Can you be too ethical?
In a recent column in The Guardian, Andrew Brown argues that there are several ways in which one might, in a sense, be ‘too ethical’: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/27/can-you-be-too-ethical
His first example is the corporate ethics of certain companies, such as Google, which – piously, according to Brown – promote fair trade, sustainability, and the avoidance of sweatshops. Particularly problematic, Brown suggests, is the fact that they do this using resources which themselves have been acquired through libertarian selfishness.
Brown here ignores a very important and basic distinction: between doing the right thing, and doing the right thing in the right way. Because he finds Google’s behaviour ostentatious, he thinks they should stop acting as they do. But this is like telling someone who is saving a drowning child in the hope of gaining a reward to leave the child to drown.
Brown’s second example is certain utilitarian bioethicists who argue for ‘monstrous’ conclusions – such as the view that infanticide is permissible. Here Brown seems to ignore another rather basic distinction, one recognized famously by Voltaire, between the moral status of some action on the one hand, and the moral status of recommending it on the other. It may be that infanticide is wrong; but it does not follow that it is wrong to advocate it.
Nevertheless, the question itself is an interesting one, and was much discussed in the 1980s by writers such as Susan Wolf, who objected to Kantian conceptions of ethics according to which all that should matter in our deliberations is acting ‘morally’. Such ‘moral sainthood’, Wolf argued, is unattractive to most of us, whether as a personal goal or as a trait in others.
One source of these objections to Kantian ethics is Kant’s idea that morally praiseworthy action must be motivated by a sense of duty. This can seem alienating (if, for example, I never do anything for anyone because I love them, but only because it’s my duty). But if we return to the distinction between right actions, and how they’re motivated, it doesn’t seem so clear to me that moral sainthood – being ‘too ethical’, to use Brown’s phrase – is to be avoided. If moral sainthood consists just in doing what’s right, and not in doing it because it’s right, then any deviation from that ideal will involve doing what’s wrong. And here I agree with Aristotle: virtue is an extreme and you can’t have too much of it.