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Monday, August 03, 2015

The Moral Hypocrisy of Ethicists

Rationally Speaking | Official Podcast of New York City Skeptics - Current Episodes - RS139 - Eric Schwitzgebel on "Moral hypocrisy: why doesn't knowing about ethics make people more ethical?"

Eric Schwitzgebel: Ethicist behavior [of ethicists] was basically identical across the board to the other groups of professors. There were some differences, but not very many, and not very strong. And overall, when you put it together, and you combine the data in various kinds of ways… It looks like there's no overall trend toward better behavior.

Although we did find, when we asked their opinions about various moral issues, that ethicists tended to have the most demanding opinions. They thought more things were morally good and morally bad, and were less likely to regard things as morally neutral, than were the other groups.

One of the types of behavior was regularly eating the meat of mammals, such as beef or pork. In response to that prompt, 60% of the ethics professors rated it somewhere on the morally bad side; 45% of the non-ethicist philosophers, and I think it was somewhere in the high teens for the non-philosophers, 17% or 19%, something like that for the non-philosophers. Big difference in moral opinion.

Then in the second part of the questionnaire, we asked, "Did you eat the meat of a mammal, such as beef or pork, at your last evening meal, not including snacks?" There we found no statistically detectable difference among the groups. Big difference in expressed normative attitude about meat eating; no detectable difference in self-reported meat eating behavior.

Julia Galef: Pretty interesting. I'm wondering whether this is a result of ethics professors not really believing their ethical conclusions, like, having come to these conclusions in the abstract?... One way you might detect this -- I don't know if this is actually measurable, but in theory at least, you could look at how torn or guilty do they feel about not living up to these standards...

Eric Schwitzgebel: If you're a consequentialist or utilitarian. If you think basically that doing right or good is about maximizing happiness, or something like welfare here in the world -- then every single thing you do… I think this is actually also true on other ethical views as well, but it's really especially clear for consequentialism.

Every single thing you do, every time you choose to buy a cup of coffee, you could've done something else. You're always short of the moral ideal. You could've taken that $2 for the cup of coffee and donated it to Oxfam, or whatever your favorite charity is. You've now done something that's ethically short of the ideal...

Once you see the world is ethically permeated, then you have to face the fact that you are doing things that are short of the ethical ideal all the time. That basically everything you do is ethically ... I don't know if flawed is the right word, although I think maybe flawed is okay. Anyway, ethically non-ideal.

Then I think once you acknowledge that, then you get put in this position of thinking, "Okay, how far short of the ideal am I comfortable being?" Maybe it's okay to do things that in fact I think are somewhat bad or wrong sometimes. Because now that the world is just permeated with all these decisions, I can't avoid being bad and wrong.”

This gives you another way of thinking about the person who intellectually says it's wrong to eat meat and yet chooses to do so. They might think something like, "Well, everything I do is so permeated with choice. I want to do some things that are wrong. I'm not aiming to be a saint. This is one of those wrong things that I'll just let myself do. It's not maybe super wrong, it's not super bad, so I'm going to do it.
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