Professor Schwitzgebel Concludes That Ethicists Aren’t Very Ethical—Luckily, According To Him I’m Not An Ethicist, So I Don’t Take It Personally

Greek phil

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.

My colleagues, the “self-professed ethicists,” are no prize either. For far too many of them, ethics is just a way to pay the bills. I am occasionally engaged as an ethics expert in lawsuits—very occasionally, because I tell my potential clients that I will not guarantee that my assessment of the issues will support their positions. This, I am told, is unusual. Essentially, the most successful, most-hired ethics consultants will tell the people paying their bills what they want to hear. Uh, integrity? Honesty? Courage? Conflicts of interest? Oh, never mind: it’s just business, as Don Corleone would say.

A couple of years ago I was hired, with the usual disclaimers, to write a report for a law firm handling a client’s claim that another law firm over-billed him. My job was to explain why the final fee was excessive and unreasonable—unethical, in other words. It might have been unreasonable, but the evidence didn’t prove it. When I wrote that in the report, the law firm refused to use it, and also refused to pay my fee, on the grounds that I didn’t deliver what was contracted for. I did, however: I promised my honest, objective analysis. As the service that matched me up with the ex-client patiently explained, most ethics experts will “tailor their opinions to the needs of the client.”

Back to Prof. Eric Schwitzgebel: apparently philosophy research is not a rigorous field. His “empirical research” into the ethics of ethicists is, shall we say, eccentric. He writes,

In a series of empirical studies – mostly in collaboration with the philosopher Joshua Rust of Stetson University – I have empirically explored the moral behaviour of ethics professors. As far as I’m aware, Josh and I are the only people ever to have done so in a systematic way. 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.

I briefly thought this was a parody. Let’s see: voting for Harry Reid, calling one’s abusive mother once a week, living on Fillet-of-Fish sandwiches at McDonald’s, donating to the Clinton Foundation, being staid during your boring lectures so as not to wake up snoozing students, answering unsolicited and pointless e-mails with canned responses, paying registration fees like everyone else, letting your body be harvested after you die, returning books on time, being judged ethical by other unethical people who think they are also ethical and not having the use of a time machine make someone an ethical ethicist.


He also makes the dubious claim that the ancient philosophers like Buddha, Socrates and Jesus lived by their principles and the ideas they taught others, while Schwitzgebel’s contemporaries don’t. To say the evidence for this contention is skimpy is giving it more credence than it deserves.

Despite the flawed and bias-laden methodology, Schwitzgebel still has some thought-provoking observations, like this one:

“What’s more, abstract doctrines lack specific content if they aren’t tacked down in a range of concrete examples. Consider the doctrine ‘treat everyone as moral equals who are worthy of respect’. What counts as adhering to this norm, and what constitutes a violation of it? Only when we understand how norms play out across examples do we really understand them. Living our norms, or trying to live them, forces a maximally concrete confrontation with examples. Does your ethical vision really require that you free the slaves on which your lifestyle crucially depends?  Does it require giving away your salary and never again enjoying an expensive dessert? Does it require drinking the hemlock if your fellow citizens unjustly demand that you do so?”

Much of the rest, however, is typical of his breed. For example, the professor’s main beef—oops! Beef is unethical!—seems to be that ethicists should aim to be exemplary in their ethical conduct, when his (hahahahah!) “research” indicates that they are content to get a School of Life B+ in ethical conduct, as Schwitzgebel would grade them. The problem with this should be obvious: since teaching abstract ethics is a marginally useful activity at best, getting that A+ in ethics would require doing something that actually contributes to making the world more ethical—like what I do, for example, or better yet, helping AIDS victims in Africa,  Then, however, they wouldn’t be ethicists any more, by the terms of the “study.”

You can read the essay here.


Pointer: Boing Boing

Source: Aeon


24 thoughts on “Professor Schwitzgebel Concludes That Ethicists Aren’t Very Ethical—Luckily, According To Him I’m Not An Ethicist, So I Don’t Take It Personally

  1. Fascinating stuff. I agree with you wholeheartedly in your critique (and in your selection of the occasional good item).

    I find a very strong parallel between my own position vis a vis trust and the “academic experts” in that field, with that of you and the “ethics experts” in yours. Same critiques.

    I will make one suggestion however, an academic who traverses both grounds very well in the field of moral psychology: Jonathan Haidt, one of whose two (excellent) books is The Righteous Mind: Why Good People People are Divided by Politics and Religion. He masters the masters, but also speaks precisely to why dialogues on this blog are such as they are. I recommend it to all, liberal and conservative alike, as being insightful and delightful in equal parts.

  2. While I understand that this blog is devoted to applied ethics, and that abstract ethics is not discussed here, I am unable to fathom how ‘ethics’ can be referred to as if it is a category everyone immediately understands. But I tend to see ethics as theoretical, basically, and morality to be the applied aspect of it. And morality and norms function together. To say that something is unethical requires the previous establishment of an ethical system, one developed and agreed-upon. If this is true, what is often discussed on this Blog is less ethics (which requires the theoretical or abstract prefiguration) and perhaps more norms or accepted morality.

    I find it hard to understand why Schwitzgebel would refer to such inane indicators of ethical behaviors. (Yet, the question or the issue of meat-consumption at an industrial level, with all the levels of damage it produces, is not one that could in any sense be simply wiped off the board. If the ramifications and effects of that industry is not an ethical question, and if it is not ethical to examine it and make decisions about it, I would question what ethical platform one is operating from. If one immediately dismisses the whole concern off-handedly, or ridiculingly, could that not be said to be an unethical choice? Many people I have noticed do this. They tend to see the concern as “fringe”.

    [Jack] :::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.::: [Jack].

