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“Trust Me, I’m an Ethicist”

A paper forthcoming in the philosophy journal Mind inquires into perceptions about the ethics of ethicists. The paper reports on a survey that asked philosophers their opinions about the moral behaviour of ethicists compared with the behaviour of philosophers who specialize in other fields. Majorities of both the ethicist and non-ethicist respondents did not think that ethicists behaved any better than other philosophers. While ethicists were somewhat optimistic about other ethicists, with a larger number opining that they behaved better than other philosophers than that they behaved worse, non-ethicists were nearly evenly split between these views. We might reasonably expect that ethicists in general would be, on average, more practiced at moral reflection than other philosophers, and arguably more skilled at it – if not to begin with, then at least as a result of the practice. So the results of the survey suggest that philosophers on the whole do not think that more moral reflection improves moral behaviour. This invites the question: What, then, are ethicists good for?

Imagine what difference we would predict in behaviour not between ethicists and other philosophers, but instead between those ordinary people who never engage in any moral reflection, acting only on their instincts about what is right, and those who often reflect a bit about complicated moral questions before acting. It seems clear that all other things being equal, we should predict better moral behaviour from the latter group. After all, even when they are motivated to do the right thing, the former group would presumably tend to make all kinds of mistakes about what the right thing to do is and be led to act badly, whereas the latter group will at least tend to avoid the most obvious of such mistakes.

If philosophers would agree about this sort of case, as I will assume they would, then why do they appear not to think that the extra seriousness of the moral reflection of ethicists would lead to further improvement in their behaviour beyond the standards of their colleagues? I want to explore a few potential explanations of this view, in the hope of learning whether ethics is morally any good.

First, philosophers might think that ethicists aren’t reflecting on the kinds of questions which could make much of a difference to their day-to-day moral decisions. Many ethicists employed as philosophers focus on metaethics, and are concerned with thinking about the meaning of ethical discourse or the nature of moral knowledge rather than about which particular actions are right and wrong, or which set of moral principles are to guide us in deciding this. Assuming that ethicists of this stripe are likely to behave better than other philosophers would be similar to assuming that philosophers of language are in general likely to write better or give better speeches, or that epistemologists are in general likely to know more or have better justified beliefs.

It may be replied that there’s no reason to expect metaethicists to behave any worse than non-ethicist philosophers, and in addition to them there are plenty of other ethicists who spend a lot of time thinking about normative and applied ethical questions. So shouldn’t these philosophers be expected to behave better than others, and to raise the standards of behaviour to above average for ethicists as a whole?

Perhaps doubts about the moral behaviour of normative and applied ethicists stem from the thought that few even of them focus on the kinds of questions which could make much of a difference to their day-to-day moral decisions. Certainly, many of these philosophers seem to outsiders to spend inordinate amounts of time discussing increasingly bizarre hypothetical cases about runaway trolleys or psychopathic surgeons, and it can be difficult to see how the arguments about them would make any difference to ordinary moral decisions. A more carefully formulated version of this point might start from the premise that there is in our society a great deal of agreement about what the morally right thing to do is in a wide range of everyday cases, and the rare disagreements around the margins are (not coincidentally) the places the ethicists tend to study and do a lot of reflection about. Perhaps, then, we should expect the moral reflection of ethicists to make a positive difference to their behaviour only in the rare instances where these marginal cases actually crop up.

While such views might play a role in explaining the survey data, they ignore the point that even if the instances where disagreement occurs and ethicists have special expertise crop up quite rarely, they still crop up, and so should still make it the case that ethicists would behave better on average than non-ethicists. They also ignore the point that many ethicists do in fact promulgate views that suggest that our ethical beliefs and actions could be improved across a very wide range of everyday decisions – consider Thomas Pogge’s views about our duties to people in third world countries, the views of utilitarians such as Peter Singer about animal rights, the late Gerry Cohen’s commitment to egalitarianism, or views expressed by the authors on this blog about such practical issues as assigning ventilators , selecting our mates , or publishing bad science.

Perhaps the doubters’ view is not that the reflections of ethicists fail to provide any practical moral guidance, but rather that their reflections do not provide good practical moral guidance. We could trace this doubt about the value of the moral advice of ethicists to two potential sources: doubts about the success of the field of philosophical ethics at inquiring into the moral truth, and doubts that there is any kind of objective moral truth to inquire into in the first place.

