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