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Ethicists Are Not Ethical June 18, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Philosophy Profession, Teaching.
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Via Inside Higher Ed:

According to a paper written by two philosophy professors, Eric Schwitzgebel of the University of California at Riverside and Joshua Rust of Stetson University, a college professorship in ethics does not necessary translate into moral behavior. At least, that’s what the people who work with ethicists say.

Their results:

Most of the 277 survey respondents reported no positive correlation between a professional focus on ethics and actual moral behavior. Respondents who were ethicists themselves shied away from saying that ethicists behave worse than those outside the discipline – generally reporting that ethicists behave either the same or better – but non-ethicists were mostly split between reporting that ethicists behave the same as or worse than others. Even those ethicists who did rank their peers’ behavior as better than average said their moral behavior is just barely better than average – hardly a ringing endorsement.

I don’t find this surprising. Why think that people who study ethics are morally superior to people who don’t. Are psychologists more mentally stable than non-psychologists? Are chemists better cooks?

One of the paper’s authors goes on to express some doubt about whether ethics courses improve student’s behavior:

“People do sometimes justify ethics courses on the assumption that taking ethics courses will improve students’ behavior down the road,” Schwitzgebel said, noting legal and business ethics as examples, although they are separate from ethics courses in the philosophy department. “I think there is a potential this line of research could undercut the justification for those classes.”

But, as Schwitzgebel was quick to point out, his study does not imply that. The jump from ethics professors’ immoral behavior to students’ benefiting (or not) from ethics courses is a long one to make, he said.

I think there is some confusion here.  People who behave well tend to be well-motivated. But theorizing about ethics probably has little influence on motivational states. People who lack moral motives because they are narcissistic, excessively selfish, authoritarian, etc. will not acquire moral motives through theoretical reasoning. (My Kantian friends might disagree.)

However, if a person is well-motivated, studying ethical theory can give her the tools to think more clearly and consistently about ethical behavior. Studying ethics makes well-motivated people better; scoundrels will need more than a finely-honed argument to get well.

For an entertaining debate about this, head over to Crooked Timber.


book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

or Visit the Website: www.revivingliberalism.com