The Role of Ethicists, or Why Ethical Philosophy Might be Useless(but really isn't)

I still don't know if ethics(the field of study) should be singular or plural, and the internet doesn't know either. So oh well.

A while ago I had a discussion with one of my philosophy professors about the actual purpose of philosophy. "Why" I asked, "do we bother learning about topics that descend into pedantic arguments with little impact on our daily lives?" He responded "philosophy can guide your daily life, if you let it. If it doesn't, you're probably not fully committed to your arguments and need to reevaluate them." I think this perspective is great, but it raises a question in my mind.

Why the hell do we study ethics? No really, why? Does studying utilitarianism make you more likely to become an effective altruist? For me it certainly didn't. Does studying deontology make you more likely to always tell the truth? That's a definite nope from me.

There are a number of articles that also raise this question and while they are fascinating, I believe they are flawed. I think my professor was wrong when he said that philosophy should always change your behavior. And in this essay, I would like to critically analyze the arguments against studying ethics, and defend my chosen field of study.

Most anti ethics arguments roughly read as follows:

If ethicists are fully committed to their ideas, it seems plausible that their behavior would change as a result of that commitment. They would be less likely to cheat, steal, lie, etc... as a result of committing their lives to explaining why these things are wrong. And yet, ethicists are actually no more likely to be ethical than other kinds of professors. Doesn't that seem weird? They have innumerable more reasons to believe that certain things are wrong, yet they don't behave differently than the general population. For instance, ethicists steal books at a rate similar to the general population

To lay the argument out analytically
  1. Ethicists create robust moral frameworks that judge certain intentions or actions to be wrong or right
  2. The general population receive their morals from culture, and while they may critically examine their views, they do not examine them to the extent ethicists do
  3. Because we have fewer reasons to believe in our morals than ethicists do, we should be less committed to them than ethicists are
  4. Therefore, since ethicists have more reasons to believe in their morals, they should be more inclined to act on them in the first place
  5. So, by 4, if they behave similarly to the rest of the population, it implies they don't have a great commitment to moral frameworks in the first place
  6. Ergo, since frameworks have no impact on behavior, why create them at all?
This argument has a number of problems built into it which I believe make it flawed.
  1. It is circular, judging ethicists by ethical standards based in the work of past ethicists
  2. It is predicated on the assumption that it is an ethicist's job to act moral in the first place instead of changing the norms or laws that cause behavior
  3. People act based on rational ethical views instead of their own personal inclinations

Section 1: Or This Is So Circular I'm Dizzy

My first objection to this argument against studying ethics is the basis of the argument itself. The argument is predicated on the assumption that ethical judgements about ethical philosophers can be made in the first place.

Judging ethicists necessitates standards by which they can be judged. Who will come up with these standards? Ethicists can't, as under this view they shouldn't be studying ethics in the first place. So is the judgement being made baseless? 

In order to make this argument at all, you need to be able to judge ethicists by a set of moral standards, or social norms. These norms must be created by someone, ideally someone with expertise. Hence, ethicists are necessary again to create social norms in the first place, which leads into my next point....

Section 2: Or Do Your Damn Job

Let's entertain a thought experiment for a second

Pretend I pull out a graph showing how enslaving a small segment of the population would massively benefit the rest of us. Pretend this graph is logically sound, and demonstrates how slavery will 100% improve society for the rest of us. The utilitarian math completely checks out. There are no objections you can make on the basis of utilitarianism. 

If you're a normal, reasonable person, enslaving a segment of the population will still seem abhorrent to you, regardless of the benefits. There is a massive psychological block stopping you from ever seeing this as the right thing to do. Why is that there you might ask? Why do I oppose slavery so strongly? Well, in a sentence, ethicists. 

An ethicist's job is not to change their own behavior, but to change the behavior of society as a whole. It is an ethicist's job to change social norms to create mental blocks for things like slavery that didn't exist 150 years ago. These mental blocks are a result of a complex analysis of the ethical status of slavery that manifested itself through law, then becoming a social norm. You might not give a damn about this analysis of slavery, but you still feel its effects through social norms.

If only one person has an ethical viewpoint, that viewpoint is useless. If only people who think about ethics have an ethical viewpoint, that's only slightly more useful. But if everyone shares that viewpoint? Now we're getting somewhere.

The goal of ethicists is to infect our cultural DNA and to convince those who don't think about ethics that certain actions that used to be normal are in fact wrong.

For instance, ethicists right now are working and trying to convince the public that the death penalty is wrong, and I predict that in 50 years we will regard the death penalty with the same shock and horror that we do slavery. 

In short: the ethicist's job has never been to change themselves. It's always been to change the world around them.

Section 3: I Act How I Want

There's a Penn Jillette quote that goes: "I rape all I want. And the amount I want is zero. And I do murder all I want, and the amount I want is zero." I'm with Penn on this. I've been conditioned pretty damn well to have a viceral, negative reaction against these things, as have most people.

Thus, I act how I want, and what I want matches what is accepted as ethical 99.9% of the time. Most people don't stop and think about how ethical something is before they do it. They unconsciously check with their conditioning, a little voice says "do it!" or "don't do it!" and most of the time they listen to that voice.

The biggest predictor of if we listen to that voice by the way is wealth. It's a lot easier to be a good person when you're rich.

But the point I'm trying to make here is, ethicists have done such a good job building our legal codes, school systems, and religions, that we all have ethical action built into our psyche.

This is an absolutly fantastic achievement, and in and of itself argues for the continued existance of ethicists. There will always be social norms and we'll always need people to evaluate those norms to determine if they are right.

Robust ethical systems  are necessary for our legal and social systems to function, and therefore it would be foolhardy to dismiss those who study them. 

So let ethicists think about ethics, and cut them some slack about returning books, alright? They've got laws and minds to change.


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