Academic philosophers and morality

I wrote the following in response to a conversation at bloggingheadstv, in which a professor of philosophy at U.C. Riverside discusses his empirical research into the behavior of philosophy professors who specialize in ethics, morality, or political philosophy.

Having known a substantial number of academic philosophers engaged in ethical/moral inquiry, or in political philosophy, I would not expect them to be any “better” or worse than other people.   There are some ethical/moral “philosophers” I have known in whose behavior I could be greatly disappointed, but in most cases things do not even rise to this level.  They’re just people doing a job.  How and why they are doing the job they are doing is usually something of a mystery, but it does not appear to be because of an overwhelming desire for justice.

My problem with the studies undertaken by Prof.  Schwitzgebel of U.C. Riverside is that they focus on trivial questions.  The charitable giving question is less trivial than the others, and Peter Singer has paved the way there for establishing quantitative principles of giving and, apparently, sticking to them.  Obviously, not every academic philosopher will agree with Singer’s premises or conclusions and so will not feel bound by them.  But there was a good review of all this in a recent “New York Review of Books,” and I am certainly glad that Singer is out there, doing what he does.

This conversation was undermined, in my opinion, by what seemed to be a willing refusal to confront what the professionalization of philosophy implies, and what the professionalization of philosophy as an exercise in logic or applied logic implies.  More interesting than these studies would be well-designed psychological studies about the kinds of people who become academic ethicists in the US, about what their moral thinking was like before they became professional academic philosophers.

First, one has to know what is just in a given ethically or morally troubling situation, which is very difficult.  Then, one has to have the courage, or conviction, or character to do what justice demands.  Those are two very different things, although Socrates appears to have claimed that they were not different, that knowledge is virtue, and vice versa.  A philosopher might well be good at establishing a moral principle and then not be good at all at implementing it, not because he can’t see how the principle applies to a situation, but simply due to a character defect.  There is nothing surprising here.

But I don’t see why one would expect people who are working in an industry, an industry that rewards finding arguments for things and expressing those arguments concisely, elegantly, sometimes with wit, an industry that rewards apparent novelty considerably more than it rewards humanitarianism, for lack of a better short description, and does not care about unreturned library books or voting behavior, or even effectiveness in teaching, why would one expect such an industry to produce just or humanitarian behavior more than some other line of work, say the bar, or waste management?


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