The Ethical Jerk

Sunday, December 11, 2022
First Aired: 
Sunday, July 26, 2020

What Is It

Ethics philosophers are more ethical than the average person — right? Well, maybe not. Studies show that philosophy professors are just as biased as the rest of us, and no more generous in their charitable giving. So does that mean they’re not any more ethical too? What’s the point of doing moral philosophy if it’s not to make ourselves more ethical? How can we make ourselves better people? Or are we doomed to moral mediocrity, despite our best efforts to the contrary? Josh and Ray play nice with Eric Schwitzgebel from UC Riverside, author of A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Oddities.



Josh Landy  
Can studying moral philosophy make you more moral?

Ray Briggs  
Are there other ways to become a better person?

Josh Landy  
Or should we all just settle for moral mediocrity?

Comments (11)'s picture


Monday, July 27, 2020 -- 11:55 AM

In support of the view that

In support of the view that professional ethicists are no more ethical in their personal lives than the rest of us, I offer the following anecdote, which was told to me by a young woman of my acquaintance.

"I was out on a date with our university's ethics professor," she told me. "When we ended the evening at my apartment, he suggested that we have sex. This surprised me a little, as it was our first date, but while considering his request I asked if he had a condom. He did not, he admitted. 'But you teach ethics, don't you?' I asked. He got angry, and soon left my home. He never asked me for another date."

Believe me: he missed a lovely experience. It pays to be ethical.

Hesperide's picture


Monday, July 27, 2020 -- 6:18 AM

The show opened with the

The show opened with the guest describing a scene on a jammed freeway exit where jerks tried to enter the line at the front of the long line of suckers. As if that was your own ethical choice. But in my car my boyfriend has the radio up loud and is inching forward in time to the music, jerking the car with each beat. And we're laughing our heads off. There's always a way to Play With It!!! That's what makes us human. That's why there are now regional dialects for American Sign Language (the NYC dialect is more expansive). That's why railroad trains suddenly exploded into complicated colorful graffiti back in the '80s. That's why we have cuisine and fashion. The game isn't winning and losing, it's play. And because play is inclusive it's inherently ethical.'s picture


Monday, July 27, 2020 -- 12:12 PM

Hesperide has a nice insight

Hesperide has a nice insight into varieties of behavior that escape a black and white ethical judgement. Is graffiti-tagging vicious or public-spirited? Are saggy pants offensive or a sign of manly self-respect? Is haute cuisine decadent or high art? But line-jumping at the freeway exit is hard to excuse on any grounds but the "I'm for me-first" ethic. And if I saw her boyfriend jerking the car forward to the beat of music I can't hear, I think I'd worry that he'll bump into the car ahead of him, and consider him an idiot. Ethical judgement, at least in small matters, is an individual decision.

JNavas's picture


Tuesday, July 28, 2020 -- 8:21 AM


Indeed, and part of that individual decision can involve rationalization (self-justification), like claiming that blaring loud music and defacing public spaces are somehow inclusive acts, when their very nature is to be tribal and divisive.

On freeway line-jumping, I think we need to be careful in assuming that it's always due to rudeness. There are legitimate cases where the driver simply has not noticed that there's a line until it's too late to join at the end. Assumption is, after all, "the mother of all screw-ups." The world is a better place if we make positive assumptions instead of negative ones.

JNavas's picture


Tuesday, July 28, 2020 -- 8:52 AM

I submit that it's a cost

I submit that it's a cost-benefit analysis for most people, where they perceive a substantial cost to being moral, with relatively little direct benefit (mostly just feeling good). If we want a more moral society, then we should reward moral behavior, because that does work. For example, people are more willing to donate when they get a tax break. And yes, I'm talking about you, Public Broadcasting.

p.s. It doesn't have to be economic benefit–praise and recognition are surprisingly effective rewards.

Devon's picture


Wednesday, July 29, 2020 -- 8:04 AM

Keith H. wrote in during

Keith H. wrote in during Sunday's broadcast with the following:

Wouldn't it be reasonable to say: "I'll try not to do things I know are harmful."?
Perhaps it's striving for moral mediocrity, but it might help to encourage better behavior without requiring sainthood..
It's analogous to being overweight and instead of saying:
"I'm going to have the body of a super-athlete. - nothing else is acceptable.." saying:
"I'll try not to eat dessert two days/week."

Reply from Josh...

This is definitely a good start, but of course there are positive as well as negative duties. Not doing harm is good, but we are also called upon to do good (for example, give to charity). So just saying "I'll try not to do things I know are harmful” may not be enough to motivate moral behavior—even to the level of “moral mediocrity” that Eric Schwitzgebel was discussing.

...and from Ray:

It seems like there are clear cases where I don't cause any individual harm but am nonetheless participating in something morally questionable.

Like, if I eat a hamburger, I didn't harm the cow that was killed to make the hamburger... that cow was already dead by the time I first causally interacted with the hamburger. And it's really hard to identify a particular cow whose later death is caused by my consumer choices. But I'm participating in an industry that harms many cows every year.

If racial injustice gives me a bunch of advantages and I do nothing, am I harming people of color? Again, the harms that enabled the good thing to happen for me are causally upstream of my purchasing the house, so my purchasing the house didn't cause them. If I do nothing to stop the ongoing harms of racism, black and indigenous people will continue to suffer while I benefit.

Lots of harms are collective. The fact that most individuals who participate are not directly responsible for those harms doesn't seem like it's enough to get us off the hook. People talk about victimless crimes; I think some of these injustice examples are "perpetratorless crimes" with identifiable victims.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Wednesday, July 29, 2020 -- 11:20 AM

All these problems go away if

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.

Josh Landy's picture

Josh Landy

Saturday, August 1, 2020 -- 9:34 AM

Update: right after we aired

Update: right after we aired this show, a new study came out, by our guest Eric Schwitzgebel, along with Peter Singer and Bradford Cokelet. This study featured 1,032 students being taught about the ethics of eating meat; students had to turn in receipts for food bought around the time of the study, and results showed at least some decrease in meat-eating (52% to 45%). So maybe ethical instruction is not entirely fruitless?

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Tuesday, August 4, 2020 -- 6:24 AM

I need to read this with more

I need to read this with more thought, but I think the general trend in the world is less meat-eating. Correlates of consciousness vary... but I will have to read this study before drawing any more conclusions.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, August 12, 2021 -- 8:17 AM

Not much to say about ethics.

Not much to say about ethics. Never have thought it useful. More often, inconsistent and unreliable.

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Daniel's picture


Sunday, December 11, 2022 -- 4:24 PM

So ethics doesn't work. I

So ethics doesn't work. I agree. Its defect, as you seem to be getting at, seems to be that a science of prescriptable habits and behaviors can't itself prescribe which ones are better than others without first begging the question by determining what the goals are for individual human actions generally so that how to get there becomes a matter of mere expediency. But can there be a descriptive science of ethical objects? Do optional behaviors regarding generic purposes constitute genuine research objects found only in domains which are independent from rigorous quantitative analysis?

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