On holding ethicists to higher moral standards and the value of moral inconsistency

A few weeks ago, Adela Cortina, one of the most important moral philosophers in Spain, was interviewed on the journal El País. “This should be the easiest interview in the world,” said the journalist by way of introduction. Adela Cortina asked why. “Because of your profession. Professors of Ethics never lie, right?” “People assume we are faultless, and when they talk to me they are always justifying themselves. What I work on is something academic, and then, when it comes to life, I try to be consistent with my convictions, but nobody is incorruptible,” she said.

Suppose I tell you that a professor from your local university did something morally reprehensible—cheated on his spouse, failed to pay taxes, or stole money from his department. Suppose that I then tell you this professor is a moral philosopher. Does this further fact make his actions all the more disappointing? I suspect most people think it does. Why is it that ethicists are commonly held to higher moral standards than the rest of the population? Should they be?

One possible reason is that the moral philosopher’s fault somehow invalidates his moral theories. In other words, in order for moral philosophers to show philosophy’s worth, they must embody the values they argue for. But it is unclear that this is the way we should think about ethicists. Take the case of a guru. A guru will typically say that he has discovered a method to become x (where x can be being happier than average, healthier, more moral, etc.); he will typically assert that he has followed that method himself, has become x, and that he can teach you how to do the same to become x yourself. If, however, we have evidence to think that he is not in fact x, then we have reason to doubt his teachings. If he is not x, he is a bad guru. The ethicist is not obviously analogous to the guru, however. An ethicist typically theorizes about what should and should not be done. Moral philosophers usually think about the moral reasons we have to act in different ways, about the kind of moral commitments different belief systems imply, etc. Ethicists very rarely claim they themselves are the embodiment of the moral conclusions they have arrived at. Even when they come to a conclusion about what should be done (of the type ‘all people should be doing y’), they rarely give advice as to how people can organise their lives or gather their willpower so that they can in fact do y. (Perhaps ethicists should give more advice on how people can get better at following moral rules and becoming more moral, but that issue is the topic of another debate, and for the time being I will just assume that coaching people is not part of the moral philosopher’s job description.) According to this view, the ethicist would be less like a guru and more like a doctor. A doctor understands the way the body works, and can prescript the right way of life and medicine to cure or ameliorate each ailment. He does not, however, embody health, and he does not typically give advice to people as to how to follow his instructions (how to garner the willpower to exercise every day, how to remember to take that pill three times a day, etc.). One of the best doctors I have ever met is someone who is very bad at taking care of himself—he does not exercise, he eats junk food, does not get enough sleep, he forgets to take his pills, etc. This doctor does not embody health, but that does not make him any less of a good doctor. It would be better for him that he took good care of himself and that he was healthy, but that would not make him a better doctor. It does not make sense for people to feel disappointed about a good doctor not being healthy. In the same way, ethicists should be judged qua ethicists by the value of the work they produce, and not by how they lead their lives.

Another plausible reason why ethicists are held to especially high standards is the thought that with greater knowledge comes greater responsibility.[1] According to this view, if an ethicist acts wrongly knowing more than the average person about the kind of damage he may cause and the kind of moral reasons he has not to act that way, then he is a worse person than he would be if he were not an ethicist. In other words, an ethicist is more morally blameworthy because he commits wrongs more knowingly than other people who can appeal to ignorance as an extenuating circumstance. This view seems plausible to me. A premise of the argument, however, is that moral philosophers know more about morality than non-ethicists. But suppose that the moral wrong committed by a moral philosopher consists in not having paid taxes, and that the moral philosopher professionally focuses on the ethics of what we eat. It is quite plausible that the moral philosopher who works on the ethics of what we eat has never analysed closely the wrong of not paying taxes. At the very least, it is plausible that he has not thought about not paying taxes any more than other (non-moral) philosophers or than non-philosophers. In that case it seems that the moral philosopher should not be held to higher moral standards, because he is not an expert in the subfield in which he committed the wrongdoing.

But now suppose that the moral philosopher commits a wrong closely related to the field of his expertise. Suppose he believes that not being vegetarian is wrong, and yet he cannot help eating meat from time to time. In fact, one study shows that even if 60% of ethicists believe it is morally wrong to eat meat regularly, compared to 45% of other philosophers and 19% of professors from other disciplines, there is no statistically significant difference among the three groups when asked what they ate at their previous evening meal. These numbers suggest that many moral philosophers are not consistent between their actions and their convictions when it comes to their field of expertise. (I am assuming here that the ethicists who voiced an opinion about vegetarianism had thought about the issue before, but this may not be true.)

