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!
Post a Comment