The research of philosopher Eric Shwitzgebel appears to show that ethicists are less ethical. Katja Grace argues that that’s exactly what you ought to expect. Since ethicists are supposed to change our understanding of ethics, we should expect ethicists to behave unethically according to our common-sense understanding of ethics. If not, why are we employing them?

However, I think her argument is flawed.

There are two minor flaws. First, ethicists tend to behave less ethically across a wide variety of different measures. While it might be true that it is morally obligatory to talk during American Philosophical Association presentations, in spite of the general consensus that people who talk during presentations are dickbags, it would be very strange if it were also equally obligatory to steal ethics books, slam doors, and leave your trash behind in conference rooms. Surely common sense morality has to be right about something. In addition, as far as I am aware, these issues are rarely addressed in ethical debate; as far as I am aware, ethicists do not generally work on the subject of whether it is morally obligatory to talk during presentations, and thus it would be very strange if they’d collectively decided that it was.

Second, Shwitzgebel also included peer ratings of the ethics of ethicists. Presumably, if ethicists were consistently behaving according to a morality that makes more sense than common-sense morality, they would be rated by their peers as more ethical, not about the same. (Unfortunately, Shwitzgebel does not include a breakdown of whether ethicists believe other ethicists are more ethical than non-ethicists do, so it is possible that non-ethicist philosophers simply haven’t gotten the memo.)

More importantly, Katja Grace’s argument depends on eliding the difference between unethical acts and ethically neutral acts. Most formulations of ethics– “everything not permitted is forbidden” utilitarianism aside– have a category for acts that ethics doesn’t care about much at all. Ethics does not have a strong opinion on whether I drink coffee, tea, milk, or nothing in the morning. Ethics research might very well say that an act believed to be unethical is actually ethical, but it might also very well say that an act believed to be ethically neutral is ethical. Indeed, several famous points of disagreement between ethicists and non-ethicists fall in the latter category– most notably charity donations and vegetarianism.

Most people see eating meat as a morally neutral action and donating large amounts of money to charity as, if not neutral, certainly not obligatory. Ethicists are more likely than the general public to believe that eating meat and not donating to charity are both wrong. Nevertheless, the evidence appears to suggest that ethicists are statistically indistinguishable from non-ethicists in their meat consumption and charity donation habits. This is frankly kind of embarrassing, because you’d think at least the Peter Singer fans would drive up the average.

In conclusion, I think it is still probably true that thinking about ethics doesn’t make you a better person.