In my professional life, I often wonder about what it means to self-identify as an “ethicist.” Sure, the term is snappy, catchy or fresh. Yet, as Korsgaard reminds, some practical identities have normativity built into them. What is the normativity built into the identity about the people that worry about normativity itself? This question is a conundrum for me. Not only do I think through problems like “what are values?” and “what ought I to do”, but the questions immediately relate to the exigency of life in which we find ourselves living. I want my ethical philosophy to bear out in my lived experience. I want it to connect up with how I think I ought to be. However, is this a realist expectation that others should expect from me? What about other moral philosophers more generally?
A while back, Eric Schwitzgebel of UC Riverside and Joshua Rust of Stetson University put together a survey of ethicists and other scholars. Without discussing it too much, they found that the self-selecting bias of ethicists is outstripped by the normalcy of ethicists. Ethicists were no more likely to do the right thing than other professors and scholars of other disciplines. Let us assume that this method of study and general observation are correct about the many ethicists out there. Under one interpretation, all this study confirms is that human beings are very bad at being moral, and rarely do those that even study these ideas live up to them. That makes the point more pressing. We should live our ideas. Or should we even aspire to that which is not very likely?
I have long thought about what it means to live out one’s ideas. Some ideas, despite my pragmatic inclinations, do not seem very livable. The fact that consciousness is a neural network might mean that I choose beliefs based on science about consciousness than religion, but that doesn’t seem very noteworthy once we get past it. Yet, ethics must be livable. Right? I would think the point of studying moral dilemmas and ethical theories is to put them to the test, and help others learn more rational ways to solve problems than simple appeal to tradition.
I am skating around the major question I wanted to put forward. What is the normativity built into the person contemplating value? Does she have some extra obligation to be moral over and beyond what might be expected? Or is it enough that we simply teach and publish in ethics as its own field in philosophy? It could be argued that we teach others how they might think differently about these methods and an ethicist might see her work as a transmission of methods more than exemplifying any moral content.
Undoubtedly, the controversial idea that philosophers should engage in the discussion of morality’s content and openly question what obligations we do have rests on the separation between metaethics and normative ethics. For years, ethicists pretended that their work in metaethics never impacted their normative theorizing and even worse, researching metaethics was the proper business of philosophy, not prescribing moral advice as some do in applied ethics. The point remains, however, that if we are to teach ethics, then it is an interesting question that within the profession of philosophy, some outflow of one’s thinking should affect how one lives. For instance, I would expect that someone doing work in philosophy of science, epistemology or language to know a thing or two about how some phenomenon works both within the science of the phenomenon and what such understanding might imply for philosophy. There is the usual expectation that these thinkers are informed by science in some way. Couldn’t we say, for example, that moral philosophers should be informed by morality (either totally or in some minimal sense) that should set them apart from others?