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. 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.
 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.