If you think gay people should not be married, is that a moral decision, unconscious prejudice (you’ve taken the Implicit Association Test, right?) or something else?
When I observe debates between non-philosophers about hot ethical issues, I sometimes wonder if the points of view being debated have anything to do with ethics. There are some normative opinions which seem to have nothing to do with the considered ethical judgements that I see philosophers make in the course of their professional lives.
This tells me two things:
- The standard of public discourse isn’t very high.
- Philosophers have a strange way of thinking about ethics.
The way philosophers think is a challenge to empirical studies of moral decision-making, and I look forward to a comparative analysis of non-philosophers, philosophy students, and tenured philosophers. Equally interesting would be comparisons of ‘continental’ philosophers and ‘analytic’ philosophers; I have a suspicion that the brains of continental philosophers behave quite differently from the analytic sort.
The question of the expertise of moral philosophers has led to an opinion poll about the moral behaviour of ethics professors. Kudos to Eric Schwitzgebel (blogging at Splintered Mind, with some follow-up) and Josh Rust for taking the initiative at a recent meeting of the American Philosophical Association. The result:
Ethicists think ethicists behave slightly better than philosophers specializing in other areas. Non-ethicists think they behave the same.
Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. Experts tend to privilege their own expertise. Just look at how the legal profession adopts the mythology of ‘thinking like a lawyer’. There’s an important difference, though. If philosophers scolded their students for not thinking like ethicists, classes would jump track into a prolonged discussion what that meant.