A piece appeared in The Atlantic a few days ago that aims to prick the perceived bubble of professional ethicists. In fact, the headline is pretty hostile: THE HYPOCRISY OF PROFESSIONAL ETHICISTS. Blimey. The sub-headline doesn’t pull its punches either: “Even people who decide what’s right and wrong for a living don’t always behave well.”
I know that headlines are frequently not written by the person whose article they head, and so these won’t tell us much about the article – but, even so, I’m beginning to twitch. Do I decide what’s right and wrong for a living? I don’t think I do. I possibly thought that that’s what an ethicist does when I was a fresher, or at school – but I’m not certain I did even then. And even if I did, I discovered pretty quickly that it’s quite a bit more complicated than that. For sure, I think about what’s right and wrong, and about what “right” and “wrong” mean; and I might even aspire to make the occasional discovery about right and wrong (or at least about how best to think about right and wrong).* But as for deciding what is right and wrong? Naaaah.
Anyway: to the substance of the piece, which – to be fair – is more moderate in tone, pointing out that “those who ponder big questions for a living don’t necessarily behave better, or think more clearly, than regular people do”. That’s probably accurate enough, at least a good amount of the time. I’d like to think that I’m thinking better about a particular problem than most people when I’m working on it; but I’m also thinking better about in that context than I would be at other times.