Eric Schwitzgebel is professor of philosophy at University of California, Riverside, as well as an author and a blogger. His essay “Cheeseburger Ethics” immediately caught my attention, as his thesis is one that I have embraced myself, occasionally here: ethicists are not especially ethical.
The essay is thought-provoking. He’s a philosophy professor and an academic, so naturally he views his own, isolated, rarified species of ethicist as the only kind. In announcing the results of his “series of empirical studies” on the ethics of ethicists, Professor Schwitzgebel announces, “…by ‘ethicist’, I mean a professor of philosophy who specialises in teaching and researching ethics.” Got it, prof. I, in contrast, am the kind of ethicist typically denounced on other blogs as a “self-proclaimed” I don’t regard myself as an academic, my degrees are in American government and law, and my specialty is leadership and the role of character in developing it. My job isn’t to teach half-interested students about the abstract thoughts of dead Greeks and Germans; my job is to make professionals, elected officials and others understand what being ethical in their jobs and life means, how to distinguish wrong from right, and how to use proven tools to solve difficult ethical problems they will face in the real world. I get paid for it too.
My audiences hate ethics, usually because of the people who Prof. Schwitzgebel has decided are the “real” ethicists. They have made ethics obscure, abstract and gnaw-off-your-oot boring for centuries, with the result that the mere word “ethics” sends the average American into a snooze. I have had corporate clients ask me to teach ethics without using the word “ethics.” The most common evaluation I read are from participants who write that they dreaded my seminar and were shocked that they were engaged, interested, entertained, amused…and learned something useful and occasionally inspiring.
Is it ethical to reduce the public’s interest in and respect for the very subject—a vital one– you have chosen to specialize in and teach, often because you have lousy speaking and teaching skills? Why yes, I’d call that very unethical. So I agree with Schwitzgebel’s assessment of his colleagues. Continue reading