Ethics philosophers are more ethical than the average person — right? Well, maybe not. Studies show that philosophy professors are just...
Can studying moral philosophy make you more moral? Could it make you less moral? How do we become more virtuous? Or should we all just settle for moral mediocrity? These are some of the questions we’re thinking about on this week’s show, “The Ethical Jerk.”
You might think calling someone an “ethical jerk” is like calling something a round square—it’s a contradiction in terms. If someone is a jerk, then, by definition, aren’t they not exactly the most ethical person there is? That's true, and the term is meant a little tonge-in-cheek. But it is also describing a very particular kind of jerk, one that you’ll find in a department of philosophy. Sure, there are jerks in every department, but what makes this jerk of particular interest is that they devote their entire life to thinking and writing about morality and ethics but then are rude, selfish, inconsiderate, or even worse. Imagine a philosopher who becomes famous for writing about racism, misogyny, and justice. Then you find out they have a long history of harassing female students of color. That sounds like a hypocritical jerk, right?
And there are so many examples of hypocritical jerks from the history of philosophy to draw on. Take Immanuel Kant, author of Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, a book that aims to provide the philosophical foundations of ethics. This is where he introduces the famous Categorical Imperative, a moral law that must be obeyed in all circumstances. So, for example, he believed that lying is always wrong, in every situation, even in one where lying could save someone’s life. Sounds like a highly principled man! Except he was a racist, sexist jerk who defended slavery and treated women horrendously…
Of course, Kant—like everyone else—was a product of his time. Even the great David Hume once wrote that he suspected white people were “superior” to other races. Those kind of beliefs were unfortunately quite common back then.
But that’s not to say they were ever morally acceptable beliefs to hold. Besides, both Kant and Hume managed to invent new philosophical foundations for so many of our most basic concepts, yet somehow they never managed to question their beliefs in the “natural superiority” of white men. For such groundbreaking, radical visionaries, that seems rather lame.
Perhaps you think it’s unfair to hold people who were alive centuries ago to today’s moral standards. If so, then forget Kant and Hume. And Aristotle, Nietzsche, Locke, Heidegger… (I could go on, but you get the point.) Forget about dead white guys and focus on living ethical jerks. Is it fair to judge them by today’s moral standards?
Anyone who holds themselves up as a moral authority, and then does exactly the thing they tell other people not to do is a jerk of the highest order. So if your ethics professor fails to practice what they preach, they are what I’m calling an “ethical jerk.”
But does the existence of ethical jerks mean moral philosophy as a whole is a totally bankrupt enterprise? I don’t think so. Moral philosophy can at least help us clarify our moral thinking and examine our moral intuitions to see if they stand up to rational scrutiny. And it can help us understand what makes a jerk a jerk.
Our guest this week, Eric Schwitzgebel, is a philosopher who has done fascinating empirical research to see if ethics professors are any more—or less—ethical than the rest of us. And he also writes about jerks and what he calls “jerkitude.” We hope you’ll take off your jerk goggles and join us for a fun discussion!