn to study X are the people who are mystified by it and who want to know more. (cf. The old saw about how only people who need therapy become therapists.)

So yeah, maybe ethicists aren't especially good people. But imagine how much worse they'd be if they weren't ethicists!
posted by painquale at 3:53 AM on July 15, 2015 [30 favorites]


That's the flippant response that I use to rile ethicists.
posted by painquale at 3:54 AM on July 15, 2015 [19 favorites]


None of the classic questions of philosophy are beyond a seven-year-old’s understanding.
~~~~~~

I get what the author is getting at with that opening line, but it doesn't exactly inspire confidence in their grasp of the field's "classic questions."


"What can I know? What ought I to do? What may I hope?"
posted by Wolof at 3:57 AM on July 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


And what time do the shops close?
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:06 AM on July 15, 2015 [6 favorites]


Not everything. A few things. Nothing.
posted by Xavier Xavier at 4:10 AM on July 15, 2015


(That's for Wolof ... and Kant. JIA: ten minutes before you need them to be open.)
posted by Xavier Xavier at 4:11 AM on July 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


You know what? It's way too early for me to be posting anything. Ignore it all. Have a great day, everyone. Call your mother (if you deem that an ethical choice).
posted by Xavier Xavier at 4:31 AM on July 15, 2015


I don't practice what I preach because I'm not the kind of person I'm preaching to.
 --J. R. "Bob" Dobbs
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:53 AM on July 15, 2015 [20 favorites]


Lack of willpower is a pretty huge force that binds people in harmful behaviors. I don't think this should be under-estimated. Learning what should be done is not at all an indication one has the capacity to do those things.

Learning to create the ability to helping people actually achieve what they wish they could with will- that would be an use of science and skill that would really help change the world.

I think yoga and harm reduction (which to me kind of blend together as ayurveda teaches harm reduction and compassion for harmful behaviors with slow stable change.)

The idea is, you can know where you want to go and establish a vision of health between the self and others and the world- and the process of building the skill sets can still take time and be very difficult. If you expect all or nothing you will get nowhere, you will have to be willing to choose small changes, accept failure and defeat, be kind to ones self even when you are causing harm to yourself and others and keep pushing yourself to make those changes. Not only that but, in the ayurvedic view of health bad behavior itself is often a symptom of health or emotional/spiritual damage from past experiences or past experiences from the parents/ancestors/community that have not been healed. The "bad" behavior may have been useful in that time and place or even be a survival coping mechanism in the present due to specific circumstances blocking the level of resources time, healing, and social support needed for long term sustainable healing. Survival coping mechanisms can have side effects, but still be useful when in bad circumstances or with limited health to sustain the labor or pain of life. We will shut down empathy for others if needed, we will focus on enjoying the here and now if the future is uncertain or bleak- and we can pass on these patterns for generations- likely both through learning and biological processes which can be very deeply set, and take a great deal of time to change.

It can take time (multiple generations) and resources coming in, to heal some of that, not just more pressure or shaming of the self (or the ethicist) for the personal struggle with behavior.

But yes, if the ethicist wants to truly change the world, s/he should begin the arduous task of battling that most grotesque monster one can face, which is ones own self. Learn how to master that and share that knowledge and one opens the doors to transformation in the world.
posted by xarnop at 4:54 AM on July 15, 2015 [5 favorites]


As mentioned above, someone not behaving consistently with a proposition they say is true does not invalidate the truth of the proposition. As a less subjective example, a math teacher may buy lottery tickets without invalidating her understanding of statistics (or it may confirm it).

The problem is that most arguments are not really about truth, they're about behavior. Establishing a particular statement or set of statements are true is the first half of "X is true therefore you should do Y", which is the real point of the argument. In this case observing that someone does not exhibit the behavior Y is far more valid, because you're not trying to invalidate X, but the position that behavior Y is a consequent of X being true.
posted by Grimgrin at 4:58 AM on July 15, 2015


Invalidating someone's arguments or reasoning because they don't personally embody those arguments is a logical fallacy (tu quoque), otherwise known as an appeal to hypocrisy.

