Can you think your way to being good?

The link between thought and action is tenuous.

Eric Schwitzgebel studies whether professional philosophers of ethics actually live more ethically than other kinds of philosophers and academics. Being a philosopher himself, Schwitzgebel wanted an alternative perspective at the start of his project several years ago. So he asked his seven year-old son, Davy, if he thought people who think a lot about being nice and being fair acted more fairly and nicely.

“‘The kids who always talk about being fair and sharing,’ I recall him saying, ‘mostly just want you to be fair to them and share with them.’”

I think Davy got it about right. The best people I have known, the most moral in their actions, have generally not been the most reflective; and the most reflective have certainly not been the most moral in deed.

Eric Schwitzgebel’s research went on to pretty much confirm Davy’s hunch, he writes in an essay called “Cheeseburger Ethics” on the terrific e-magazine, Aeon. Philosophers of ethics are about as ethical as other academics in everyday life, and they usually don’t claim to be any better. The link between thinking and talking about acting ethically may be tenuous, but the drive to be as good as the group is strong.

“We aspire to be about as morally good as our peers,” he writes. “So we end, on average, about where we began, behaving more or less the same as others of our social group.”

This raises a lecture room full of interesting questions.

On a personal level, how come explicit, formal pondering of matters moral and ethical doesn’t seem to lead to better behavior? Is it a waste of time or does it have some subtle practical value?

In the workaday world, are formal ethicists and ethics programs in professions and organizations any more effective?

I suspect that when people encounter formal ethics talk these days, it is mostly in a professional context. Fewer and fewer people regularly attend religious services, the traditional venue for moral conversation and instruction after one leaves school. (It would be interesting to study whether religious leaders behave more ethically than others – and other leaders.)

If you have worked for a large organization, you probably have had to endure some ethical “training.” These programs instruct employees to behave ethically and properly in general areas such as sexual harassment, diversity sensitivity, insider information, privacy and “corporate values.” This tutelage comes via workshops and seminars, but increasingly through online programs.

I don’t know if there is reliable, empirical information about the efficacy of these programs. In my experience at three organizations, these workplace tutorials weren’t taken seriously. Colleagues saw them as organizational Pamper missions – charades intended to cover the corporate rear-end in case of litigation or regulatory trouble. As such, they often make employees feel demeaned or frustrated. It is almost impossible not to make fun of them.

That doesn’t mean, however, that they are ineffective. However ham-handed, these corporate ethics modules may lead to more mindful behavior – or a more mindful peer group.

Professional ethics is a more interesting arena.   Ethicists and formal ethical protocols have an increasing presence in fields such as scientific research, computer technology, journalism, law and corporate governance. Many companies now have Chief Ethics Officers, a phrase born to breed cynicism.

No field has received more attention than medical ethics. From medical school to care at the end of life, the health care professions seem to have made a sustained and honest effort to carve out protected space for ethical checks and balances and for ethical specialists.

From a patient’s point of view, I think this is comforting. I suspect that it is hard to come up with clear empirical evidence that more formal ethics protocols have yielded “better” decisions, patient outcomes or confidence in health care. The benefits may be hard to quantify and indirect, which seems to be true of ethical reflection in general.

In journalism, newspapers had a tradition of professional ethics that included in-house ombudsmen, printing corrections and letters to the editor. I have been involved in efforts to formalize ethics processes in broadcast news and in digital news. These efforts didn’t result in many tangible improvements in how people behaved and they certainly generated plenty of wisecracks and cynicism.

So was it worth the effort? Sure.

We live in data-driven time. We want to measure outcomes.

Professor Schwitzgebel couldn’t find evidence that ethics professors act more ethically than others outside the classroom, but he didn’t dismiss philosophic reflection and effort.

Tangling with ethics explicitly may or may not be a proven path to virtue. Professors, preachers and columnists may or may not act more ethically than their peers. “But you are responsible for trying to go in the right direction with it, and also for your failure when you don’t get there,” he wrote to his fellow philosophers. It’s true for us amateurs as well. Effort is as important as outcome.

Loading Next Story