Monday, January 15, 2007

Is Moral Philosophy Bad for Your Character?

Eric Schwitzgebel and Josh Rust have a very interesting research project. At the American Philosophical Association meetings in D. C. a couple of weeks ago, one of them had a table near the book stalls and offered free snacks to folks for filling out a questionnaire. (Funny thing: I must have walked right past him without seeing him, missing out on the candy!) The questionnaire asked people to compare the specialists in moral philosophy with the non-ethicists that they knew with respect to their moral character. Better? Worse? About the same?

An old friend of mine, call him X (he is now Chair of a very distinguished philosophy department), once told me he had an idea he called X's Law: "In any given philosophy department, the morally worst person is the moral philosopher." For some reason, my first impression was that this was at least close to the truth.

Anyway, what S & R found was a little surprising to me, at least at first. People tended not to see any difference between their ethicist colleagues and anybody else. Undergraduates and full profs were most benign in their judgments, with an apparent tendency to have less favorable opinions peaking out around tenure-time (gee, I wonder why?).

My own somewhat malign view of moral philosophers is an application of a wider theory, that people tend to be attracted to a field of study because it studies qualities that they lack. (Obviously, this only applies to fields that study some human trait or other.) If I had moral virtue myself, if I lived with it every day, I wouldn't find it so fascinating. It's the alien, the strange, that interests us.

This theory may not be that hard to test. It would predict that professors of business are not very business-like and efficient, that counseling-psych majors tend to be people who need therapy themselves. Are these things true?

This might make the most sense when applied to individual philosophers. Rousseau's theory is about how important altruism and membership in the community are, while his own life was almost completely lacking in these two traits. People often think of this as hypocrisy, but I'm not sure that is right. Nietzsche was fascinated by power lust and the spirit of adventure, but in his dayly life, like Rousseau, he almost completely lacked the traits he found so important in theory. Is this hypocrisy? Maybe it's just love of the alien-and-therefore-interesting.

As to the more specific issue about ethicists: to tell the truth I haven't thought about it for a number of years. Maybe it's because my present ethics colleagues are such decent people! Perhaps, under the influence of S & R's little questionnaire, I should give it up. It's the sort of thing I would be glad to be wrong about!

9 comments:

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for sharing your interesting thoughts on our questionnaire, Lester! Your theory about people being attracted to research areas connected to problematic aspects of their personal lives is a commonplace in informal discussion in psychology departments: The clinical psychologists are a bit crazy, the social psychologists are hopelessly awkward, the developmental psychologists act like children -- or so it's teasingly said. Whether there's any actual, substantive research on this, though, I don't know!

"Q" the Enchanter said...

I'm going to disagree, on two grounds. First, as it happens, the professors that taught moral philosophy at my alma mater were among the best-natured people in the department (and there were a lot of great people in the department). Not a dispositive argument, but it's at least a data point.

Second, I'm just plain having trouble making sense of the "wider theory" you propound. People attracted to physics study physics, then become physicists; people attracted to law study law, then become lawyers; people attracted to music study music, then become musicians; usw. So I see no evidence in the standard cases to suppose students are putting their energies into areas for which they "lack" the relevant "qualities."

Also, I don't think your comments about Nietzsche are quite on (I don't know about Rousseau). "Lust" in the common sense wasn't of peculiar interest to him, and "power" (in the Nietzschean sense) and adventurousness were hardly qualities he lacked.

"Q" the Enchanter said...

So after leaving the previous comment, I picked up a couple of books I had on reserve at the library--one of which is "Nietzsche and the Origin of Virtue."

Ever heard of it?

Lester Hunt said...

"'Nietzsche and the Origin of Virtue.' Ever heard of it?"

Sounds disreputable. Proceed with caution!

Seriously, thanks for looking at my book. I need all the readers I can get!

L.

Lester Hunt said...

Sorry -- I didn't realize that the two comments above were by the same person!

"I'm going to disagree, on two grounds. First, as it happens, the professors that taught moral philosophy at my alma mater were among the best-natured people in the department"

... and my two ethics colleagues are sterling individuals as well.

"Second, I'm just plain having trouble making sense of the "wider theory" you propound. People attracted to physics study physics, then become physicists; people attracted to law study law, then become lawyers; people attracted to music study music, then become musicians; usw.:"

Yes, this theory only applies to fields that study some one human quality, or some group of them that cohere in some relevant way. If I try to apply it the physics, say, and try to figure out what lack drives people to study energy and matter, the only answers I can come up with are, well, pretty silly.

"'Lust' in the common sense wasn't of peculiar interest to him, and 'power' (in the Nietzschean sense) and adventurousness were hardly qualities he lacked."

Nietzsche's thinking was powerful and adventuresome, but his day-to-day life was orderly, quiet -- in fact, almost boring. He thrived on routine. Note that Nietzsche's conception of power was not spiritual and cultural to the exclusion of the physical and political. As far as I know, he only ever had good things to say about Napoleon. And yet his own personality was the opposite of Napoleonic! (Which is to his credit, in my view!)

"Q" the Enchanter said...

"Note that Nietzsche's conception of power was not spiritual and cultural to the exclusion of the physical and political."

Right, it's just that I had the converse point in mind (to wit, that Nietzsche's "power" was not physical and political to the exclusion of the spiritual and cultural). I'd also note that he only came to lack the physical brand of adventurousness after his break in health (following his stint in the Prussian army); he seems to have been an adventurous enough fellow theretofore.

Incidentally, you might be interested to know that I was turned on to your book by Leiter's "must read" list for graduate students doing work on Nietzsche. (I assure you I'll be holding him responsible as well for any disreputable ideas to which I happen to fall prey.)

Lester Hunt said...

"I'd also note that he only came to lack the physical brand of adventurousness after his break in health (following his stint in the Prussian army); he seems to have been an adventurous enough fellow theretofore."

You know, I'd never thought of that before, but you are quite right. As I recall, he did volunteer for war service, didn't he? I don't remember the details, but since he was residing in Switzerland at the time, I would think he could have gotten out of service one way or another, had he wanted to.

I bet a very valuable book could be written on the young Nietzsche. I don't know of anything in English.

"Q" the Enchanter said...

You think there's enough historical material covering that period of his life?

Lester Hunt said...

There probably is, for what I have in mind. I think one of the best ways to understand a creative thinker, and one that isn't used enough, is to look at the period in their lives (often its their early twenties) when they became person were to be. With N, this would take into the period when he was a professor, maybe even to the end of it. There's probably plenty of primary source material to read -- this was a guy who wrote his lectures out, after all!