Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Are Professors of Ethics more Ethical than Other People?

No, so far as we can tell:
Ethicists do not appear to behave better. Never once have we found ethicists as a whole behaving better than our comparison groups of other professors, by any of our main planned measures. But neither, overall, do they seem to behave worse. (There are some mixed results for secondary measures.) For the most part, ethicists behave no differently from professors of any other sort – logicians, chemists, historians, foreign-language instructors.
Ditto for priests and ministers:
The same issues arise with clergy. In 2010, I was presenting some of my work at the Confucius Institute for Scotland. Afterward, I was approached by not one but two bishops. I asked them whether they thought that clergy, on average, behaved better, the same or worse than laypeople.

‘About the same,’ said one.

‘Worse!’ said the other.

No clergyperson has ever expressed to me the view that clergy behave on average morally better than laypeople, despite all their immersion in religious teaching and ethical conversation. Maybe in part this is modesty on behalf of their profession. But in most of their voices, I also hear something that sounds like genuine disappointment, some remnant of the young adult who had headed off to seminary hoping it would be otherwise.
To me the stupidest thing about classical philosophy has always been the notion that more knowledge, or more reflection on ethical matters, would make people better. Hogwash. There may be specific instances in which knowledge influences ethical behavior -- only people who have heard of climate change are likely to work on reducing their carbon footprints -- but by and large ethics and education hardly intersect at all. Nor does ethics intersect very much with religious faith. We are good or bad for reasons that have, it seems, little to do with either the knowing or believing parts of our brains.

One thing we know is that people are more likely to follow ethical rules if everyone around them is; other sorts of reward and punishment are more important than a sense of virtue.
Most of us choose moral mediocrity instead. It’s not that we try but fail, or that we have good excuses. We – most of us – actually aim at mediocrity. . . . We aspire to be about as morally good as our peers. If others cheat and get away with it, we want to do the same. We don’t want to suffer for goodness while others laughingly gather the benefits of vice. If the morally good life is uncomfortable and unpleasant, if it involves repeated painful sacrifices that are not compensated in some way, sacrifices that others are not also making, then we don’t want it.
As in so many other matters, it helps me to understand our behavior by imagining us as particularly intelligent baboons.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

Knowledge alone doesn't fix our problems, because despite everyone's wishes, humans simply aren't truly rational creatures.

But knowledge is still necessary to fix our problems, and a lack of it dooms us to repeating our greatest failures and mistakes endlessly.

To use a simplistic analogy: wheels alone don't make a car - you still need an engine, fuel, a means of steering, etc. But without those wheels, you're not going anywhere anyway.