Teaching Ethics, Doing Ethics, Being Ethical?

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? 

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One thought on “Teaching Ethics, Doing Ethics, Being Ethical?

  1. The problem is that academic philosophy obsesses with the theory of ethics, but not the practice of ethics. In fact, to discuss personal experience and advice is considered a devolution into unprofessionalism. We are not priests or counselors, some might say. Moreover, the organization for professional philosophical counseling has a terrible reputation among philosophers who just hear of it. (I took some convincing, myself.)

    I find this situation to be extremely distubrding, in part because I live an Aristotelian standpoint. Theoretical wisdom is founded on practical wisdom, and the latter cannot be a theoretical endeavour. My own theoretical work focuses on how schisms in character becomes the basis for intellectual blindnesses. For example, few Americans consciously will racism, but so many perpetuate it deny such acts even when brought to their attention. Yet much of the solid grounding of living this way cannot be discussed in a properly “philosophical” context, so I hide it. Philosophers tend to ignore the practical and material conditions, and when they do turn to them, theorize them into respectable discourse.

    I have fond memories of close discussions with a senior professor who understood this problem; she noted that most people seem unaware and almost unable to think the material conditions and practical effects of their acts and attitudes. Drawing a person’s attention to it rarely helped, because academics tend to think in ideas and ideologies, as that’s what Ph.D.s are trained to do.

    I am proposing, Ed, that the connection between teaching ethics and being ethical is tenuous because academic ethicists focus on theory and not practice or character, and mastery of one grants little facility with the other. Worse, we live in a cultural environment at the academy that privileges politically correct talk and ideologies over substance: talk can be clean, easy, indicates professoriate group membership, and little more. Substance is difficult, messy, and its discussion violates the unspoken strictures.

    To answer your question, there is no special normativity built into thinking about value beyond the dynamics of the situation, e.g., academic culture, the institution, etc. For instance, we both know a gentleman that wants to be a male feminist and ethicist, yet such a specialty is de facto forbidden by the academy. Is that just? No. But it’s an example of how the cultural and organizational tendencies will override most any personal judgments, in part because academics don’t specialize in perpetual over-riding of group expectations.

    Finally, on meta-ethics. Ed, your analytic is showing. The other traditions of philosophy, notable American and continental, don’t distinguish between ethics and meta-ethics, and thus meta-ethics is new only to analytics, since the other fields rolled-in those concerns long ago. This is why my specialty in “theory of valuation” (pragmatist terminology) is nearly untranslatable into contemporary analytic categories as it would cross phenomenology, metaphysics, pschology, sociology, aesthetics, physiology, psychoanalysis, etc., yet would entirely fit within the discipline of “meta-ethics” (conditions for the possibility of value and being ethical).

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