Well, yes. But also, no. From Plato on, numerous philosophers have connected the study of philosophy, and the study of moral philosophy in particular, not just with knowing what the good is but actually becoming and being good. The disconnect between the study of the good and the good life is really a 19th-20th century phenomenon.
posted by dis_integration at 5:02 AM on July 15, 2015 [8 favorites]


In my experience, the vast majority of those people who think of themselves as unusually good people have simply wrapped themselves in the misunderstanding of what it means to be a good person. Generally, they've either done it consciously, or in ways that they could figure out if they actually wanted to. So I can't really blame people who don't for not magically being made saints by their decisions not to; at least they're being honest with themselves, which is more than most people manage.
posted by Mitrovarr at 5:02 AM on July 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


With few exceptions, philosophy hasn't been about the best conduct of one's own life since around 500BC. This article is invalid.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 5:06 AM on July 15, 2015


With few exceptions, philosophy hasn't been about the best conduct of one's own life since around 500BC. This article is invalid.

This is just not true. Every single major philosopher up until Hegel was concerned with this question. The earlymodernists above all.
posted by dis_integration at 5:07 AM on July 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


also weakness of will, but putting that on one side

I have a dog in this race, but I think akrasia is the most important ethical issue, and the one that most smart ethicists have been working on since Aristotle. Even many contractualists and deontologists are just trying to produce action-guiding principles for the purposes of better overcoming their own intellectual akrasia.

Also, painquale may have been joking, but I think it's a serious question whether ethicists might have an inherent set of problems that caused them (us) to pursue the academic study of ethics. Certainly there's a strong modern tradition of trying to find value for nihilists and justify altruism to egotists. It's just like how there's a disproportionate number of folks in need of therapy studying psychology: you study what you need.

Or, as I often tell my students: I hate people who can get away with following their gut. My gut is full of shit.
posted by anotherpanacea at 5:24 AM on July 15, 2015 [10 favorites]


Isn't this like the argument that those millionaires who believe the rich should be taxed more are obligated to donate a larger percentage of their own money to the government?
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:25 AM on July 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


Didn't Aristotle make a distinction between ethical knowledge and ethical behavior and put a special emphasis on mindful habit as an essential bridge between the two? Or am I totally making that shit up?
posted by echocollate at 5:34 AM on July 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


Also, painquale may have been joking

When I give that argument in real life, I wait to see audience reaction before deciding whether or not I was joking!
posted by painquale at 5:55 AM on July 15, 2015 [7 favorites]


This is just not true. Every single major philosopher up until Hegel was concerned with this question.

The most basic form of the questions has been: what is the truly or ultimately good principle for an ethical life? It has been about the general principles, not about personal conduct. This question is about individual conduct only in a roundabout manner in the sense that surely you should follow these general principles. But it has not been about invalidating these principles based on individual conduct, or judging them based on it. Ever.

This may sound like nitpicking. But that's philosophy for you.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 5:59 AM on July 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


In retrospect: what everybody else has already said. Philosophy has not been about you personally since about 500 BC. This article is invalid.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 6:30 AM on July 15, 2015


Hardly surprising that the academic study of something doesn't necessarily translate into changed behaviors. Behaving ethically (according to whatever code you believe in) isn't just a matter of knowing what you think is right. It's a matter of building habits of doing, which also typically means developing certain personal attributes and skills, such as willpower, self-control, self-awareness, and letting go of ego.

You could spend decades making an academic study of hoplology, but it won't mean you are any good at fighting.
You can have a Ph.D. in aerodynamic engineering, but it doesn't mean you can fly a plane.

Most people have an idea of what they think is right and wrong behavior. As far as I know, most academic ethicists are studying those ideas and trying to establish a more rigorous support for what they should be. Learning how to change one's behavior to match those ideals is a whole different issue.