Consider the following case. A moral philosopher (who has never worked on vegetarianism before), a logician, and a businessman attend a one-month course on the ethics of what we eat. They are all exposed to the same relevant arguments, articles, and documentaries. By the end of the month, all three agree that eating meat is immoral and they become vegetarians. One year later, however, a follow-up survey finds that all three have gone back to regularly eating meat. Is the moral philosopher more blameworthy than the logician or the businessman? It seems to me than in this case all three are equally morally blameworthy, given that they share the same knowledge. Now suppose that a year after the course ends all three subjects are asked whether they still think eating meat is wrong. The logician and the businessman say that they no longer believe eating meat is wrong, but the ethicist acknowledges that he still believes it is wrong not to be a vegetarian. Does this mismatch between beliefs and behaviour change anything? Does it make the ethicist more blameworthy because he is acting against his convictions?

If we say that the ethicist is more morally blameworthy for acting contrary to his beliefs, then this position would lead to the unappealing implication that the easiest way for the ethicist to be less blameworthy would be to change his convictions so that they fit his actions, irrespective of the content of his behaviour. In fact, research suggests that people often look at their own behaviour and infer from it what their beliefs are (Bem 1972). In other words, people often think the way they act, rather than the other way around. When it comes to morality, I suspect the process goes something like this: ‘I am a good person. I eat meat. Therefore, eating meat must not be such a bad thing to do.’ People experience distress when they perceive a mismatch between their acts and their beliefs. Psychologists have dubbed this unpleasant feeling cognitive dissonance. When faced with such a mismatch, people can: a) change their behaviour, b) justify their behaviour by changing their beliefs, c) or take responsibility for the discrepancy. Suppose that the businessman and the logician went back to eating meat because of some kind of weakness of will. They missed the taste of meat, the social pressure they faced made them uncomfortable, and they succumbed to temptation. One year later, when confronted with cognitive dissonance, they changed their beliefs to fit their behaviour. Is the ethicist more blameworthy than they are?

The more moral thing to do for the ethicist is of course to go back to being a vegetarian. It is still true that it is morally wrong of him to eat meat. The next best thing, however, is not to change his beliefs so that they fit his behaviour. Not living up to our moral standards is morally bad, but it is not as bad as changing our moral beliefs to match our immoral behaviour. Consistency is overrated. In morality, good outcomes are much more important. If the ethicist were to accommodate his beliefs to his behaviour, not only would that constitute a morally worse option—it would also make him a bad ethicist, because that is not the method moral philosophers should use to arrive at valid conclusions in ethics. If the ethicist feels he cannot change his behaviour (perhaps because he needs time to do it gradually, or because his moral failings make him not stand social pressure), then the next best thing he can do is to take responsibility for the mismatch: acknowledge that the right thing to do is to be a vegetarian, even if he is personally failing at it. This position is a bitter one. It is distressing and embarrassing to acknowledge our moral failings, but doing so makes us good moral philosophers—as good as if we could fully live up to our moral standards.

Should ethicists be held to higher moral standards? If they commit a wrong about which they know more than others, then it is seems plausible that they do have more responsibility and should be held to higher moral standards. In many cases, however, moral philosophers appear to be on a par with non-ethicists when it comes to ethical knowledge. Most people who cheat on their spouses, for example, have roughly the same knowledge of the wrong they are committing; this includes moral philosophers, since the ethics of faithfulness is not frequently discussed in academic settings, nor is it something most moral philosophers read or write about. Furthermore, knowledge is never a sufficient condition to act morally, and moral philosophers are as prone as anyone else to weakness of will. More importantly, people should not be disappointed when they learn that a moral philosopher has committed a wrong that goes against his moral beliefs. While it may show some moral failing in his character, if the ethicist is willing to stand by his beliefs, it also shows a virtue: that of intellectual honesty. The virtue of intellectual honesty may not be one of the most relevant virtues to judge a person’s character as a whole, but it is certainly one of the most important virtues to judge the worth of a moral philosopher qua moral philosopher.


[1] My thanks to Theron Pummer for this point.


Bem, D.J. 1972. “Self-Perception Theory.” In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, edited by L. Berkowitz. New York: Academic Press.

