On Jerks and Ethicists

27 July 2020

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!

Image by Scottslm from Pixabay 

Comments (6)

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Wednesday, July 29, 2020 -- 11:25 AM

Cross-posting with the Show

Cross-posting with the Show


All these problems go away if you give up free will. I would implore minds to accept this. Robert Sapolsky's book 'Behave' turned me on this point. Previously I had followed Dennett - no longer. I spent a good half-year fussing with the issue. If you haven't spent a like time and believe in free will - think about it. It is a huge hurdle, but one of clarity and hope.

There is ample science to turn human culture on this point as well. As Philosophers, it is incumbent to read this science. If you disagree with this - I would ask you to think again. There is no doubt we are pawns in a world not of our making or our choice.

Once this is resolved Eric's issues with watching Mandalorian or going all out Mother Theresa fade. Then it is only the reasons that need be dealt with. Aligning to these reasons resolves the focus on morality or guilt.

Simone de Beauvoir knew her reasons and that is why she deserves to be called out. Knowing reasons, aligning against them, and acting in accordance with them - that is cause for censure. Too many Philosophers are of this ilk.

robertcrosman@gmail.com's picture


Sunday, August 2, 2020 -- 12:50 PM

I agree, Sapolski is

I agree with Tim Smith, Sapolski is impressive, but the scientific method that he employs predetermines that he'll come down on the side of determinism, because neurons don't have free will. On the matter of free will vs. determinism you can't beat the Serenity Prayer: there are things you can control in your own behavior, and things you can't.
Tim Smith sounds like someone who has been scarred by excessive shame and guilt. I agree that if guilt and shame don't help, you need to give them up and look for other ways of controlling your own behavior. I go to Weight Watchers, for example, to deal with my food addictions.
If free will were an illusion, we'd still have to believe in it, to get out of bed in the morning. As William James said" "I CHOOSE to believe in free will."

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Tuesday, August 4, 2020 -- 6:08 AM

I agree with Robert. Tim

I agree with Robert. Tim Smith sounds like he has excessive shame and guilt... wait wut?... I mean I agree with Bob Sapolsky. There is no such thing as free will to choose, but let's not dither on that…

The idea here is does pondering ethical philosophy actually improve ones ethics. My point, stolen from Bob's thesis... and you need to read it again if you think he is a proponent of determinism... I don't think he is, but he can speak for himself... My point is… if you don't have free will then studying ethics doesn't affect your ethics necessarily.

If you go to Weight Watchers yet have hypothyroidism it's not going to help. If you attribute ethical worth to your decisions and don't know the very nature of choice itself... it might not turn out well. In point of fact it anthropocenically has not turned out well. I would argue many things but if free will is your foundation we are all in deep trouble... and we are.

In fact, and this is a fundamental reason I have accepted there is no free will, if you come to your senses, a turn of phrase I enjoy here, you will find broad explanatory power in looking for reasons outside your "choice". Eric Schwitzgebel and Peter Singer find hypocrisy in colleagues stealing utilitarian texts. If you take their argument that we aim to mediocrity it doesn’t explain the outliers… it doesn’t explain anything. If you start outside the concept of choice… there are only reasons… tepid or spicy… but reasons outside one’s control. I’m still all in on punishing book thieves. Not judging them but their reasons breeds compassion, not judgment.

Robert Crosman, you and I are not too far apart on this, believe it or not. When you surrender to God’s will it has much the same result as an agnostic simply saying they don’t know. Instead of surrender to “his” will … I never surrender. We will end in a similar place I think. Peace be with you brother.

robertcrosman@gmail.com's picture


Sunday, August 2, 2020 -- 12:57 PM

I left a comment here last

I left a comment here last Sunday, when this broadcast was first aired, but it has disappeared from the comment string in the meantime. Searching for myself on the "Search Site" button finds neither it nor earlier comments I've posted on previous shows. What happens to my comments, and to others', I imagine? Why don't they show up after they've been posted? I'm always on-topic and civil.