Question for anyone in the field: are there ethicists who are studying the practical discipline of how to live up to one's ideals? Those people (or their test subjects, at least) would be the ones to examine to find out if their behavior matched their theories.
posted by tdismukes at 6:46 AM on July 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


what is the truly or ultimately good principle for an ethical life? It has been about the general principles, not about personal conduct.The most basic form of the questions has been: what is the truly or ultimately good principle for an ethical life? It has been about the general principles, not about personal conduct. This question is about individual conduct only in a roundabout manner in the sense that surely you should follow these general principles. But it has not been about invalidating these principles based on individual conduct, or judging them based on it. Ever.

Again, this is just wrong. It has been the concern of contemporary metaethicists to reconstruct the history of moral philosophy in their own purely metaethical terms, as the search for the general principle. People even absurdly read Plato in this fashion! But the fact is that the pursuit of the knowledge of the good was, generally, concerned with the problem of how to actually be good.

Even Kant, the most abstract of generalizers, concerns himself with practical maxims that we ought to be able to put into practice. His epistemology regards it as fundamentally impossible to know that one has put these maxims into practice, but it does let us know what maxim we ought to follow. He really is concerned with us doing good and not just knowing what it is. He even marks this as a distinct realm of reason: practical reason. It is not abstract!

I can't do a total reconstruction of the history of western thought to show you that this is true, but I would suggest you read Hadot on this point. Just about every philosopher in the history of philosophy has seen philosophical practice itself, in form or another, as the practice of the good. As the proper way of life. (And anyway, at 500BC you're already cutting out Plato. There was no philosophy, properly speaking, before 500BC). Or we could play this game: name a canonical philosopher before the 19th century, and I'll find you a citation that shows that philosopher's concern with the actual practice of the good. If my graduate comprehensive exams in the history of philosophy were good for anything, than I guess it's this.
posted by dis_integration at 6:46 AM on July 15, 2015 [8 favorites]


There's something a little iffy about a study that doesn't seem to apply a quantitative difference between door slamming and, say, being a card carrying Nazi.

I mean, I'm a Nazi, but I always close doors very quietly.


Hitler was a vegetarian.
posted by briank at 6:49 AM on July 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


The most basic form of the questions has been: what is the truly or ultimately good principle for an ethical life? It has been about the general principles, not about personal conduct. This question is about individual conduct only in a roundabout manner in the sense that surely you should follow these general principles.

Since Socrates, and especially since Plato's Republic, one of the main questions in philosophy has beem "why be moral?" Interest in this question has persisted, as a theoretical question, through to the 21st century. It's one of the central questions of the field of ethics, and it has immediate personal implications.

Someone with a plausible answer to the question "why be moral" would be more strongly motivated to behave ethically. Such a person would (statistically) be more likely to behave in a manner consistent with their ethical principles. If analytic ethicists do not show a better than average trend of behaving in a principled fashion, that is evidence that they have no satisfactory answer to the why be moral question.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 6:57 AM on July 15, 2015


Well, the question of 'Why be moral' is not the end-all, be-all of the study of ethics. There's also the question of what moral is, among other things. Also, you shouldn't assume the people involved in the study of something aren't good at it because they don't have an answer yet.
posted by Mitrovarr at 7:02 AM on July 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


There's something a little iffy about a study that doesn't seem to apply a quantitative difference between door slamming and, say, being a card carrying Nazi.

Schwitzgebel is talking about a program of study: on the order of 20 studies, one studying Nazis, one studying door slamming, etc etc
posted by curuinor at 7:12 AM on July 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


Someone with a plausible answer to the question "why be moral" would be more strongly motivated to behave ethically. Such a person would (statistically) be more likely to behave in a manner consistent with their ethical principles. If analytic ethicists do not show a better than average trend of behaving in a principled fashion, that is evidence that they have no satisfactory answer to the why be moral question.
justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow

You're making a lot of assumptions in this argument that are very questionable:

1. having an answer to the question of why one should be moral means that you would be more strongly motivated to behave ethically

2. someone with such an answer would be more likely to behave in a manner consistent with their ethical principles

3. someone not acting in accordance with 1 and 2 is evidence that they don't have such an aswer

You give no reason to believe why any of these assumptions are correct. Why can't someone know why one should be moral, know what morality is, but not act on that knowledge? As anotherpanacea says, the problem of akrasia is a fundamental one to ethics.

