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.