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Are some ethicists really really ethical?

In this blog recently Simon Rippon discussed the empirical evidence collected by Eric Schwitzgebel that suggests that perhaps ethicists are no more ethical in their behaviour than non-ethicists. A survey of academics in the US reveals that philosophers do not think that their peers specialising in ethics behave any better than those who do not study ethics. Self-described ethicists condemn meat-eating more than their peers, but their actual eating behaviour appears similar to non-ethicists. And, paradoxically, more ethics textbooks appear to go missing from libraries than non-ethics books.

As Simon noted, there are some reasons to avoid jumping from this evidence to the conclusion that the study of normative ethics is of no help in the living of a virtuous and ethical life. But even if we accept that on average ethicists are no better citizens than anyone else, it seems that at least in some cases deliberation about ethical issues leads individuals to make decisions that are highly laudable.

In the last week our colleague (and contributor to this blog) Toby Ord has been receiving considerable media attention (see here, here, and here) for the launch of Giving What We Can, an international society that encourages and supports individuals to commit to donating 10% of their income to the most efficient charities. Toby has, notably, put his money where his mouth is, by pledging to cap his own lifetime income at 20,000 pounds per year, which he estimates over a lifetime will amount to over 1 million pounds donated to those living in poverty. As a start, he and his wife Bernadette Young presented cheques for 20,000 pounds to the head of SCI-NTDS, a charity that is working to eliminate neglected tropical diseases. Other early members of the society include moral/political philosophers Peter Singer, Thomas Pogge and Nir Eyal.

Although some might doubt whether a commitment of this sort is morally praiseworthy (perhaps on the basis of myths about aid), the vast majority of people would accept that this commitment is an example of an extremely morally praiseworthy act. However, many might be tempted to think that donating 5% or 10% of your income to the poor is supererogatory. In others words, although such donations are morally good, they go above and beyond what each of us is morally required to do. Surely we are not obliged to help those who are poor even if we are able to do so at relatively little personal cost? Perhaps Toby and Bernadette are moral saints, but the rest of us shouldn’t feel compelled to follow their example?

But our gut feelings about the obligation to aid those in far off countries may not be reliable. Here is a version of Peter Singer’s thought experiment to draw this out. Imagine that you are walking through the countryside and see a child drowning in a river. You are a good swimmer and could easily jump in to save them. But you are wearing an expensive 250 pound suit that will be ruined if you do so. Are you obliged to save them? Few would think that it is acceptable to forego saving a life in order to prevent the ruining of an expensive suit. So why do we think that it is permissible to fail to spend 250 pounds of our money to save the life of a child in a far-off country. The fact that we can’t see them, or that they are not in our country surely cannot be relevant. But, as Toby notes, it costs in the order of 250 pounds to prevent a death from Tuberculosis. We can predict, with a high degree of reliability the impact of our donations. The fact that we cannot see the children and adults dying of tuberculosis cannot make a difference to our moral obligations.

If we are morally obliged to donate to those who are worse off than we are, why stop at 10%? Perhaps we are morally obliged to give away all that we have until we have ourselves been reduced to poverty? Such an implausibly strong moral demand might be seen as a reductio ad absurdum of the obligation-to-aid claim. The problem of how to balance our commitments to those close to us (including ourselves), with those to whom we have no special relationships is difficult. Henry Sidgwick noted that this was one of the profoundest problems in ethics. But even if there is no special reason to choosing to donate a particular proportion of our income, there are very good reasons to think that we should donate substantially more than we do at present. Currently, including both government and private donations, developed countries give 0.4% of their income in aid. If we all gave a relatively small amount, we could make a dramatic difference to the lives of the poorest on our planet. 

Maybe some ethicists are really really ethical in making a pledge to sacrifice significant personal comforts in order to help those who lack food and clean water, and are dying from preventable and treatable diseases? But, when we think clearly about it, perhaps it is not they who are particularly good – but the rest of us who, in ignoring the needs of others, are in fact behaving in a reprehensible and unethical manner.


Giving What we Can

Do Ethicists Eat Less Meat?

Still More Data on the Theft of Ethics Books Eric Schwitzgebel The Splintered Mind 08/01/2007

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1 Comment on this post

  1. Hi Dom,
    I doubt they are, though they may be more informed about some of the issues.I dont think todays ethicists overall are any less biased than past ethicists, philosophers or non academics in that they still have yet to deal with social and personal cogntives biases in formal rigorous way. When we have a Philosophy of Bias that may change.

    At the very least until you know of biases like the blindspot bias, to install that necessary seed of doubt, people will always be less critical of their own views than they need to be. Nor is Critical thinking isn’t enough by itself.

    Regarding the other issues I think there also needs to be a ethics of finite and/or scarce resource allocation to provide a framework for ethical debates on the subject. I was going to use Lifeboat ethics but someone has already claimed that.

    I would ask what underpins the ‘right’ to use the finite resources of the planet?
    Might is right? Occupation of land or national boundaries? Need? Discovery? Competition?

    Considering the developed nations exploited resources and peoples outside their national/cultural boundaries and polluted the atmosphere of the commons, to in fact enjoy the wealth and standard of living we have today. Overall it would appear even as ‘civilized’ nations, we no more than robber barron vandals.

    Who then use this economic advantage to dominate the access to other nations current resources under the pretense of helping to develop other nations, when it is quite apparent that they haven’t a hope in hell in developing using the Wests model.

    I think once India and China start to live like the West and out compete and out muscle us in the use of resources, my prediction is the West will then start talking about sharing global resources, that is if we don’t just start going to war over them.

    So it is even worse for Western ethicists, to be truly ethical they must not only pay a greater share of their wealth, but also cut down on their personal use of these finite resources, that is if fairness equality and egalitarian notions have any place in their ethics.

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