Sunday, January 03, 2016

Our Lives of Moral Mediocrity

By now, from the many posts, it will be clear that one pet peeve of mine is that for almost all--including me--the action does not match the rhetoric.  Which is why I blog often critiquing the committed environmentalist who eats meat, or the academic-freedom championing faculty ganging up against my free speech, or the saint engaging in questionable practices, or a beloved father-figure being a serial rapist ... It seems like an overwhelming majority of us mortals lead lives of moral mediocrity at best, and often practically immoral lives, all based on our own individual moral codes--not even somebody else's code.
Suppose it’s generally true that we aim for goodness only by relative, rather than absolute, standards. What, then, should we expect to be the effect of discovering, say, that it is morally bad to eat meat, as the majority of US ethicists seem to think?
Imagine that--we don't aim to be good for goodness sake, but only for relative goodness?  If a whole bunch of people around are crappy, then I need to merely be slightly better than them and I am satisfied with this relative goodness?
You might hope that others will change. You might advocate general societal change – but you’ll have no desire to go first.
Hmmm ...

The author of the essay that triggered all these thoughts writes that lengthy piece in order to discuss:
Are professional ethicists good people? According to our research, not especially. So what is the point of learning ethics?
Professional ethicists apparently are no different from you and me, who are not professional ethicists.
Ethicists do not appear to behave better. Never once have we found ethicists as a whole behaving better than our comparison groups of other professors, by any of our main planned measures. But neither, overall, do they seem to behave worse. (There are some mixed results for secondary measures.) For the most part, ethicists behave no differently from professors of any other sort – logicians, chemists, historians, foreign-language instructors.
If even professional ethicists do not make sure their actions are consistent with their talk, then why complain about the everyday person who does not get paid to, for instance, think about killing animals for food or whether the rich should donate to the poor.
We aspire to be about as morally good as our peers. If others cheat and get away with it, we want to do the same. We don’t want to suffer for goodness while others laughingly gather the benefits of vice. If the morally good life is uncomfortable and unpleasant, if it involves repeated painful sacrifices that are not compensated in some way, sacrifices that others are not also making, then we don’t want it.
I’d be suspicious of any 21st-century philosopher who offered up her- or himself as a model of wise living. This is no longer what it is to be a philosopher – and those who regard themselves as wise are in any case almost always mistaken.
Such disconnect between the talk of moral code and action is why, for instance, Al Gore jets around in order to talk about the harmful impacts of jetting around, among other topics.  Or, from the other side of the spectrum, Bible-thumping Republicans who would gladly vote for tax cuts for the super-rich while taking away food stamps from the poor.
Genuine philosophical thinking critiques its prior strictures, including even the assumption that we ought to be morally good. It damages almost as often as it aids, is free, wild and unpredictable, always breaks its harness. It will take you somewhere, up, down, sideways – you can’t know in advance. But you are responsible for trying to go in the right direction with it, and also for your failure when you don’t get there.
Yep, it is up to you.  So, what's your call?

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