I won’t attempt to grapple with the second sort of doubt here; it was already ruled out by my earlier assumption that philosophers will accept that a somewhat morally reflective person can be expected to act better than a morally non-reflective person. The first sort of doubt should, in any case, be meaty enough for our purposes. It is easy to see why it might be thought that philosophical ethics demonstrates little success at inquiring into the moral truth: ethics, like the rest of philosophy, is a field of inquiry notable for and indeed very much characterized by the disagreements between its practitioners. If we were to ask whether philosophical ethics has, like science, built up a store of knowledge of truths that, having been established by past investigations, are now accepted by almost everyone, or at least by almost every expert in the field, it would not be easy to defend the claim that it has. Where moral progress seems to have been clearly made across the decades and centuries (in our beliefs about slavery, race, or sexuality, for example) it is hard to trace this back to the work of the moral philosophers, whose arguments – often against the old views, but also often tragically defending them – seem all too easily to be lost in the deluge of the wider culture. (Note that these characteristics of disagreement and of lack of apparent progress in moral philosophy do not seem to be a result just of the fact that it does not admit of confirmation by empirical observation. Mathematics does not appear to admit of confirmation by observation, but no mathematicians can seriously doubt any longer that Fermat’s last theorem is true; an indisputable proof of it is agreed among them. We may be hard pressed to find a similar example of an indisputable proof of a positive theorem in moral philosophy.)

These concerns might keep ethicists up at night having existential nightmares, and might also lead other philosophers to belittle the vain inquiries of the moralists, were it not for the fact that other philosophers face similar objections, and have already provided replies to them that can be adopted by ethicists as much as by other philosophers. One of these replies is that philosophy is characterized by disagreement just because that’s where the action is: since the general philosophical method is a dialectical, reflective examination of arguments, it makes sense to focus on those places where a serious dialectic gets going. A second is that because philosophy is just inquiry into these areas at the fuzzy boundaries of our field of knowledge, solved philosophical problems become rapidly fossilized into something else – the territory of natural science, perhaps, or pieces of plain old common knowledge. A third reply is that even if philosophy has not given us a store of indisputable truths, it certainly has given us a store of indisputable falsehoods, as well as conditional truths and verdicts about arguments. In epistemology, for example, philosophers may not agree that they have discovered what knowledge is but they overwhelmingly agree that they have discovered that it is not justified true belief. In ethics, ethicists may not agree that they have discovered categorically that ethical egoism (the claim that the morally right actions are those that maximize one’s self interest) is false, but they overwhelmingly agree that they have discovered that psychological egoism (the claim that everyone is selfish and only ever aims at her own good) cannot ground a sound argument for it.

We’ve found no support for the claim that the reflections of ethicists provide no good practical moral guidance. So what else might other philosophers be thinking when they opine that ethicists act no better than they do? They might be thinking that having the right moral beliefs is one thing, but doing the right thing is quite another – the quality of our moral motivations need not improve with the quality of our moral beliefs.

This sort of view has a long and distinguished place in the history of philosophy. Aristotle thought that we could only be truly virtuous if our emotional responses operated in unity with our rational assessments, so a virtuous character required not just rational thinking, but a process of habituation embodied in a lifetime’s good education – unfortunately for those who happen to have been brought up the wrong way. David Hume wrote that his work as a moral philosopher was akin to that of an anatomist attending to meticulous details, rather than that of a painter whose work was meant to engage and inspire by presenting a broader impression. But he did not think that moral philosophy was irrelevant to behaviour – like the anatomist who advises the painter in order to help him produce a more correct and elegant form, Hume felt that it was the moral philosopher’s role to provide assistance and understanding to those practical moralists (teachers, parents, and so on) who would inspire and engage the moral sentiments. On these views, then, ethicists can still make the world a better place – but they cannot do it on their own.

Let me conclude with a final speculation. Suppose that while our beliefs about what is morally right are influenced by reflection, our motivations to actually do it are much more heavily influenced by the behaviour of the people around us (think about the ways in which people make decisions about whether to vote, cheat on their taxes, pay bribes, use racist slurs, drink heavily, or smoke; all behaviours which seem to be heavily influenced by the behaviour of our peer groups). Then we would never expect ethicists to behave substantially better than those around them – and the only way to really change behaviour would be to change it in the society as a whole. If ethical reflection were to contribute to this end, it would be necessary not just that ethicists have clearer moral beliefs, but that most people do. So perhaps we shouldn’t expect ethicists to behave significantly better than others, but perhaps we should at least expect them to be generous in distributing the fruits of their moral reflection.


