None of the classic questions of philosophy are beyond a seven-year-old’s understanding. If God exists, why do bad things happen? How do you know there’s still a world on the other side of that closed door? Are we just made of material stuff that will turn into mud when we die? If you could get away with killing and robbing people just for fun, would you? The questions are natural. It’s the answers that are hard.
Eight years ago, I’d just begun a series of empirical studies on the moral behaviour of professional ethicists. My son Davy, then seven years old, was in his booster seat in the back of my car. ‘What do you think, Davy?’ I asked. ‘People who think a lot about what’s fair and about being nice – do they behave any better than other people? Are they more likely to be fair? Are they more likely to be nice?’
Davy didn’t respond right away. I caught his eye in the rearview mirror.
‘The kids who always talk about being fair and sharing,’ I recall him saying, ‘mostly just want you to be fair to them and share with them.’
When I meet an ethicist for the first time – by ‘ethicist’, I mean a professor of philosophy who specialises in teaching and researching ethics – it’s my habit to ask whether ethicists behave any differently to other types of professor. Most say no.
I’ll probe further: why not? Shouldn’t regularly thinking about ethics have some sort of influence on one’s own behaviour? Doesn’t it seem that it would?
To my surprise, few professional ethicists seem to have given the question much thought. They’ll toss out responses that strike me as flip or are easily rebutted, and then they’ll have little to add when asked to clarify. They’ll say that academic ethics is all about abstract problems and bizarre puzzle cases, with no bearing on day-to-day life – a claim easily shown to be false by a few examples: Aristotle on virtue, Kant on lying, Singer on charitable donation. They’ll say: ‘What, do you expect epistemologists to have more knowledge? Do you expect doctors to be less likely to smoke?’ I’ll reply that the empirical evidence does suggest that doctors are less likely to smoke than non-doctors of similar social and economic background. Maybe epistemologists don’t have more knowledge, but I’d hope that specialists in feminism would exhibit less sexist behaviour – and if they didn’t, that would be an interesting finding. I’ll suggest that relationships between professional specialisation and personal life might play out differently for different cases.
It seems odd to me that our profession has so little to say about this matter. We criticise Martin Heidegger for his Nazism, and we wonder how deeply connected his Nazism was to his other philosophical views. But we don’t feel the need to turn the mirror on ourselves.
The same issues arise with clergy. In 2010, I was presenting some of my work at the Confucius Institute for Scotland. Afterward, I was approached by not one but two bishops. I asked them whether they thought that clergy, on average, behaved better, the same or worse than laypeople.
‘About the same,’ said one.
‘Worse!’ said the other.
No clergyperson has ever expressed to me the view that clergy behave on average morally better than laypeople, despite all their immersion in religious teaching and ethical conversation. Maybe in part this is modesty on behalf of their profession. But in most of their voices, I also hear something that sounds like genuine disappointment, some remnant of the young adult who had headed off to seminary hoping it would be otherwise.
Adapted from https://aeon.co/essays/how-often-do-ethics-professors-call-their-mothers