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Friday, November 23, 2007


These are such profound matters - it was bracing to read this post, thanks.
I began writing a fuller response but it became too long for that purpose (it's now a post on my blog.) My punchline, though, is unless reflective reflection is done in good faith, it won't help either - indeed it can make things worse.

I think an additional dimension of this question lies in asking who is answering the question of what it means to be "less ethical". There can be no doubt that moral philosophy throughout the centuries has had the effect of clearing away a number of things that were formally thought to be matters of ethics, but which came to be treated as matters of custom. For instance, the length of beards, whether one can wear blended fabrics, when the wheat should be cut, etc. Few of us today would say that most of the issues discussed in Leviticus or Deuteronomy are genuinely ethical or moral issues. This is true of religious folk as well. However, this historical trajectory of distinguishing custom (which is optional, i.e., you're not a bad person if you use chopsticks rather than forks) from morals is often perceived by those who have had their customs critiqued as undermining morals. It seems to me that in certain respects such a study must presuppose as a sort of operational a priori what morals are.

Taking the converse side, a sustained study of ethical thought can, I think, enhance moral behaviors. From the standpoint of communal living, defense of outsiders and enemies can be seen as immoral as it goes against the tribe. Yet through the study of ethical thought we come to see that moral principles should be applied in the same way in all circumstances, whether we're talking about a family member, our tribe, our nation, the outsider, or the enemy. From a tribal standpoint this is often seen as the height of immorality. But when a group summarily kills another for a crime that would only receive a slap on the hand for members of the tribe, this behavior seems highly immoral. Just my two cents.

Sinthome - you're absoluely right about ethical judgements and custom.
What do you think of this though? I've been writing about psychopaths whose adherence to the group's ethical standards is purely coincidental. Along the way I've come across Lobaczewski's notion of 'paramoralisms'. These are psuedo-moral statements which bamboozle the listener and destroy his or her ability to think ethically. One way is to quibble over the meaning of words. The listener, trying to be fair, weakens, while the psychopath, with no interest in being fair, gets what he wants - a weakened opponent.
What I'm getting at is that even your point about ethcal behaviour and custom could be employed as a paramoralism. A problem, then - how to discuss these things without saying anything just to win the argument - a little psychopathic tendency many of us share!

Thanks for your comment Sinthome. I agree with everything you say. As I wrote this post, I was aware that I was accepting at face value Splintered Mind’s observation that ethicists might be less ethical by treating his operational definition of "unethical behavior" (missing ethics books in academic libraries) as if it constitutes a valid measure of a construct that is itself undefined in his post. I’m inclined to credit him with a more sophisticated understanding of ethics, but leaving that problem aside I hoped to address what I suspected was really troubling him about whether or not ethicists might be less scrupulous about returning library books than borrowers in general -- namely, why does it seem that many people who are manifestly concerned about matters of ethics, morality (and law) paradoxically end up behaving in ways that run contrary to their manifest moral beliefs (however they arrive at those beliefs)? This question could be applied to priests, evangelical Christians, judges, cops or your moralistic next door neighbor.

It's true that an empirical treatment of the question of whether or not ethicists are "less ethical" encounters the problem of operationalizing the measurement of "ethical," but we can still think about SM's question in terms of psychological activity which is what I believe he was interested in when he offered the caterpillar hypothesis.

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