Bioethics Blogs

Why moral philosophers are not gurus. On holding ethicists to higher moral standards and the value of moral inconsistency

A few weeks ago, Adela Cortina, one of the most important moral philosophers in Spain, was interviewed on the journal El País. “This should be the easiest interview in the world,” said the journalist by way of introduction. Adela Cortina asked why. “Because of your profession. Professors of Ethics never lie, right?” “People assume we are faultless, and when they talk to me they are always justifying themselves. What I work on is something academic, and then, when it comes to life, I try to be consistent with my convictions, but nobody is incorruptible,” she said.

Suppose I tell you that a professor from your local university did something morally reprehensible—cheated on his spouse, failed to pay taxes, or stole money from his department. Suppose that I then tell you this professor is a moral philosopher. Does this further fact make his actions all the more disappointing? I suspect most people think it does. Why is it that ethicists are commonly held to higher moral standards than the rest of the population? Should they be?

One possible reason is that the moral philosopher’s fault somehow invalidates his moral theories. In other words, in order for moral philosophers to show philosophy’s worth, they must embody the values they argue for. But it is unclear that this is the way we should think about ethicists. Take the case of a guru. A guru will typically say that he has discovered a method to become x (where x can be being happier than average, healthier, more moral, etc.); he will typically assert that he has followed that method himself, has become x, and that he can teach you how to do the same to become x yourself.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.