Is Studying Ethics (or anything) Worth it?

July 20, 2015


Recently, a study released by some philosophers raised this question, framing it in their study of the ethics of ethics professors. It is an interesting conundrum, and their results are rather interesting. It turns out that ethics professors are no more or less likely to behave “ethically,” and they draw some interesting conclusions about this. What their study and their conclusions tell us about the liberal arts in general is, I think, rather important.

            To step back from the question of ethics, a bit, let’s consider the value of studying anything. It has become fashionable in the new, neoliberal university to package the study of subjects according to their value on the “job market.” Marketable skills, whether gained through the study of law, engineering, or other instrumental fields, give you a means to earn a living — the ability to get a job. Perhaps studying one of these subjects improves your resume in some way, provides you with a marketable skill, and so helps you to find a living. Many of us believe that the initial assumption is incorrect, and that marketable skills are poorly understood in a changing job market, which is why periodically there are gluts and deficits of those with the most valuable degrees. The market’s preferences for qualities that make people employable are difficult to comprehend, much less predict. But I digress.

            This trend toward valuing employability is not only likely to produce error due to the nature of the market and our poor abilities to predict its future needs, but it is also a poor measure of an education. For similar reasons, the ethics of a particular ethics professor, or even the whole group of them, are poor measures of the value of learning ethics.

            Ethics itself is an ill-developed science, despite 2000 or so years of pondering by some of the greatest minds in philosophy. There is little-to-no agreement as to its proper theoretical foundations, or even the actual existence of “the good.” Most ethics professors know this, and most of what we teach in ethics has to do not with the “correct” answer to particular ethical problems, but rather the manners in which philosophers have for millennia attempted to solve the problem of the basis for the good from which we might successfully reason about doing the right thing (if it exists.)

            Unlike most religions, we have no one rulebook, but rather a bunch of theories whose foundations are often non-empirical yet rational, and which sometimes conflict with on another. Many of us think that despite the general failure of ethical theory, there may still yet be such a thing as “the good” mostly because we have strong ethical intuitions. Which might all be naïve and false. And so, given all of this, and given the fact that those trained in ethics appear not to behave any better than any other group, we return to the question of whether ethics is worth studying. I conclude as the authors of the study do that yes, it is valuable to study. As they point out, philosophy is dynamic, and difficult, and the mere fact that the study of ethics is not clearly instrumentally useful for creating “more ethical” people, the value of being able to reason through ethical problems with knowledge of how to do so, and versed in philosophical vocabulary and methods, makes it worth it.

            What is “worth it” when it comes to study, that’s the catch. The conclusions that Schwitzgebel et al reach about the value of ethics study are based not on the empirical research, but are I think quite well-founded in the notion of a liberal arts education. What is worth studying is that which increases not our functioning, necessarily, but rather our characters. Are we full human beings, using at any time the most complete set of knowledge and abilities to reason as are possible for us to attain? Society will judge our moral characters over time, based upon the perception of our lives as projects, whether they are well-lived, rich with examined and realized possibilities, fitting into society in some way that improves it are at least doesn’t degrade it. We must judge ourselves as well, based upon similar criteria, unless we think the measure of the life worth living is only material comfort, then we will likely seek knowledge of things like ethical theory for their own sake, because understanding  its development and its shortcomings, as well as the various forms of its theories, is good in itself.