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RS139 - Eric Schwitzgebel on "Moral hypocrisy: why doesn't knowing about ethics make people more ethical?"

Release date: July 26, 2015

Eric SchwitzgebelYou might expect that professional ethicists -- people whose job it is to determine which behaviors are ethical and why -- would behave more ethically than other people. You'd be wrong! This episode features philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel , who is well known for his work studying whether experts in ethics live up to their own standards. He and Julia discuss why the answer is "no," and explore questions like, "How do you decide how moral you're going to try to be?" 

Eric Schwitzgebel is a Professor of Philosophy at University of California at Riverside. He is the co-author (with Russell T. Hurlburt) of Describing Inner Experience?: Proponent Meets Skeptic and blogs at The splintered Mind.

Eric's pick:  "The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion" 



Full Transcripts 

Reader Comments (17)

Great dialogue!

It´s so true that after one discovers that the world is ethically permeated, making decisions gets more complicated.

Julia, since you wonder about ethical questions, have such a fine ethical compass and have a knack for conversing about ethical issues, why not do more podcasts about them?
July 26, 2015 | Unregistered Commenters. wallerstein
The idea that there is this gray area in morality both fascinates and troubles me. There are certainly many situations in which it is absolutely clear that one mode of behavior is morally defensible and the alternative mode is not. However, some moral dilemmas result in ambiguity. For example (to draw on my own experience), is it acceptable for a physician to lie to an insurance company to obtain coverage for a treatment without which the patient would die, but that the patient would not be able to afford otherwise? Lying is immoral, and lying to an insurance company is fraud, but the physician is sworn to protect the life of his or her patient. I have seen colleagues come firmly down on one or the other side of this argument, and most can provide compelling justifications/rationalizations for why their position is the "only" ethical one. I suppose the utilitarians would say the outcome justifies the breach of ethics, but we know the utilitarians are not always right. And, in our recent NYCS discussion, Massimo kept emphasizing that he is NOT a consequentialist -- "not that consequences aren't important!"
July 26, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRichard Schloss
The fact that lying to the insurance company is fraud indicates that the doctor should be careful before doing it and maybe in some cases should not do it because they'd end up in jail, but it seems that if they can lie to the insurance company and save a life without getting into legal trouble, the doctor should do it. I would if I were a doctor.

It's not always bad to lie. The classic example is the one about the Nazis looking for a Jew and you lie to them to save the Jew, fine.

The insurance companies are rich. The patient needing the treatment in the example cannot afford it. Most everyone (Aquinas too, I believe) says that a starving person has a right to rob a bit of bread to save their life or that of their children (not from another starving person, obviously, but from someone who has more than enough bread). I'd say that the poor person needing the treatment is like the starving person needing bread and the doctor is merely helping them get what they need to survive.
July 26, 2015 | Unregistered Commenters. wallerstein
"The idea that there is this gray area in morality both fascinates and troubles me. "

I don't find the issue morally ambiguous, but I do find it difficult to weigh the practicalities of what to do. I will note that you make several unfounded assumptions: 1) lying is immoral, and 2) utilitarianism isn't always right.
July 27, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGreg Esres
Greg, I'm not certain that the 2 assertions you mention count as "several unfounded assumptions." Furthermore, even though people lie all the time, there is near-universal agreement across cultures that lying is not considered moral behavior. As for utilitarianism not being always right, that gets into "the ends always justify the means" territory, a position that is clearly unsupportable. I cannot murder a healthy person to harvest all his organs and save the lives of 8 others, even though the net result might be a desirable one.
July 27, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRichard Schloss
Do experts in ethicist moral hypocrisy live up to their own standards? ;-)

Plenty of professionals in other fields don't live up to their own standards. Cyber security companies like HBGary have been hacked because they used weak passwords, didn't patch their system, etc. As Ars Technica concluded, "Even recognized security experts who should know better won't follow [the standard advice]. What hope does that leave for the rest of us?"
And in a Freakonomics podcast, sleep researcher Lauren Hale admitted that she didn't follow her own advice to stop using computer screens around bedtime.
Still, I'd expect these professionals to follow their own advice at least somewhat better than the average person.
July 27, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMax
Great discussion, as always. Thank you.

I have a few statistical quibbles, which might be nothing but could also be something.

At 12:30 a statement is made that ethicists and non-ethicists have about the same opinions. I assume that this conclusion was based on reasoning from a lack of statistical significance, which is fallacyish. To be convinced by this conclusion I would have to know that the statistical tests were powerful enough to detect differences that we might care about.

From 13:50-14:55 inferences are drawn based on a difference in the statistical significance of questions of moral judgement versus self-reported behaviour. However, a difference in statistical significance does not necessarily imply a statistically significant difference: e.g.

