by Thomas Wells
Middle age brings sometimes uncomfortable self-reflection. One thing I have realized is that I am not a particularly good person. Not evil, just mediocre. Lots of people are much better at morality than me, including many of my students. On the other hand, I am quite good at the academic subject of ethics. Good enough to teach it at a university and write papers that occasionally appear in nice journals.
Is there a contradiction between these two observations? Is there a causal relationship?
When I started studying ethics I assumed it would somehow make me a morally better person. But I never really thought through that ‘somehow’ and after 15 years I can see that my complacency was not justified. My moral achievements still derive mostly from the good habits my parents trained me in. If I am at all a better person than I was 15 years ago, that has had more to do with the good people I have been lucky enough to know than with what I have been reading, thinking, and teaching.
Some years ago, for instance, I worked through the arguments around animal rights and decided to my intellectual satisfaction that the case against eating them was completely compelling. But I still eat meat nearly every day. I did try vegetarianism a couple of times but gave up because it was too hard. Vegetarian food in every situation was always worse than the meat alternative. And I got very tired of eating cheese.
Aristotle would diagnose my failing as akrasia, or weakness of will. I characterize it in more familiar terms as moral laziness. I claim moral principles, but I am not prepared to put much effort into living up to them. In the same way, I think I want to be thin, but – practice has revealed – I am not prepared to exchange my comforts for ascetic bowls of muesli and pre-dawn running regimes. Either I don’t care about being good as much as I think I do (a motivation problem), or I am not really convinced by my own moral reasoning (a rationality problem). I think it may be a bit of both.
I am not the only lazy ethics professor. Eric Schwitzgebel has spent some time surveying my kind and comparing our moral beliefs with our actual behavior. He has also compared ethics professors as a group with other professors. Ethicists appear more likely than others to say that eating meat is wrong, but we are just as likely to have eaten meat the day before. Likewise, we are more likely to say that we should give more to charity, but actually we don’t. The general finding is that professional ethicists are more likely to claim sophisticated knowledge of what is right and wrong, but we don’t follow through and act on that knowledge. Although we don’t act differently from non-ethicists, it might seem that we are morally worse since we commit the additional sin of hypocrisy.
I’m glad to find that my moral laziness isn’t unique. It lets me off the hook. It also makes the issue more interesting. Individual cases are boring, but a general phenomenon is worth looking into. It also raises a challenge to my whole profession. At best, the systematic study of right and wrong seems irrelevant to helping people be good. At worst, it creates hypocrites.
So what is the point of professors of ethics? Is it another bullshit job, created to fulfill an institutional demand rather than a real need of human beings? Is ethics talk mainly a technology for the professional classes to escape the straightforward moral code of the plebs by rationalising whatever behaviour suits us? Or is it even – as conservatives have always claimed – a way to indoctrinate vulnerable young people with radical liberal ideas? Am I an unwitting collaborator in a scam?
The reason I don’t think those cynical explanations are true – or at best only tangentially true – is that they rest on a confusion between the ordinary idea of morality and the philosophical project of ethics. Morality is about doing what is right, where the emphasis is on the person involved living up to their obligations. Philosophical ethics is not really about moral behaviour but figuring out what is right in the first place (including the most general questions of all about what kind of thing morality even is). It is an intellectual exercise. Its virtues are intellectual rather than practical – reading and responding to other academics’ ideas in an extended, indefinitely continued conversation carried on via conferences, journals and books.
So the first point is that it is not our job to be morally good people, or to train people to do that. Moral philosophers are not like religious gurus: the credibility of our arguments don’t depend on the quality of our moral behaviour, any more than the quality of a mathematical proof depends on the morals of the mathematician or how good they are at sums. Whether or not ethics is worth studying and teaching in the way that academic philosophers do it is a separate question from whether it makes you a good person.
However there is more to say in defense of ethics and to explain the phenomenon of moral laziness among people so interested in morality. Spending a significant amount of time in the company and conversation of philosophers does tend to change one’s values. Just not as one might expect. The key value selected for, encouraged, and developed is the intellectual one of curiosity, of wondering which questions we should ask about morality to better understand it. Of course, curiosity is at the heart of the academic project and causes problems for others besides philosophers. Economists, for example, also sometimes have trouble explaining that they aren’t actually in the business of making money (because that would be boring). But philosophy is the most dedicated to curiosity, to finding the right questions rather than filling out the right answers (as I have argued elsewhere).