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7 Responses to On holding ethicists to higher moral standards and the value of moral inconsistency

  • Stephen Latham says:

    I’m inclined to think that part of why moral philosophers are sometimes held to higher standards is that their moral failings can appear hypocritical. “You dare to tell other people how to behave, and yet this is what you do!” And I agree that the accusation of hypocrisy attaches more readily to the misbehaving moralist than to the misbehaving meteorologist. Of course, not every moral philosopher engages in moralizing (telling people what to do). A moral philosopher whose main contribution to the field consists, for example, in defending a non-naturalist, non-reductionist, cognitivist view of metaethics, can scarcely be accused of hypocrisy when he cheats on his partner. But it is more natural to accuse the autonomy-promoting bioethicist of hypocrisy if he ignores his father’s instructions about end-of-life care.

    But on a different point, at least some moral philosophers–particularly those with moral theology backgrounds, but not only those–spend considerable time thinking about moral psychology, and therefore have a more lively sense of human finitude, bounded rationality, self-interest, “sinfulness” and frailty than the average mathematician, or even than the average attorney. Locke knew and wrote that people were poor judges in their own cases; if Locke, therefore, behaved selfishly, that would actually have been a confirmation of the view of human nature that underwrites his theorizing about the point of government. A similar point can be made about many religious and other moral positions, which prescribe proper behavior even while admitting that humans are wretched sinners (or the secular equivalents thereof). Indeed, the sinfulness makes the prescriptions necessary. Everyone behaves badly sometimes; this is a fact especially well-known to moral theologians, psychologists and moral philosophers. This knowledge doesn’t inoculate them against moral error, nor should we expect it to.

    • Carissa Véliz says:

      Thank you for your comment. I sympathise with your response. After having published the post, a friend suggested that there must be a line dividing the well-intentioned ethicist who suffers from moral shortcomings and the cynic, but it is hard to know where it might be drawn. I wonder if we could distinguish between grave and persistent moral errors from errors that can be better described as slips, or occasionally falling into temptation. May knowledge have more of an effect in avoiding the former? Maybe not.

  • Nick says:

    I think there may be another, simpler route to this sort of conclusion. It is this: a person who writes a book defending veganism but who regularly consumes meat and dairy does not actually believe the theses they propound in their book. We are used to thinking of ‘belief’ in bloodless terms, as something that can simply exist independently of motivation and practice. But most meta-ethicists actually think there is a very deep connection between what you sincerely believe (morally) and what you are actually motivated to do. When Peter Singer claims to believe in universal beneficence but sends his children to extremely fancy, expensive schools, this is very good evidence that he does not actually believe that universal beneficence is morally required.

    Seen this way, ethicists are not being held to a different standard. They are being held to the same standard to which everyone else is being held, since we require of everyone that they be basically sincere. But moral philosophers have invented a very unique and interesting way of being insincere, which is to construct complex ethical theories which they do not actually believe, and to draw large salaries from various institutions in order to continue doing this.

    • Theron Pummer says:

      Hi Nick. Of course, it could be that there *is* a deep connection between what one sincerely believes one morally ought to do and what one is actually motivated to do, but that due to countervailing motivations one doesn’t *act* in accord with what one sincerely believes one morally ought to do. So it’s unclear that Singer not acting in accord with utilitarianism is good evidence that he doesn’t sincerely believe it . A more minor point is that meta-ethicists seem quite divided over the connection between moral judgments and motivation – in the Phil Papers survey (http://philpapers.org/surveys/results.pl) it looks like internalism beat externalism by only 5%.

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  • WibbilyWobbilyTimeyWimey says:

    I’m going to do my best to not read any of these other comments, because my Philosophy teacher would likely be displeased if I soaked up and dispensed their ideas like an unwanted Philosophy sponge instead of thinking up my own stuff, right?

    The first thing I thought upon reading this article is that, one reason why ethinicists are held up to such a high standard is probably because the moral profession is still associated with religion, where a priest not standing by the word he preaches, is not worth listening to. But the example that the author presented (the one with the banker and the logician, very well done, by the way), clearly show that there is particular situations where the philosopher is not as easy to find fault, possibly because he’s been paired with other people, who have all been listed by profession — this trickery makes you subconsciously consider philosophy as a profession, instead of a part of a persons identity, as would usually be the case.

    Overall, I feel the author made it clear that ethics and moral philosophy is a science of theory, rather than a clergy-like profession. That’s why Adela Cortina told the journalist that a moral philosopher shouldn’t be expected to be faultless, as one wouldn’t expect a good doctor to, by default, be healthy.

    • Carissa Véliz says:

      Thank you for your comment. You are right: I was exploring the idea that, for the most part, philosophy is a profession, just like any other academic profession.


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