Thursday, March 06, 2008

Does Moral Reflection Do Any Good?

Eric Schwitzgebel raises the question. Moral philosophers are not, in general, any better behaved than "non-ethicists of similar social background." But presumably they engage in more moral reflection. Does this mean that moral reflection is behaviourally inert, a farcical waste of time? Here are a few of my favourite theories:

(1) My first thought was that this (at most) merely shows that moral reflection is inert at the margin. Other academics ("non-ethicists of similar social background") are still reflective people, and so presumably give a reasonable amount of thought to moral issues. So this common core of reflection might be very effective, compared to someone who engaged in no moral reflection whatsoever. But if moral reflection yields steeply diminishing returns, this could explain why the extra reflection of ethicists doesn't seem to have any additional effect.

(2) Roman Altshuler proposes a 'Hume-Strawson model':
Perhaps moral deliberation makes no difference to our behavior directly. But maybe it does make a difference to how we judge others. If moral reflection does structure our reactive attitudes, and the reactive attitudes of others does have some effect on our behavior, then moral deliberation is not entirely inert. It is simply that its effects on behavior occur through very indirect mechanisms.

(3) Brandon suggests something like the 'virtue theory' picture, whereby ethics is a distinctively practical skill rather than simply a matter of rational theorizing. (Cf. "the relation between physics and sports.") This would again make the effect of moral reflection very indirect. Having worked out what sort of person one ought to be, it's quite another matter to actually inculcate the right dispositions and habits, etc.

(4) Schwitzgebel's own suggestion is the 'bivalent view' that moral reflection affects our behaviour, in particular reducing conformity to prevailing social norms, but this is not always for the better (due to rationalization).

(5) Selection effects: maybe ethicists were disproportionately bad people to begin with!

Any other suggestions? Which (combination) of these do you give credence to?


  1. As you said, I'm in the virtue theory camp, but I like the selection effect one; perhaps ethics just attracts the wicked! :)

    Another possibility might be a quasi-Humean one: that is, that reasoning on its own is always inert -- it's really passions and sentiments that do the work, and reasoning of any sort is only relevant to the extent that certain passions and sentiments become associated with it over time. So the real question on such a view would be whether philosophers are doing the sorts of things that would associate the relevant passions and sentiments with their particular reasonings. (In a sense such a theory would be a virtue theory with a different mechanism from the other one, which is perhaps why I find it at least partly attractive.)

  2. bivalent.
    But I also think that rational reflection is generally dominated by genetics and to a slightly lesser degree upbringing.

  3. "Eric Schwitzgebel raises the question. Moral philosophers are not, in general, any better behaved than non-ethicists of similar social background."

    Does he cite any evidence for this? If so, what criteria is he using to determine "well behaved" - this is itself an ethical question. You can see the problem here: you might well judge ethicists by your own (possibly quite bizzare) criteria, and conclude that they are no more ethical than their non-ethicist peers, but they could probably each come up with a convincing ethical argument (based on their criteria for what counts as good/bad) that they are much better behaved.

    Let me cite an example of this phenomenon. You might see a consequentialist ethicist being very busy and uncommunicative to his nearest and dearest; suppose he fails to send any birthday/christmas cards, and doesn't keep in touch with his friends or family. You conclude that he is not a very nice person.

    But, when questioned, he tells you that he is spending all of his time trying to, for example, promote scientific research into climate change prevention technologies, or some other grand scheme with very good utilitarian credentials. He says that spending even fifteen minutes less time on climate change prevention so that he can write a card to his grandmother is an unethical act, because it would result in a net decrease in expected utility.

  4. I guess we were just assuming that (even consequentialist) ethicists don't tend to behave so differently -- they aren't more likely to donate to Oxfam, or whatever. But yeah, you could question this premise.

    (I think Schwitzgebel was merely drawing on peer assessment surveys, which - as you say - are not perfectly reliable.) It seems independently plausible, though.

  5. one think I remember him doing was a study on whether ethics text books got returned more often to libraries.

  6. It seems to me that Schwitzgebel only takes into account the present situation of moral reflection on moral behavior.

    However, if we take the view that most of the moral reflection that happens today occurred in the past, which is in my view a rational position to take, then it could be said that moral reflection had a directly perceivable affect on behavior then.

    Philosophers set down various schools of moral reasoning, they amassed followers, who then taught their children to act according to certain fundamental moral precepts. The reasoning behind these precepts were lost, perhaps with only the precepts universal to all the schools of moral reasoning surviving.

    Nowadays, most moral philosophers reiterate the reasoning of the past, and people are underwhelmed, because that is how they have been taught to act.

    It is entirely plausible to suggest that the philosophers today at the cutting edge of moral reasoning, a controversial instance being Peter Singer, are slowly amassing followers who will teach their children to follow the precept that "eating meat is generally wrong", and will thus have an effect in the decades and centuries to come. But because the majority of moral philosophers show nothing new, history is largely repeating itself.

    Also, there seems to me a supposition that morality must produce "behavior", though this contradicts virtue ethics in which case the ordinary people may not have a moral character, whilst moralists do.

  7. Right, moral theorizing might have long-term effects on the public culture in the way you describe. That's interesting, but a separate question from whether an individual's first-personal moral deliberation improves their behaviour.

  8. Roko's point seems to me to be obviously valid, and if one doesn't know any consequentialists that's probably because one is not looking. Check out for one relevant location. If ethicists steal more books, then perhaps, for instance, they know (and others do not) that stealing (or stealing books, or stealing books if one is an ethicist) is proper behavior.

    It would be rather sad if they conformed more extremely with non-reflective ethics as a result of greater reflection. We should expect their behavior to break with conventionally defined ethics more frequently than the behaviors of other people if their behaviors are influenced by reflection.

  9. Roko and Michael seem obviously right to me. Any change in behaviour resulting from philosophical reflection will necessarily appear to others as immorality, as it will coincide less with commonly held views.

    Also, as I said on Overcoming Bias:

    There is no reason to think studying ethics leads to a belief in more ethical constraints to behaviour. In my experience studying ethics leads to a greater consistency of ethical principles, which means dropping a lot that turn out to be unjustified artifacts of culture or a disgust response. For instance to most people incest is wrong even if the couple is infertile, it is consensual, and it doesn't harm anyone. Thinking it's fine seems to universally require a bit of ethical thought (and an obsession with ethical consistency). In even 'worse' cases, ethical thought leads to moral relativism and the ability to justify nihilistic behaviour.

  10. hmm, to take one example, have ethical professors really come to the conclusion that on average stealing library books is not immoral?

    if you are right and that experiment is right then maybe the conclusion is that overall 'nihilism' seems to be winning the debate.


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