1 Jul, 15 | by Iain Brassington
A piece appeared in The Atlantic a few days ago that aims to prick the perceived bubble of professional ethicists. In fact, the headline is pretty hostile: THE HYPOCRISY OF PROFESSIONAL ETHICISTS. Blimey. The sub-headline doesn’t pull its punches either: “Even people who decide what’s right and wrong for a living don’t always behave well.”
I know that headlines are frequently not written by the person whose article they head, and so these won’t tell us much about the article – but, even so, I’m beginning to twitch. Do I decide what’s right and wrong for a living? I don’t think I do. I possibly thought that that’s what an ethicist does when I was a fresher, or at school – but I’m not certain I did even then. And even if I did, I discovered pretty quickly that it’s quite a bit more complicated than that. For sure, I think about what’s right and wrong, and about what “right” and “wrong” mean; and I might even aspire to make the occasional discovery about right and wrong (or at least about how best to think about right and wrong).* But as for deciding what is right and wrong? Naaaah.
Anyway: to the substance of the piece, which – to be fair – is more moderate in tone, pointing out that “those who ponder big questions for a living don’t necessarily behave better, or think more clearly, than regular people do”. That’s probably accurate enough, at least a good amount of the time. I’d like to think that I’m thinking better about a particular problem than most people when I’m working on it; but I’m also thinking better about in that context than I would be at other times. (Ask me about – say – genetic privacy while I’m drafting a section of a paper on genetic privacy, and I’m your man. Ask me while I’m making pastry… not so much.) If we allow that I’m better at dealing with (a) specific moral question(s) while “on duty”, that won’t mean I’m not susceptible to the same intellectual shortcuts and fallacies as everyone else at least most of the rest of the time. I’m probably almost as susceptible to them even when I am on duty. I’d assume that the same applies to others in the profession, too.
The article does make great play of the apparent inconsistencies between what ethicists say and what they/ we do. So there’s the finding about how many more say that eating meat is morally problematic than actually avoid it, and the chestnut about how ethics books are the ones most frequently stolen from libraries.** At least there are decent sources cited – peer-reviewed papers like this one that are philosophically informed, to boot.
So: ethicists aren’t reliably better behaved than others. I don’t think that should surprise us, though. But, there’s a couple of questions into which we might still want to dig more deeply. more…