If we follow your argument, it is impossible to know something and not act on it. If someone claims to know something and acts contrary to that knowledge, they must not have truly had the knowledge. But what's the connection between knowledge and action? Why is knowledge of a behavior sufficient to compel execution of that behavior?
posted by Sangermaine at 7:13 AM on July 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


I can't do a total reconstruction of the history of western thought to show you that this is true, but I would suggest you read Hadot on this point. Just about every philosopher in the history of philosophy has seen philosophical practice itself, in form or another, as the practice of the good

Alasdair MacIntyre addresses this very thing in After Virtue.
posted by echocollate at 7:14 AM on July 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


If the vast majority of people can't get themselves to do hard things they know they should do purely for their own selfish benefit (exercise, eat well, save money), why on earth would anyone think knowing what is morally right would be sufficient to get people to do hard things for the benefit of others?
posted by straight at 7:14 AM on July 15, 2015 [7 favorites]


If anyone out there was under the impression that the majority of auto mechanics maintain their personal cars weekly, that most doctors are extremely careful about their own health and hygiene, or that financial managers must have great credit scores, they're not looking very hard.
posted by The Zeroth Law at 7:23 AM on July 15, 2015 [6 favorites]


If you ask me, it's not even possible to know if you or anyone else is a "good person" until after the person's dead, and even then, only if you could have complete knowledge of the person's actions and interior states. Because you have to account for every action and the factors that contributed to it and all the little twists and turns in their story and the intentions they had at the time to be able to make a judgment like that, and it's just not possible for a human being to do all that. It's probably not so much important whether you think of yourself as a good or bad person as it is to keep asking yourself questions like "am I really being honest with myself here?", "am I really trying to do the right thing?", "can I do better next time?", etc. But you don't want to dwell on those questions too long, either, because then you can end up not noticing when other people around you are struggling and could use a hand. Focusing only on how you can be better by improving yourself becomes its own kind of vice. And sometimes you can only become a better person by improving your relationships with other people, because that's where you're falling down, and that requires others to be willing to lend a hand.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:31 AM on July 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


why on earth would anyone think knowing what is morally right would be sufficient to get people to do hard things for the benefit of others

It's telling that modern concepts of morality are framed as existing for the benefit of others to the exclusion of oneself.* In some ways I feel this was a tragic consequence of rejecting teleology, which made internalizing a moral framework and applying it consistently in day-to-day life more challenging.

I realize there's a lot of squishiness to the concept of virtue ethics that turns some people off, but I do think it has certain utility.

*By this I'm alluding to a classical sense of self-interest rather than the fuck-you-got-mine contemporary version.
posted by echocollate at 7:32 AM on July 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


The point of ethics is to try to work out what the "right" and "wrong" choices might be, depending on what you value. Not thinking about those questions at all means you're less free to act in ways that get you closer to what you want for yours and other's lives. Rejecting ethics as a practice entirely is rejecting the idea it's possible to be free to make choices that will get you what you value out of life.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:35 AM on July 15, 2015


It's telling that modern concepts of morality are framed as existing for the benefit of others to the exclusion of oneself.*

Exactly. That's why people are so hostile to it. It's always framed as an external control mechanism. But it's also the only mechanism people could possibly have for controlling themselves when viewed differently.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:36 AM on July 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


... the history of efforts to establish ethically unified organisations is discouraging.

Dude has a talent for understatement anyway.
posted by The Bellman at 7:45 AM on July 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


But it's also the only mechanism people could possibly have for controlling themselves when viewed differently.

