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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’:

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. 

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10 Comment on this post

  1. Does Voltaire defend his distinction in any detail? I would be interested in reading it. Can you provide a link?

  2. I was thinking of that famous quotation often misattributed to Voltaire: ‘I disagree with what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it’ (or something like that!). This is in fact a paraphrase of something he says in his ‘Essay on Tolerance’, by Evelyn Hall, his biographer:

    1. Thank you Roger.
      Surely the implication of the quote (rightly or wrongly) attributed to Voltaire is not that it is right to advocate an evil, but that it is permissible to do so. I for one see a difference between these two propositions.
      Did the penultimate sentence of your main post come out the way you wanted it too? If so, I confess I don’t follow ….

      1. Thanks, Anthony. I agree with you about Voltaire. ‘Not wrong’ is consistent with ‘permissible’. Sorry about that rather confusing sentence. My thought was that, if we forget about what motivates morally right action, then sainthood can be said to consist merely in doing what’s right (understood independently of motivations). And then it does seem odd to me to recommend wrong actions as part of an ethical ideal.

  3. As a possibly different way of being too ethical, how about considering the example you give to others? If someone appears to be too perfect then it’s possible that others will consider them to be an impossibly high standard and not even try to live up to them, but by being just a little bit selfish/unethical/human from time to time they make themselves approachable and others now see them as a standard to live up to and improve their behaviour accordingly, potentially trading a small decrease in your personal ethical behaviour for a large increase in others’.

    I don’t know if it actually works like that, but it has at least a certain plausibility.

    1. Good point, David. But here one might say that the right thing to do is not to set too high an example. So setting too high an example is not being too ethical but being unethical. But this is stipulation, of course: I agree that one might make your point using ‘ethical’ to mean ‘setting a morally high standard’.

  4. If you are doing something ethical to the advantage of another AND to yourself, surely that is acceptable. However, if you have someone who is consistantly putting others before themselves to fulfil their ethical duty, at what point does it become unethical to not put yourself first? Or is it unethical to ever put yourself first?

    1. Thanks, Victoria. On a certain interpretation of Christianity, you should always put the interests of others before your own. But this seems implausible, and even irrational, if the interests of others are trivial and yours are important. There’s a place here, perhaps, for the virtue of prudence, which does allow, or even require, you to give some special weight to your own interests. How much, and in what circumstances, is hard to say, but thinking about possible cases can help. In the end, though, as Aristotle said, it’s all a matter of judgement in the particular case.

  5. This is a very interesting discussion. But I wonder if the concerns here would have an impact on virtue ethics. I am under the impression (perhaps false) that a virtue ethicist can often attempt to try to solve problems by asking themselves, “what would a virtuous person do in this situation”. Given the current discussion, does that mean that the virtuous archetype you envision for inspiration should be an individual who sets there ethical values as ones which others could easily/possibly follow? Or would it be better to envision a person whose virtue is somehow unattainable to motivate yourself to do virtuous acts which you (for the sake of discussion) you would not reach otherwise.

    In other words, would it be better to hold yourself to a higher standard while holding others to a lower standard or should your standard match the virtuous person who does not want to appear “too ethical” for fear of demotivating people from virtuous action?

  6. Good question. I’d be inclined to think the virtuous person should, ideally, know the truth about how they should act. They might well regret that they can’t e.g. do as much for others as they might wish, given that they have to set an achievable example. Perhaps in some cases the virtuous person will be a bit like a good squash player who wants to give her opponent a decent match and nevertheless win the game: so she’ll always stay one step ahead, but only one!

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