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Backward Ethics

Eric Schwitzgebel asks why ethics professors don't live their lives any more ethically than the rest of us. Assuming that the empirical claim (for which he offers only anecdotal evidence) is true, and assuming that it makes any sense to speak of a single scale of the ethicalness of behavior independent of any particular ethical theory (to which most ethics professors woulnd't adhere), the answer seems simple. The philosophical discipline of ethics is not about changing your behavior, it's about justifying it. Ethicists begin with their intuitions about which behaviors are ethical, and then work out some explanation that justifies and systematizes them.

Admittedly I've only read philosophical treatises on ethics as a hobby, but I have yet to encounter an ethicist (Jeremy Bentham and Peter Singer being partial exceptions) who said "while I and many other people assume that X is morally right, the basic principles that I have proposed entail that X is morally wrong, so I will now assert that we should not do X." I recently read some of R.M. Hare's work, and though I generally like his system of basic principles, I was embarassed by his constant protestations that nothing in his system could possibly ever produce a counter-intuitive conclusion.

So the difference between ethicists and regular people is not the content of what we believe is right or wrong, it's how sophisticated our justifications for those beliefs are.


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