I'm not sure I agree. I try to adhere to some principles because they have direct bearing on my overall internal and external happiness, and their consistent application is more important to me than particular instances where they might disadvantage me materially or emotionally.
posted by echocollate at 7:55 AM on July 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


Man, this dude doesn't care about birds very much.

Most ethicists agree that birds are dicks.
posted by maryr at 8:03 AM on July 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


Most ethicists agree that birds are dicks.

Confirmed.
posted by echocollate at 8:05 AM on July 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


I'm not sure I agree. I try to adhere to some principles because they have direct bearing on my overall internal and external happiness

Well, that's what you value then. Those are your values. You're doing ethics for yourself.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:11 AM on July 15, 2015


Other, older schools of ethics (e.g. the Stoics) had a deserved reputation for radically changing the behaviour of their students.

Ya, I know right? Marcus Aurelius would have just committed multiple genocides instead of stoically committing multiple genocides while writing a great book.
posted by bdc34 at 8:15 AM on July 15, 2015 [5 favorites]


Or we could be like the Cynic Diogenes of Sinope and live in a pot in the town square, shit in the market, piss on people who insult us, and masturbate in public, and tell off Alexander the Great if he ever stops by.
posted by Sangermaine at 8:27 AM on July 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


But what's the connection between knowledge and action? Why is knowledge of a behavior sufficient to compel execution of that behavior?
posted by Sangermaine at 10:13 AM on July 15 [2 favorites +] [!]


Maybe there's also a bit of randomness thrown in. I wouldn't be surprised if disobeying authority is actually genetically beneficial, because sometimes authority, even your own, is wrong. At a personal level, not doing what you think is the right thing to do is very frustrating, embarrassing, and possibly harmful. At a species level, sometimes it can be healthy for cultures to split off and restart, and anti-authoritarians or people who simply cannot live according to what they think is right might help that.
posted by rebent at 8:29 AM on July 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


Well, that's what you value then. Those are your values. You're doing ethics for yourself.

Sure, my point was only that conceiving of morality purely as for the benefit of others is not "the only mechanism people could possibly have for controlling themselves when viewed differently."

(Unless I misunderstood your post?)
posted by echocollate at 8:30 AM on July 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


Invalidating someone's arguments or reasoning because they don't personally embody those arguments is a logical fallacy (tu quoque), otherwise known as an appeal to hypocrisy.

"Everyone should chip in $20 for the bill"
"But you never chip in asshole!"

Which argument is valid?
posted by srboisvert at 8:33 AM on July 15, 2015


Which argument is valid?

I think in this case, the individual hypocrisy shatters the moral authority of the person making the claim, but it doesn't outright address the moral merits of the claim itself?
posted by echocollate at 8:41 AM on July 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


Or we could be like the Cynic Diogenes of Sinope and live in a pot in the town square, shit in the market, piss on people who insult us, and masturbate in public, and tell off Alexander the Great if he ever stops by.

He invented punk, basically
posted by clockzero at 9:23 AM on July 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


A former professor of mine told our class (of future healthcare practitioners) that we were hypocrites if we smoked, given that we would regularly be advising our patients to quit. I was strongly tempted to point out that the professor was overweight, despite regularly advising patients to diet and exercise. I wisely resisted this temptation.

Being an expert on best practices does not necessarily make one capable of following them. And being incapable of following best practices does not necessarily detract from one's expertise.
posted by dephlogisticated at 9:26 AM on July 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


He invented punk, basically.

That's exactly what I tell my students.
posted by Xavier Xavier at 9:26 AM on July 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


When I was a(n Orthodox Jewish) kid I remember hearing an accusation that a famous secular ethics teacher [perhaps Bertrand Russell] had behaved immorally in some way and, when called out on it, said something like "Just like I don't need to be a triangle to teach Geometry, I don't need to be moral to teach ethics." This was intended as a huge criticism of him and intended as a contrast to Orthodox Jewish ethicists. I've always been curious about this but never found a reference to this story anywhere other than in Orthodox Jewish writings, though.
posted by needs more cowbell at 9:41 AM on July 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


Yet we have no trouble distinguishing (1) sports-medicine researchers who study how to make better athletes; (2) trainers and coaches who make better athletes; and (3) athletes.

