Knowledge of ethics does not make people ethical.
This is an enduring dilemma in the area of ethics and one that has recently come to light with charges of unethical behaviour brought against a prominent philosopher, Professor Thomas Pogge of Yale University. Pogge has been accused of manipulating younger women in his field into sexual relationships, a charge he has strenuously denied.
Without making any judgment on the case itself, this situation raises larger questions about how the behaviour of the experts in ethics is to be reviewed and evaluated.
As with most professions, there are no “ethics police” in the professions themselves. We who work in these professions are expected to police ourselves according to our codes of ethics, as is the case, for example, with physicians, lawyers and clergy members. Obviously, law enforcement comes into the picture with actions that are against the law.
Of course, we know that these professions also harbour people who do engage in unethical behaviour, but in the case of experts in ethics, should we expect a higher standard of good behaviour simply because they are experts in ethics?
Learning from Greek wisdom
This question would not have made much sense to ancient Western philosophers or to eastern teachers like Confucius, Lao-Tse or the Buddha. The Greek philosopher Plato put it this way – once one understood the good, one would perform good actions.
His teacher Socrates stated during his trial speech that it was morally better to pursue “truth, understanding and the improvement of the soul” than to give one’s attention “to acquiring as much money as possible and to devote oneself to status and reputation” at the expense of moral concerns.
As much as we are indebted in Western philosophy to the wisdom of the Greeks, we think about these matters differently today. We now make distinctions between the “cognitive” and “volitional” aspects of ethics: that is, between what we know and what we choose to do.
Philosopher Hannah Arendt in her two volume work, The Life of the Mind, showed the connections and differences between thinking and willing. She noted that these deeply human actions are not always in harmony as we navigate ethical dilemmas.
We may know the right thing to do and yet we choose to perform an unethical action.
Apostle Paul recognised these human conflicts when he wrote in the Epistle to the Romans, the sixth book in the New Testament:
I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil that I do not want is what I do.
Ethicists and ethical behaviour
Apostle Paul and others who followed him found a spiritual solution to this deep inner conflict. We, however, tend to look to professional disciplines such as philosophy of mind, empirical psychology and moral psychology to illuminate and help resolve these ethical conflicts.
So, what is the relationship between philosophical ethics and actual ethical behaviour?
Researcher Eric Schwitzgebel at the University of California at Riverside is one of the philosophers currently working on these issues by conducting empirical research into how ethicists actually behave. His work shows how flimsy this relationship can be between views held and real-life moral choices.
Schwitzgebel has done an empirical analysis of what ethicists actually do – not only what they teach in ethics courses. In his analysis, he does not find that ethicists are any more ethical than most other professionals.
As a result of a survey he conducted in 2009, Schwitzbebel argues that even though ethicists in the survey showed strong ethical knowledge, their moral behaviour was not significantly more stringent than academics in other disciplines – both within and beyond philosophy.
These findings raise significant questions. For example, if ethicists accept the arguments proposed by moral philosopher Peter Singer that show the ethical cogency of not eating meat, why are these ethicists not vegetarians?
Singer proposes a utilitarian argument for being a vegetarian and argues that utilitarianism’s principle of minimising pain and maximising pleasure can be well applied to sentient animals. The injunction to be a vegetarian follows from this principle.
In fact, as Schwitzgebel’s findings show, 60% of the ethicists surveyed rated consuming meat as unethical to some degree and yet in behaviour their meat consumption did not differ significantly from nonethicists.
Still it seems legitimate to ask, why are they not vegetarians? Why are their choices not in accord with the arguments they support?
In sum, Schwitzgebel and fellow researcher Joshua Rust have discovered in their empirical study that ethicists do not show significantly improved moral behaviour in comparison to professors in other fields.
We can ask, if one has knowledge and skill in a particular field and teaches that knowledge and skill, why would such a person not put that knowledge and skill into practice? Answers to some of these questions are connected to the ways we use to deal with ethical dilemmas.
Application of theories
Nonetheless, we can still ask the central normative ethical question: Ought that be the case?
Furthermore, what is the point of knowing the various ethical theories like utilitarianism that argues for choosing the action that brings about the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people affected by the action, duty-based principles that argue for following moral principles, or virtue ethics that supports cultivating virtue as the way to move toward human fulfilment? Can this knowledge be valuable in and of itself?
And how else is ethics “applied” except by engaging in informed ethical actions?
By analogy, one can study pure mathematics as well as use mathematics in engineering the new bridge. It matters to get the mathematical concepts right as well as their applications to engineering.
In ethics it matters in different, but deeply connected ways, to analyse the theories and to apply them well. During his time in ancient Athens, Socrates wondered how his fellow citizens might be persuaded to live for truth and moral improvement. He thought this could happen at least by examining these questions and living by the answers one discovers.
Such is what we can and should expect of ethicists. Is that too much to ask?
What is ethics for?
A final point on ethical behaviour and its relation to knowledge: On the one hand, one can certainly be a person of outstanding moral character without delving deeply into ethical theories.
One has to know some things, at least in an intuitive sense, about being good along with the will to do the good in order to perform ethical actions. One need not be an expert in ethics to do so.
On the other hand, being an ethicist does entail some obligation not only to know the good, but to do all that is in one’s power to perform ethical actions. If not, then what is ethics for?
Judith Stark is Professor of Philosophy, Seton Hall University.