I'm not saying that I disbelieve the conclusions, just that I'm not yet convinced.
July 27, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Walker
I really like the podcast and the youtube channel. However, I found this whole conversation very strange. Though there were a number issues I had with the discussion, there was one that I found the most distracting. To me, the notion that someone has to consider all of their choices in terms of their global impacts is not a sign of ethical behavior but instead a sign of extreme narcissism. In fact, the guests implicit positions regarding the 'unethical' or 'immoral' Western lifestyles (to which he may or may not attribute racism, sexism, etc.) are a symptom of that lifestyle, which suggests to me that there is something faulty in the premises (If I am attributing too much to a few scattered statements and allusions, I apologize). In fact, as my comment suggests, all of the guests notions regarding ethics and the social implications of actions are dependent on his assumptions about his society. . . which may or may not be valid. I would suggest that the cloistered progressivism of the college campus (I am part of that world, too) is less empirically grounded than many there would like to believe.
July 27, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterR Mahaney
There's a disconnect between knowing what's good to do and feeling good about it. I might agree that spending most of my income to save African children would increase Global Utility, unless the children grow up to join Al-Shabaab or something, but why should I care? To me, it would feel like throwing away money that could bring me more happiness if I spent it on my family. It's human nature to care more about those who are closer to you. But I don't mind contributing to foreign aid if it's ultimately in my interest, like if it prevents Ebola epidemics and piracy.

Peter Singer's thought experiment about the drowning child is deliberately set up so that you're the only person who can save the child. There's no lifeguard and no parents. Maybe the child's parents are utilitarians who are too busy saving African children to watch their own child, which is their duty, not yours. If there were more bystanders present, the diffusion of responsibility would cause the bystander effect, where nobody intervenes. But one big reason to save the drowning child is that you'd expect others to save your drowning child. In contrast, I wouldn't expect Africans to donate anything to save my children, and I certainly wouldn't expect farm animals to care about my suffering.
July 27, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMax

That it's human nature to prefer your own children over those in Africa does not imply that it's ethically preferible to always prefer your own children. There are lots of aspects of human nature that are ethically questionable and that's why we have ethical codes, among other reasons. You can't derive an "ought" from an "is", as they say.

The reason that you can't expect Africans to donate something to save your children isn't because they are less generous than you are, but simply because in general, they are too poor to generate a surplus to donate to charity. I would imagine that if Africans were richer, they might donate more to charity. Singer's appeals are directed towards middle and upper middle class people in Europe, the U.S., Canada, etc., countries where mddle and upper middle class people have all their basic needs satisfied and many times spend their money what many of us consider to be non-essential goods, money that could be directed towards helping others.
July 27, 2015 | Unregistered Commenters. wallerstein
Thanks for sharing full transcript.. unfortunately i can't hear audio in my laptop.
August 6, 2015 | Unregistered Commentershankar
His constant smacking is distracting and getting on my nerves.
October 20, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAnnoyed
Not you too Julia! The smacking must be contagious. You should listen to the whole thing and count the number of times each of you smack your lips.
October 20, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAnnoyed
The first question has to be "Where did standard morality come from?"

How can any other questions be adequately answered until we know?

'it came from God' is a meaningless answer until we know how God knew.

'it came from religion' is obviously the same as 'it came from God'.

'it's in our DNA'. Maybe, but if so, how did it get there?

The question has been asked since ancient times, but so far, doesn't have a cogent answer.
July 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTom in Puerto Rico
I like Julia's idea of shopping for ethical bargains. Finding those charities that maximize the social benefit per donation actually benefits everyone.

Living a reasonable lifestyle and giving some to charity has an advantage to, and if fact benefits the world more than living a subsistence lifestyle and giving more to charity. The amount you give to charity helps people. However, the amount you spend on yourself also helps people. Spending money on yourself allows you to function, and if you work or volunteer in a way that benefits people, your expenditure for self benefit enables you to do your work. Furthermore, when you buy products such as housing, transport, food, and so forth, you support the industries, the workers in those industries, the suppliers to those industries, and the workers in the suppliers to those industries, and so forth. Investing has a similar impact.

Since many social welfare programs perform quite poorly, it usually makes sense to invest in economically productive private enterprise endeavors rather than massive government bureaucracies.
December 16, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJameson

Free Market hypotheticals are never going to be the solution here because they're basically dependent on the Values/Ethics of others which under a Free Market system, are not properly instilled in people to have them be fairly demonstrated in Society simply because of the incompatibilities with Economic incentives and advantages. This also isn't about Politics but purely about the Value-System & Economic Priorities built into the overall Social structure.
January 23, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterErnesto

Point taken. We do need charity, welfare, and international aid. Just realize that socialism fails totally, and that free market capitalism has proven itself the most effective method for helping poor people help themselves. With capitalism, you can actually conduct business with people who dislike you and still arrive at an economic benefit for everyone. Also, on an individual ethical level, people need not live a subsistence lifestyle in order to benefit other people since living a reasonable non-extravagant lifestyle benefits everyone due to the obvious global economic effects.
January 23, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJameson

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