Ethics professors aren't, in their professional lives, even trying to be #2, much less #3.
posted by straight at 10:15 AM on July 15, 2015


Ethics professors aren't, in their professional lives, even trying to be #2, much less #3.

Except that unless they have constrained themselves to the study of very narrow ethical situations they are likely studying how people in general ought to behave. And they are usually people.
posted by srboisvert at 10:42 AM on July 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


...they are likely studying how people in general ought to behave. And they are usually people.

But modern ethics doesn't really do that does it? My sense is that most people don't give much thought to why something is or isn't ethical. Ethical beliefs are more symptoms of socialization. We inherit ethical norms from peers, family, and culture, and those beliefs are largely internally inconsistent, even incoherent. The reason for this state of affairs is that there's no universality that one can point to within the modern study of ethics. Ethical systems are taught and sometimes located within a particular historic context, but ethical instruction is academic not prescriptive.
posted by echocollate at 11:01 AM on July 15, 2015


It's quite true that a hypocrisy isn't a disproof of a person's positions. After all, they might be saying the exact same things as a consistent and well-behaved person.

However, the human distaste for hypocrisy isn't simply irrational. At the very least, we distrust people who have contradictory opinions, and hypocrisy is a case of contradictory opinions about value. If your doctor says it's very important not to drink caffeine, and he's drinking coffee, he's signaling that it's not very important not to drink caffeine.

The thing is, we're not normally presented with two advisors saying the same thing but showing different ethical behaviors. We meet a wide range of people who make varied and numerous claims while engaging in varied and infinite behaviors. Ruling out the hypocrites is a good heuristic for deciding who to listen to.
posted by zompist at 11:12 AM on July 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


name a canonical philosopher before the 19th century, and I'll find you a citation that shows that philosopher's concern with the actual practice of the good.

We are talking past one another. With that in mind, find me a philosopher who has argued the following:

1) There is a general ethical principle of good conduct X
2) People do not, or cannot follow principle X
3) Therefore principle X is wrong

This is what I and several others in this thread have been saying: contrary to the article in the OP, this does not happen. In this sense, it does not matter whether philsophers talk about actual practice or not, because by practice they mean: how to make individual behavior to follow the general principle. The opposite does not really happen (possible exception: Montaigne). If it does, [citation needed].

I was not talking about whether individual philosophers are concerned with practicing a good life. I was talking about what is the most common belief about what that practice means. And it means to follow some universal principle. It is pretty obvious that the most famous of ethical dictates are just of this sort, such as utilitarianism and the "do no harm" principle, the categorical imperative, and so on.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 11:33 AM on July 15, 2015


Uh, dis_integration... there may be another confusion, I don't know, so just in case: my filppant comments were intended to defend ethics and the philosophers who have thought deeply about it, and against the article in the OP. I suddenly had the feeling that maybe I came off as dissing ethics? If so, then no.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 11:57 AM on July 15, 2015


Sangermaine: 1. having an answer to the question of why one should be moral means that you would be more strongly motivated to behave ethically
2. someone with such an answer would be more likely to behave in a manner consistent with their ethical principles
3. someone not acting in accordance with 1 and 2 is evidence that they don't have such an answer

You give no reason to believe why any of these assumptions are correct. Why can't someone know why one should be moral, know what morality is, but not act on that knowledge? As anotherpanacea says, the problem of akrasia is a fundamental one to ethics.


That's refuting a strawman version of my view, which suggests that I did not express myself clearly. I'm aware that akrasia exists. I don't think that the "why be moral" question is the only question in ethics, though it is a major question that any ethical theory must attempt to answer or deflect.

