Does moral reflection increase unethical behavior? Eric Schwitzgebel at the Splintered Mind asks the question and notes that "ethics books are more likely to be missing from academic libraries."
Comparing ethical reflection to a caterpillar thinking about how to move its legs when walking, Schwitzgebel wonders if thinking about relatively spontaneous virtuous behavior such as returning library books might end with rationalizing theft or carelessness. Schwitzgebel also asks us to "consider the person who pauses to reflect on the moral pros and cons before helping a person in need versus the person who unreflectively leaps to assist."
Schwitzgebel is cautious, taking no definitive position in the matter:
it seems to me that often our spontaneous reactions are self-serving, and habits of ethical reflection can break us away from those. I'm inclined to think that overall (even if not in every particular situation) it's good to have habits of moral reflection. This, I suppose, is part of why I find it interesting and puzzling that ethicists, who presumably do tend to reflect morally more often on average than non-ethicists, seem to behave no better than anyone else.
Schwitzgebel's puzzlement is understandable given that his brief discussion lacks any mention of a role for unconscious activity in mental life.
Conscious moral reflection and analysis does not, in and of itself, incline a person to behave more ethically. Conscious reflection can either help us to discern our own motives or it can serve as a defensive activity. The question, then, is not about whether we engage in ethical reflection; the question is about how and why we reflect. Do we engage in a process of exploration that disposes us to recognizing unconscious factors in our motivation or do we defensively misrepresent and conceal our motives to ward off the experience of guilt?
That conscious reflection can appear to be rigorous and rational does not mean that it is free of defensive purpose. Ethicists engage in complex reasoning, but how many ethicists seriously pursue an honest exploration of the terrain of their own unconscious lives? Surely, some are serious about it while the matter isn't even on the table for others. In the case of the latter, it is more likely that ethical reflection will end in moral evasion. How many other occupations would be as helpful to carrying out this evasion?
My use of the word honest to characterize the kind of reflection I'm discussing here is potentially misleading since engaging in such self-examination is not a simple matter of exerting will or engaging in brute reasoning. While reason introduces a necessary element of discipline to the examination, reason alone will not walk us through those areas of interior life where our most unreasonable and destructive inclinations reside under cover of darkness.
The capacity for fruitful self-examination is cultivated over time by consistently applying ourselves to a process that leads us to recognize the implicit themes, the unarticulated feelings, the contradictions, the gaps and the subtleties (or lack of subtlety) in our conscious experience. This type of reflection can be painful, anxiety-provoking and depressing as we give up the defensive lies we tell ourselves to make our inner experience more tolerable. Rational examination has a role to play in this self-exploration, but deeper familiarity with the much larger role played by irrational, unconscious mental activity is critical to getting the most out of self-reflection.
More Discussion at The Top Two Inches