Through the lens of curiosity, morality looks different. The philosophical style – systematic reflection – actually has plenty of resources for thinking about improving moral behaviour, such as reviewing one’s moral errors; reconsidering the values one should live by; and even coming up with rules that make immoral temptations easier to resist. But particulars are boring to philosophers. We are interested in general truths about the nature of time, not fixing one particular broken watch. My belated recognition of my own moral mediocrity illustrates this. First that it took me so long to notice. Second that my reaction was primarily not shame but curiosity to understand what kind of thing was going on here.
Curiosity alienates philosophers from the folk morality that most people in a society take for granted. Instead of following the conventions of our tribe we (try to) follow our arguments where they lead. That means we are more likely to come to discomfiting or unpopular conclusions about common practises like eating meat or gendered inequality or infant circumcision.
At the same time, curiosity makes us less likely to follow through on those conclusions. Partly because intellectual consistency makes certain common methods for motivating moral behaviour less available (such as fear of divine punishment, or virtue signalling). But mostly because curiosity makes people less decisive. Curious people hold their beliefs differently. We hold them up and away from us in order to scrutinise them for gaps and flaws, and we are open-minded – even eager – about having them corrected by others. We aren’t just thinking about what our moral standard says here, but exchanging reasoned arguments about which of various proposed, often contradictory moral standards are correct. Is morality a matter of happiness as the Utilitarians claim? Or of recognising our duty to obey the moral law, as Kant argued? And we aren’t in any particular hurry to make up our minds because these are theoretical questions unbounded by time.
So here we have answers to the two problems of moral laziness I identified: Motivation and Rationality. Firstly, although philosophical ethicists are very interested in morality itself, we are not especially interested in particular cases, even our own. Like anyone else, we would like to be good, but morality is hard and there are other things we would rather do with our time and energy (including more philosophy!). Secondly, the way we relate to our moral beliefs is attenuated by our driving virtue of curiosity. Curiosity drives us to do more reasoning about right and wrong, but – unlike religious converts – we don’t integrate our conclusions into our identities. To be a philosopher is to take up a certain attitude to the world, but the ideas we claim to believe in are merely provisional and not worth getting too attached to.
Moral laziness is not limited to ethics professors. Can we do anything about it?
Let me return to the analogy I started with. Some people (‘saints’) seem to have an innate talent for morality, just as some people seem to stay slim because they just lack the appetite for junk food. For the rest of us, navigating the storm of junk food we are living through is hard and tedious work. But it doesn’t need to be so difficult. Before around 1980 the food environment was different – less toxic and less well-engineered to tempt us – so staying slim was easier. It is not reasonable to hold individuals responsible for our dietary choices in the present circumstances, where giant food companies employ phalanxes of food scientists with PhDs to outsmart us. Tackling our obesity epidemic should begin by tackling the food environment, not blaming fatties.
Likewise, moral motivation is limited and always has been. The key to a society’s moral enhancement then is not to demand that everyone miraculously become a moral saint. Instead we should work at ensuring that the level of moral motivation people actually have is sufficient to overcome the challenges and temptations we face. This is one of the most significant, and least appreciated, tasks of government – to help us achieve our moral obligations to each other. Instead of expecting us to voluntarily donate sufficient funds to support the public services we say we believe in, the government automatically deducts our contributions from our bank accounts. Instead of relying only on moral motivation to get us to do the right thing, the government supplements it with egoistic motivations to reduce immoral behaviour like drunk driving with fines and jail time.
This role for government used to go much further – into upholding certain standards of sexual morality for example. The trend these days is to reject that role in favour of an individualistic free market approach. But do we actually respect people’s moral freedom when we set them up to fail their own moral principles? How many of the people who consume animal products, watch pornography, or buy smart phones built from slave-mined minerals are entirely morally content with their choices?
I know that I would be much better at living up to my vegan moral conclusions if meat products were universally banned. But I recognise the unreasonableness of imposing such a thing on everyone else merely for my moral convenience. But perhaps the power of government could be more precisely targeted to individuals. We could sign up for legally binding personal bans on immoral behaviour. Instead of having to make the right decision every time I passed a grocery store or restaurant, I would only have to make it once every few years. Morality made easy is morality made achievable.
Thomas R. Wells teaches philosophy at Tilburg University. He blogs on philosophy, politics, and economics at The Philosopher’s Beard.