wrote a fine essay entitled “Cheeseburger Ethics
” in Aeon
. In it he presents the fact that professional ethicists are not especially good people.
His findings are built on careful and persuasive research, including a great and imaginative framework for investigating "good." He writes:
Here are the measures we looked at: voting in public elections, calling one’s mother, eating the meat of mammals, donating to charity, littering, disruptive chatting, responding to student emails, attending conferences without paying registration fees, organ donation, blood donation, theft of library books, honesty in responding to survey questions, and joining the Nazi party in 1930s Germany.
What he finds in sum is this: “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.”
Why is this?
He discovers that we use peers as our standard and measure, rather than ideals we easily identify and grasp through reason and careful thought. “We – most of us – actually aim at mediocrity," notes Schwitzgebel. "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 being better involves sacrifice, people are not interested.
Schwitzgebel's piece is a great read, but he fails to extend his findings to draw important implications from his discovery. He has stumbled upon implications that relate to the current state of our world in the face of the unanticipated terror, barbarism, and savagery
that haunt us in all our hours.
We are in an historical moment of deep religious and spiritual decline
decline and disorder that threaten simultaneously global affairs and local life. This loss at the innermost origin-point of being human mocks efforts for international stability, and at once breeds personal fear in private lives over simple acts like shopping or riding a train.
Developed, tech-drunk societies
world-wide deny religion any status as authority or guide. Moderns and tech-saddled have no interest in any institutionalized "moral," social voice. Religion is permitted only in backwater eddies of private belief, and behind closed doors of incestuous communities. Religion flits in and out of public attention only to affirm progressive or rebellious acts from a leader of an established tradition, to brand as hypocritical a public figure who has failed or stumbled, or to manipulate voter demographics. The common point in these three negative and dismissive habits is that religious and spiritual traditions are forbidden to function in the public arena to help provide guidelines for moral and social goodness. Religion and spirituality are overtly rejected as having a claim on wisdom let alone normative authority.
In the vacuum left by eviscerating the religious and spiritual moorings that once functioned to offer a strong, constant, and quiet center-pole for moral decency, extreme and perverse caricatures of religion rush in and plague the world with evil. Aggressive, expansionist, violent, sick and savage tyrannies in religious garb horrify on the one hand, and nativist, parochial screeches
in response entrench themselves on the other. This vicious cycle intensifies the modern disdain for religion and spiritual institutions.
How did religion plummet from its lofty heights in human affairs? A major cause among many was the development of social sciences that successfully established non-causality between piety and goodness
. It was established clearly that one did not have to be religious to be good. This combined to terrible ends with the constant unrepentant rush of odious behavior among pious people, parochialism, abuse of authority, racism, exclusivism, division, and intolerance. With this religion inevitably declined in the modern period and was forcibly removed from its place in public life.
What Schwitzgebel does inadvertently with his study of professional ethicists is shed light not just on ethics professors, but more importantly on the problem of being good. It turns out that even the high priests of reason, the evolutionary replacement of religious and spiritual leaders, are no better than the priests and pastors we cast off as charlatans and hypocrites. These elite teachers and philosophers, the world's high priests of the academy, and experts in knowing right and wrong, from the enlightened perch of reason, in fact turn out to be no better and no worse than the old boss. They cheat they steal, they lie. Or maybe not. Schwitzgebel elegantly and helpfully points out that goodness is not related to what you know.
In the religious sphere this area of "what you know" is known as doctrine or dogma.
Just as the goodness of a professional ethicist is unrelated to how much they know, or how exquisitely they can think matters through, in the religious and spiritual sphere similarly, the goodness of a believer or a leader likewise in not related to "what we know,” to “the teaching." Schwitzgebel's scientific examination of a person's ability to be good, to be ethical, moral, exemplary, giving, caring, sensitive, egalitarian, inclusive, and compassionate shows that these arise not from knowing, but from a willingness to practice what one knows.
The presence of religious extremism that desecrates contemporary life in the world and floods our days with savagery and fear occurred in part by burning the religious and spiritual roots of civilization, leaving moral chaos, relativism, hedonism, and solipsism in its place. These severe problems of groups such as ISIS and related phenomena cannot be solved without healing these very roots. Both in the spiritual and in the secular realms, from the ethicist to the priest, our way out is to move beyond the “what,” and move to self-creation and self-transformation even when doing so is uncomfortable. Goodness comes only by practicing the good that is plain and obvious in the many clear and beautiful truths that surround us.