Eric Schwitzgebel and Joshua Rust, “The Moral Behavior of Ethicists: Peer Opinion,” SSRN eLibrary,

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8 Comment on this post

  1. Very nice analysis, Simon! Your thoughts about peer conformity make a lot of sense to me. In fact, I’m inclined to go a little further: People who are often exposed to examples of unpunished violators will shift their notional peer group a bit, with a negative impact on their behavior (all these people are getting away with it, so why shouldn’t I?). And there are certain kinds of moral reflection or rule enforcement or monitoring positions that expose one to many examples of unpunished violators. Hence the financial auditors who themselves cheat, etc.

  2. Thanks for this provocative diagnosis of our findings. Why are philosophers as skeptical as they are about the efficacy of moral reflection? I think your suggestions are plausible. But I would like to know what philosophers think about the effectiveness, e.g., business ethics courses have on the behavior of those who take them. Are we cynical enough to think that such instruction doesn’t make a difference (that we are making these poor business students merely jump hoops)? The skeptic might respond: perhaps we teach these courses mainly with the aim of increasing intellectual aptitude, even though it has little practical effect on their business dealings. Or maybe there are those that might argue that moral aptitude tends to be increased as result of an increase in intellectual aptitude (but not in virtue of the fact it is an ethics course in particular).

  3. Great post and important conclusion! Indeed we should expect (and demand) that ethicists are generous in distributing the fruits of their moral reflection!

    I believe there are two further ways the work of ethicists may be defended. First, the data is that ethicists behave no better according to common sense morality. But this still leaves open that philosopher’s with revisionary moral views behave better according to their own views (or that ethicists might statistically behave better, according to certain revisionary views). You mention the topics animal rights and helping people in the third world. I myself actually believe ethicists behave better than others, by my own standars (utilitarian) since I believe that they are more likely to be vegetarians and give money to the poorest.

    Second, as you say in your “final speculation”, perhaps the problem isn’t lack of moral knowledge, but rather a gap between knowledge and action. I believe “peer preassure” is merely one of many psychological factors that explain this gap. For instance, our compassion seems to be at its strongest when we learn about the suffering of a single person. One example of this is experiments where people were prepared to give *less* money to two victims than to either alone (

  4. Eric, that’s an interesting idea – perhaps ethicists should receive some kind of special compensation for these job related hazards?! If your theory is true, I also wonder if you have a duty to keep it quiet, for fear of making the behaviour of ethicists even worse.

    Josh, I’d hesitate to predict what practical effects philosophers would be willing to attribute to a business school ethics class. One thing to say is that the difference between a student who has taken such a class and one that hasn’t might, in the opinions of philosophers, more like my imagined example of the difference between reflective vs. non-reflective ordinary persons than the difference between ethicists and other philosophers. This might be a question of how far off-base the person’s ethical beliefs are assumed to be to begin with. Another point to make is that a business school ethics class might in part be concerned with what Hume called “practical morality” – that is, with inspiring and encouraging the students to be more moral, rather than merely reflecting on what is moral and what is not. So we might expect it to be more effective than doing ethics research at changing behaviour.

    Jesper, you’re quite right that the measure here is of ethicists’ behavior according to non-ethicists’ moral views, and that the measure might not be accurate for assessing their objective moral goodness (IIRC, Schwitzgebel and Rust point this out in their paper). I wonder if there’s something unseemly to me about an ethicist suggesting this reply though! I also agree that there are certainly other non-rational factors that produce a gap between knowledge and action; I wanted to focus on one that might explain, in particular, why that gap might be even wider for ethicists than it might be for others.

  5. One of the things that came to my mind in thinking about this topic was that ethical theory is very much concerned with challenging commonsense morality or with supplying answers to questions that commonsens morality cannot determine. In short, the whole point of ethical theory is to go beyond what everybody else is thinking, in which case it’s no surprise that everyone should fail to think that moral philosophers are morally better. In those cases where conclusions of practical significance are reached, the right thing to do will not be publicly recognisable as such, in part because ethics is so controversial. Whatever special moral insight ethicists might have gained will undoubtedly concern a topic on which there is no agreement as to the right thing to do, and whatever practical import their conclusions have for their daily lives will therefore register as making no obvious (or publicly accepted) contribution to their goodness as persons. If Singer is right about aid, for example, then it might be that his contributions make him a better person than most; if he is wrong about abortion and infanticide, then it might be thought that his influential public support for its permissibility makes him a worse person than most (or, at least, we can imagine that the facts are such that this is how it would be in the case of certain ethicists). The point is that the question of whether ethicists are better persons than ordinary persons is itself going to be a controversial ethical question in just those cases that could really determine the issue. Could that explain any of this (well, certainly not the supposed excess book-thievery documented elsewhere by Schwitzgebel)?

