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What is AskPhilosophers? This site puts the talents and knowledge of philosophers at the service of the general public. Send in a question that you think might be related to philosophy and we will do our best to respond to it. To date, there have been 4901 questions posted and 6155 responses. [more]


Question of the day

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Some people study or know a great deal about ethics as it's taught in philosophy departs, and yet those same people we may not judge to be highly ethical or to have elevated moral characters. If this assumption is correct, how do you explain this? Is there a way to solve this problem?

Response from Charles Taliaferro on April 11, 2014
That is a very timely question, as the philosophical world in the USA has been jolted awake recently with reports of sexual harassment charges against philosophy professors (e.g. at the University of Colorado). I am not aware of any studies that compare the wrong-doing or vices of "specialists" in ethics with any other area in the humanities, sciences, and arts. It would not shock me if the percentage of courageous, just, and compassionate persons and the percentage of wicked, nasty persons and those in between were the same among those who study ethics as those who study law, medicine, history, psychology and so on. This is partly because studying, teaching and contributing to the field of ethics can be done in an intellectually vigorous fashion, with historically well-informed precise arguments without requiring that persons undergo deep self-questioning (am I really being a good father? am I condescending with those whom I disagree with? etc) and careful deliberation and action that is morally sensitive (shouldn't I avoid being dishonest with my partner? shouldn't I do more to help out students who are struggling with PTSD? etc).

Still, in suggesting that the reason why those who study ethics may be as poor as the average person who studies any other field (because they, too, may undertake their work with personal detachment), it is both odd and unfortunate that someone who really studies ('really' as in 'truly seeks to understand and to engage') the great works in ethics, west and east, north and south in global history, should not be moved to greater ethical sensitivity and a commitment to justice, fairness, humility, and a repugnance for vanity, cruelty, injustice, and so on. Perhaps the person who is not moved (positively) by the study of ethics to be ethical is like a physician who studies cancer and yet still smokes. One might also bear in mind, though, that the concepts and unhealthiness of cancer, heart attacks, and being physically poisoned are more clear and evident to more of us than the concepts of good and evil, virtue and vice. Sometimes when you study ethics as a field you can come across ingenious ways to justify acting in a fashion that (at least from the standpoint of common sense) seems wrong.

Imagine you are late for a meeting. "You are late!" declares the boss. "I know. The traffic was awful," you reply. The boss shakes his head in agreement and the meeting goes on smoothly. But the reason you were late is not because of the traffic. You were late because you were flirting with a cute Fed Ex employee. Still, there was a lot of heavy, awful traffic. Did you really lie? Perhaps you simply told the truth and the boss mis-interpretted what you said....is that YOUR fault? Sometimes persons who study ethics can be troublesome. One warning sign: You ask a professor whether he or she lied when saying X,Y,Z. The professor replies: 'What do you mean by 'lying?" In that case, be on your guard!
Response from Eddy Nahmias on April 17, 2014
See here for some relevant discussion and studies by Eric Schwitzgebel: http://schwitzsplintersethicsprofs.blogspot.com/

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