    If by your own definition you are not an “academic” that in itself does not mean too much, I mean it is not necessary to be an academic to have solid ideas about things. But are you a philosopher? If you are not a philosopher, and yet are involved in the application of ethics in a social, economic and legal context, then would you not have to be described as a norm-applier? Would you then be seen as one uninterested in a particular philosophical systems, or philosophical-religious systems, and simply one interested in the current norms of our society and their application? (Or the lack of application). 🙂

    Is it fair to say that your audience “hates” ethics because ethics is essentially philosophy? Or that to posit ethics requires a great deal of background in ethical systems and philosophy which few have the time, energy and money to devote themselves to? But if it is true that ethics is essentially philosophy, and has of course that abstract and theoretical side, and is beyond the reach of many, shouldn’t “the many” be advised to stay out of that realm? And if this is so should they not really only devote themselves to applying norms? That is, the norms of the society. Yet this seems really troubling to me insofar as a mass-normative society, relying on its own feelings or hunches, gives evidence not of ethical choices and discernment but really of very much the opposite.


    • I’d like to know at what point did the populace surrender the right to philosophise without an academic background. Which came first: The Philosopher or the Teaching Degree?

      • Never, just like Philosophy, just like Theology, just like several of the “thinking” sciences… as soon as the average shmoe even makes a consideration related to the topic at hand – be it wisdom, God, or conduct, they become a Philosopher, a Theologian or an Ethicist.


        Once Johnny Everyday sees someone in need while late to work and weighs the options, he’s become an ethicist…

    • This blog defines ethics and morality for the purposes of clear discussion. My definition is common in my profession, and I think it is more useful than many. One problem ethicists have is they don’t agree on what ethics means. That’s fine: on this blog, my definitions control.

      People hate ethics because in their experience it is vague, abstract, full of obscure definitions, and taught by pompous, wordy, dweebs.

      • I thought most people hate ethics because most people violate ethics at some point in their life, a lot of people all the time, and ethics is a constant reminder of their failure to be ethical.

          • no doubt we agree to same definitions…

            I just think the Venn diagram I envision when I think “unethical people” out the “entire population” is larger and more accurate.

            I’d imagine most people are unethical at some point in their lives (and more often than they’d prefer to admit) and an uncomfortable number are unethical most of their lives.

  3. :::People hate ethics because in their experience it is vague, abstract, full of obscure definitions, and taught by pompous, wordy, dweebs. :::

    Such as the ur-dweebs:


    If you wish me to leave this alone, I will. I am not trying to be difficult. But the problem I have here is the problem I have: There is nothing simple or easy about ethics. To say that there is, is to say that life is easy, or self-evident.

    And if someone tells you that life is easy “they are likely selling something” (Princess Bride) 🙂

    Is it possible to say (and be correct): To assert that ethics, or philosophy, of life, is or should be easy is unethical?

    • Hi Alilzia,

      I think you’re getting a good point: Ethics foundations and history, the philosophical underpinnings and systematic study is hard and rigorous. Luckily for most people applied ethics is easy (don’t steal, don’t lie) and the harder cases is the kind Jack likes to dissect in this blog (well, also the blatant breaches :))

      To relate this to my field of expertise, everybody uses a computer and most people with a fair degree of success. You don’t need to be a computer scientist to do so, but we’re still needed from time to time to design and build the things. I take a similar view with ethicists; we all use ethics, but we need experts to develop the field and create useful tools for application by everyone else.

      BTW, in two comments you’ve raised some interesting points, so I’m sure we’d like you to stick around and push back. Our host may seem blunt at first, but he’s a fair man.

      On a related personal note I considered philosophy a waste of time until fairly recently, in part by being exposed to points of view like yours. Now it’s one of my hobbies.

    • Those are philosophers, writers, and people who have been dead for centuries. Some may have been good teachers and interesting speakers—I really don’t know. I do know that my Ethics professor in college was extremely methodical and boring, especially at 8 AM. I know that my experience with legal ethics seminars before I started studying the field was horrible. Ethics doesn’t have to be easy. Ethics is fascinating, and it takes real incompetence to make it otherwise, but somehow, most ethicists manage. A lot of disciplines don’t normally overlap with communications skills. This appears to be one.

      I am an experienced public speaker/stage actor/comic/writer/ historian/ pop culture junkie/legal ethicist. There may be others, but not many. Because this is a dense and difficult field, teaching it has to be all that much more diverting and effective.

      • Ahh, the college ethics course. Brings back memories. I do believe I first encountered the Ethics Scoreboard around that time, and read everything on the site. I developed a great passion for that course, largely thanks to your inspiration… and walked away with a C-. Harumph.

  4. Jack – I like this post. Once in a while it’s nice to get off the “applied” train just to take a gander around and see “what’s going on”. Keep up the good work.

  5. Reading, not understanding near everything, but, I know this is really good stuff, both Jack’s piece and all of you folks commenting. 🙋🏿

  6. Along these lines, I think Ethics Alarms is established enough that it would be interesting if you occasionally branched out from the main subject a bit and wrote about what you do for a living. Maybe give some examples of the kinds of things you train people in and (if you can do so without violating confidences) some of your consulting work.

    Or maybe give us some hypothetical scenarios: The CEO of some company you’ve written about wants to bring you in to help. They have an ethics policy, but bad things keep happening. What would you do to help management get the company on the right track?

  7. I wouldn’t worry too much about the pronouncements of Professor Schnickelgruber (or whatever) or any other philosophy professor at one of California’s notorious diploma mills. Let him call forth from his ivory tower like an imam of Mecca. If some actually want to drop down on all fours and bow in his direction… let them. None of them live in the real world and couldn’t manage if they tried. Their only universe is a small bubble of disreality wrapped around a massive ego. A lot like a black hole- only it repels reality instead of drawing it in.

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