  6. Andreas – isn’t that equally true for other areas of expertise as well? For example, economists might predict a relationship between unemployment and inflation; physicists might discover a new sub-atomic particle; mathematicians might prove a new theorem; archaeologists might date a set of remains. In each of these cases, the relevant pieces of knowledge are not directly available, or provable, to those outside of the relevant field of expertise, yet we’re not disinclined to accept their special insight.
    Perhaps you are thinking that the difference with ethical theory is that people already have pre-established “common sense” opinions on ethics, and they are somehow attached to them (irrationally?) in a way that makes them doubt that any expert could have a more reliable opinion than their own. Note that this sort of thing happens with science occassionally – cf. flat-earthers or creationists. But it strikes me as odd to think that most *philosophers* – people who tend to value detached, rational thought very highly – would fall victim to this kind of prejudice.

  7. An interesting discussion about the ethical principles of ethicists. I would suggest that they have dramatically less ethical principles than the “average person” because they generally refute any concept of fundamental ethical principles.

    Whilst the “average person” in the street (and this can include philosophers), believes that there are basic ethical principles which they should abide by, but are not quite sure what they are. Ethicists by contrast are sure there are no such thing as fundamental principles and therefore don’t need to abide by them because they don’t exist.

    For example, if you take the fundamental principles in the Moral Compass.

    Do no harm.

    Accept responsibility for personal actions and the consequences of those actions.

    Practice a duty of care

    Affirm the individual’s right to self-determination.

    Put the truth first.

    Never use a person as merely an unconsenting means to an end, even if the end benefits others.

    Be honest.

    Honour agreements.

    Treat others as you want to be treated yourself.

    Leave a positive legacy to future generations.

    Most “average people” would accept most if not all of these principles as obvious ethical principles held by a civilised society, whilst ethicists would refute ALL of them. If you need any support in acting “unethically” just talk to an ethicist and they will assure you that there is no such thing as actual ethics.

    Adrian Bishop
    Centre for Defined Ethics

  8. Adrian: Thank you for your comments. Your remarks are, I’m afraid, completely mistaken about philosophical ethics and ethicists!

    I’m not quite sure how you are defining the terms “fundamental principles” or “basic ethical principles”, of which you say “Ethicists are sure there are no such things”. If what you mean is moral principles that cannot be derived from any futher moral principles, I can think of few contemporary ethicists who would deny the existence of such. Of those who do, almost all of them most certainly believe in ethics and have no difficulty acting morally. These “moral particularists” (perhaps the most well-known of whom is Jonathan Dancy) deny that ethics consists in the application of principles (such as those you list) to cases, and hold that moral virtue consists in sensitivity to, and acting in acord with, the particular moral reasons that define paricular cases.

    Of recent and contemporary philosophers, the most famous moral skeptic (or more precisely, “moral error theorist”) may be John Mackie. Many undergraduates in philosophy read parts of his excellent book “Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong”, the first part of which makes the case that there are no objective truths about what we ought to do out there in the world, waiting to be discovered – and that our moral claims, which presuppose such truths, are all strictly false. Unfortunately, many people forget or don’t realize that Mackie’s book also has a less famous second half in which he engages in substantive moral reasoning, demonstrating that even someone like Mackie who thinks our moral language needs reform can be a moral person who is perfectly confident that there are “basic ethical principles” concerning how we ought to live.

    Perhaps the most famous historical philosopher who is commonly thought to been a moral skeptic is Nietzsche, but this is only an unfortunate myth about his views: Nietzsche certainly had his criticisms of Judaeo-Christian ethics in particular, but he certainly did also hold firm positive ethical views.

    Of the other famous historical philosophers who hold the greatest influence among contemporary ethicists – Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant, Bentham and Mill – every one of them held that there are one or more basic ethical principles in the above sense.

    I highly recommend the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: if you’d like to find out more about historical and contemporary discussions in ethics, and in philosophy in general.


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