I was assuming weak moral internalism, the idea that "the person who makes a sincere moral judgment will feel some motivation to comply with it, [though] that motivation can be overridden by conflicting desires and defeated by a variety of mental maladies, such as depression and weakness of will." You've made no objection to that.

Obviously people sometimes fail to act on their beliefs. Akrasia is real. However, beliefs are on the list of things that motivate people, and (list of reasons + 1) tends to be more motivating than (list of reasons). Take smokers who has recently been diagnosed with emphysema. Many of them will try to quit but break down and smoke occasionally; some of them will not change their behaviour at all. However, statistically, I would expect them as a group to smoke fewer cigarettes on average than they did before diagnosis because they have a new reason to quit.

If any version of internalism is true, then the fact that analytic ethics is visibly failing to change the behaviour of ethicists implies that they do not sincerely believe their own theories about morality are true.

Let's try assuming that internalism is false. If so, and if ethicists sincerely believe their own moral theories, then we now have empirical evidence that most ethicists are amoralists, people who believe they know what's right but just don't care about what's right.

So, we have evidence that either analytic ethicists don't believe their own theories or that they are horrible people.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 12:09 PM on July 15, 2015


don't look for meaning, look for use...
posted by judson at 12:26 PM on July 15, 2015


Let's try assuming that internalism is false. If so, and if ethicists sincerely believe their own moral theories, then we now have empirical evidence that most ethicists are amoralists, people who believe they know what's right but just don't care about what's right.

No, there are other possibilities. For instance, internalism is false, people have knowledge of what's right, but other motivations override that desire. Weak moral internalism without the internalism. If there can be overriding factors with an internalist stance, why can't there be overriding factors without it? Surely it should be even easier to be led astray from the desire to do good despite moral knowledge if there isn't any internal motivation at all.

Anyway, you haven't really answered why there should be any such internal motivation, or how it would operate. You're just restating your premise. There seems to be no reason to believe that "I know X" has any relation to "I must or even will do X". Why does knowledge of something have any necessary connection to action on that knowledge?
posted by Sangermaine at 12:27 PM on July 15, 2015


Or rather, we don't need to assume internalism is false. You need to prove internalism is valid. Even you concede "people sometimes fail to act on their beliefs. Akrasia is real." Therefore you agree that there are situations where one can know something and yet fail to act on that knowledge. So it can't be true that knowledge automatically means behavior.

Thus, if you're going to posit some sort of internal motivation, you're going to have to be able to explain what it is, why it arises, and the mechanism by which it operates.
posted by Sangermaine at 12:41 PM on July 15, 2015


you haven't really answered why there should be any such internal motivation

If you want to assume that externalism is true I'll play ball. Let's assume that people don't act on moral beliefs unless they also care about morality, people only act on beliefs about their self-interest if they also care about their self-interest. I'll accept the possibility that most ethicists are amoralists - that would explain the data.

If there can be overriding factors with an internalist stance, why can't there be overriding factors without it?

There can be! My emphysema example is a case of that. Diagnosis gives a purely self-interested reason to quit, but that can sometimes be overridden by strong cravings.

Why does knowledge of something have any necessary connection to action on that knowledge?...it can't be true that knowledge automatically means behavior

I think I see where we're talking past each other: the word necessary.

We agree that knowledge does not automatically guarantee behaviour. My view is that there is a statistical relationship between sincere belief and action. A group of people who care about morality and believe that something is morally wrong will show, on average, a somewhat lower tendency to do that thing than a group of people who do not have that belief. Likewise a group of people who care about their self-interest and believe that something is to their disadvantage will show, on average, a somewhat lower tendency to do that thing than a group of people who do not have that belief.

Do you want to deny that? Do you think that beliefs have no behavioural consequences at all?
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 1:01 PM on July 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


Ethics professors aren't, in their professional lives, even trying to be [coaches], much less [athletes].

Except that unless they have constrained themselves to the study of very narrow ethical situations they are likely studying how people in general ought to behave. And they are usually people.


