This article first appeared on The Huffington Post.
The years I spent studying academic (Western) philosophy during my undergraduate education were quite transformative. I was presented, and equipped, with a vocabulary to use in talking about the most difficult and timeless of issues, connecting myself to a strong tradition of other minds who devoted their lives to doing the same. Because of how meaningful I found the study of philosophy, it has remained puzzling to me that, almost without exception, no one else who I have encountered who studied philosophy took away from it what I did.
The latest example of this came in the form of a podcast. Professor Eric Schwitzgebel, who teaches philosophy at the University of California at Riverside, was interviewed by Philosophy Bites recently. He spoke about the ethical behavior of ethics professors and described how ethics professors were rarely, if ever, more ethical than their academic colleagues. What shocked me, more than that finding, was that Professor Schwitzgebel seemed to defend this parity. (I am not, of course, singling out Professor Schwitzgebel in any particular way. I am fairly confident that his views are mainstream in the academic study of philosophy — his was simply the articulation of this view that I was exposed to.)
Why should we expect higher ethical behavior from those who specialize in ethics?
First off, if someone devotes their life to studying the history of ethical theories and ideas, something about living one’s life by a certain code of conduct is probably important to them. If we, as a society, have then gone on to grant this person various titles denoting their expertise in this field, and have charged them with teaching the next generation about these ideas, then I would surely hope that these ideas have made a significant impact upon the expert in question. This would be enough of an argument if we were speaking of physics or geography, due to the fact that a teacher disinterested in their subject matter does not often impart any enthusiasm in the subject to their students. But we are talking here about philosophy, and the subject matter itself demands of its students, and especially its teachers, a higher respect.
History of philosophy classes have their place, and one could argue that they, like history classes more generally, aim to equip their students (and, by extension, those who end up specializing in the field) with a mastery of the evolution and propagation of various ideas, at various times and places. However, ethics is simply not a field concerned with memorization of dates and ideas. To study ethics is to engage oneself in a millennia-old grappling with the most fundamental questions to ever occur to humans. To study these texts and ideas, and to write about them, for years on end, and yet come away from that process no more attuned to what is ethical than your academic colleagues who have specialized in computer science or art history is both astounding and depressing. Astounding for the reasons mentioned above, and depressing because this means that we have accepted ethics into the academic universe on a par with any other history course.
Further, this lowering of standards, taking the study of philosophy from an experience meant to change (or at least challenge) the student to simply a matter of learning ‘facts and figures’, plays right into the hands of contentious arguments about the inherently religious foundations of ethics. It is often claimed that there can be no ethics without religion. One way that this argument could be debunked would be to have a serious academic discipline divorced from religious affiliation of any kind producing highly ethically sensitive teachers, just what I think ethics as a field ought to do. However, with things as they are, religious thinkers have all the more reason to claim that religion is a sufficient and necessary condition for any binding system of ethics. Finally, this system is self-perpetuating, as the more things stay the same, the more the study of ethics will gain a reputation for being no more than the study of ideas and dates, and the students interested in being formed by the texts they read will flock to seminaries or religious studies departments.
The canon of philosophy ought to exert much the same influence (without the ideology or ritual elements) that scriptural canons do, if it is to retain the relevance that I believe it ought to have, and that its major thinkers sought to grant it. I continually find connections and insights by bringing the texts of my own, Jewish tradition into conversation with those of the Western philosophical tradition. As with most instances of productive dialogue, both traditions are enhanced by this kind of exchange, as am I and those I am in conversation with. I can think of no reason why ethics should be reduced to a subject that asks nothing of its students, when it is involved precisely with making those demands of all who encounter its ideas.