My point was that there's no reason to assume ethicists should excel professionally at moral behavior any more than we should expect sports medicine researchers to excel professionally at athletics.

If a professor's study and research brings to light knowledge about how one ought to live, there's no reason to believe she would more successfully put that knowledge into practice than anyone else. Unless maybe you're assuming that morality is like physics and that advanced moral behavior can only be put into practice by people who have advanced education in morality.

I guess that's an important question. Is morality more like athletics or physics? You don't need to know biology to follow best-practices in training to be an athlete. But you do need to know a lot of physics to send a probe to Pluto.
posted by straight at 1:23 PM on July 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


If you could get away with killing and robbing people just for fun, would you? The questions are natural. It’s the answers that are hard.

Hmm. I don't see the difficulty in answering that question.
posted by bukvich at 1:35 PM on July 15, 2015


It seems that what we know is that expertise in the research and pedagogy of ethics is not enough to make us better people. Perhaps such expertise is behaviorally inert, or perhaps we started off as worse people and ethics got us up to about average. Meanwhile, we're still stuck with the questions from the Meno: is virtue even teachable? And what is virtue, anyway?

I am suspicious whether this can help us resolve issues outside of moral psychology, like meta-ethical questions about the location of moral justifications. In part this is because the relationship between moral judgments and motivations could work in one of three ways: moral beliefs could cause us to be motivated to act morally (but be stymied by temptation and weakness of will), moral motivations could cause us to form moral beliefs (thus the person with a pre-existing discomfort with eating meat could discover the arguments for vegetarianism persuasive), or there could be a complicated interplay between the two where judgments and motivations sometimes reinforce each other and sometimes exist in unchallenged contradiction until the contradiction is resolved with revision. If the last one is true, then that takes place over time, and indeed it might even be that process that leads to living a good life. Apparent contradictions are then not somehow evidence of the failure of ethics but opportunities for it.

What's more, research occurs in communities of inquiry, and we have yet to fully take up this challenge as a profession: Schwitzgebel and Rust are doing something novel and promising, but they haven't had the last word on these matters. The evidence from the social sciences suggests that we do know some things about how to motivate people and so it may be that future ethics classes will have much more to say on how to be good. (I'll confess that I design my own classes with that in mind.) Perhaps the next generation of ethics professors will be much more moral in practice than the last one.

Nothing Schwitzgebel has yet published really has enough evidence of the right sort to resolve which of these is generally true. The studies are statistically underpowered and don't often get evaluated by statistical methods people. At this point we should just be interested in the questions, not convinced of the answers.
posted by anotherpanacea at 2:32 PM on July 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


On the contrary, if someone's engine is belching black smoke I'd conclude that they lack knowledge of how to maintain a car.

I know how, and I know it's the right thing to do. I just don't want to, because I'm lazy / it's convenient, or I want to but I'm too weak to resist.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 8:20 PM on July 15, 2015


There's also a bunch of people who are not at all lacking in knowledge about car maintenance whose engines belch black smoke because they purposely want to stick their finger in your eye.
posted by straight at 3:41 PM on July 16, 2015


Other, older schools of ethics (e.g. the Stoics) had a deserved reputation for radically changing the behaviour of their students.

"The first and most necessary department of philosophy deals with the application of principles; for instance, 'not to lie'. The second deals with demonstrations; for instance, 'How comes it that one ought not to lie?' The third is concerned with establishing and analysing these processes; for instance, 'How comes it that this is a demonstration? What is demonstration, what is consequence, what is contradiction, what is true, what is false?' It follows then that the third department is necessary because of the second, and the second because of the first. The first is the most necessary part, and that in which we must rest. But we reverse the order: we occupy ourselves with the third, and make that our whole concern, and the first we completely neglect. Wherefore we lie, but are ready enough with the demonstration that lying is wrong."

-- from Enchiridion by Epictetus c.150 A.D.
posted by storybored at 9:04 PM on July 17, 2015 [4 favorites]


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