Monday, April 17, 2006

Why Philosophy Is Likely to Make You More Ethical

Will asked in the comments to my post, "Why We Need More Philosophers," the following:

" I am interested in the comment someone made about law schools not making people ethical.

Do PHd programs make their graduates ethical? How about medical schools? Engineering schools? Business schools? How exactly do philosophy programs make their students ethical? Has anyone conducted any studies on that issue?"
I sort of apologized to Will for my post in the comments, but have now since thought a lot more about his question. I have no idea if anyone has done studies that determine whether students in business schools turn out more ethical than say engineering schools? But, I do know something about getting a Ph.D. and I do think it differs in some ways from professional schools. Before I continue, let me say that I don't think that getting a Ph.D. necessarily makes you a more ethical person. I saw plenty of unethical behavior during my grad school years done to students by professors, or among students, or among administrators to both faculty and students for me to make the naive claim that purusing a Ph.D. ensures you will be more ethical.

However, my post was about what I think is important about getting a Ph.D. in philosophy in particular. Now, interestingly, the kind of philosophy that I studied is universally undervalued by the mainstream philosophy programs in the United States. I studied Continental philosophy, which tends to tackle the more existential questions--the fuzzier questions--and does not necessarily rely on the same method or manner of argumentation taught by Analytic departments. Analytic philosophers tend to rely on the same rules of argument (avoiding fallacies, clarifying premises, justifying evidence, etc.). In fact, Analytic philosophers style themselves after scientists and therefore are much more conservative in their arguments, and take on narrow questions. Analytic philosophers certainly do consider ethical questions, but they approach them with the same method that they approach questions of set theory.

I have been fortunate to work with two very smart and affable Analytic philosophers while at Gettysburg: Hanno and Steve G. Both of them gave me another education in philosophy, one that emphasized a particular form of argument, even if they could never convince me to give up the content that interested me. I have decidely embraced much of what they both taught me about how to make arguments. I didn't really get this education in graduate school, hence honing these skills in my professional life is something that I welcome. And, I think that the method and rules of argument taught by Analytic philosophers do make you more ethical if you consistently use them.

The reason why these rules of argument make you more ethical is because they force you to admit when you don't know the answer, they force you to consider the strongest possible counter-arguments to your position, and to test and re-test the evidence that you use to make your argument. While you may play devil's advocate to another's position, the reason you do so is not to win with tricks and crappy arguments, but to strenghten your opponent's argument. Many philosophers do, unfortunately, resort to ad hominem attacks, or make strawman arguments out of their opposition. But, at least someone can call them on that and almost anyone in the community will agree that those tricks don't count as a good counterargument.

So, if your subject matter teaches you fair rules and a truth-seeking method by which to pursue answers to questions, then I think it makes you a more ethical person. However, anticipating counter-arguments, I should clarify what I mean by ethical. In this context, what I mean is that an education in Philosophy makes you (a) committed to truth-seeking and (b) teaches you how to be charitable, humble, and fair in the way you seek out truth. Philosophy also often encourages you to be a professional skeptic. Not everyone is happy to be a skeptic, but good philosophers are. Being a professional skeptic means that you are open to the possibility that you are wrong and that new evidence means you will need to radically rethink your position. That last skill requires a certain kind of psychological toughness.

In order to be the kind of person willing to reconsider your position, you need to be able to withstand tough criticisms that point to you being wrong. You need to see yourself as fallible, as likely to be committed to certain positions because for irrational reasons (read: no evidence), and susceptible to letting your emotional attachments cloud your judgments. It is no easy thing to be a person willing to consider that you are wrong. The danger is that your opponents will consider you "weak," a "flip-flopper," or "incompetent." These are the risks inherent in being the sort of person willing to reconsider his or her positions in the face of a better argument. Moreover, you need to be willing to do some tough emotional work once you realize that a position that you once passionately committed yourself to is wrong. That stuff is hard.

I have some experience with dealing with the latter this year. Specifically, I have confronted instances where my feminist positions turned out to be at odds with the facts on the ground. I have had to actually rethink some of my most basic intuitions of the world. This has been a rather demoralizing and stressful act. It has in fact put me in a state of crisis more than once as I reconsidered campus sexual misconduct policies, or the mommy wars, or the partiality of the law towards mothers vis-a-vis children. What has spurred my crisis are real experiences that forced me to question my earlier positions. Alot of people, philosophers or not, might not be willing to do this kind of emotional work. It's scary. It can leave you feeling rather unmoored. But, I believe that my commitment to being a philosopher is what impels me to have done this work; to keep it real.

Now, let me return to the issue of why getting a Ph.D. in general is quite different from getting a professional degree. I might be wrong here, and so comments are encouraged, but when one commits oneself to pursuing a Ph.D., one is generally commiting oneself to a life of inquiry and truth-seeking. Rarely does earning a Ph.D. ensure you future employment, future earnings, or happiness. In fact, many people who pursue Ph.D.s end up a lot less happier than people earning professional degrees. Part of the unhappiness comes from the type of emotional and intellectual labor entangled with the kind of questions and pursuits involved in a Ph.D. Some of it comes from the isolation one feels, often, from the rest of the world. The kind of things that get me fired up definitely are not even on the radar screen of most people (i.e., I spent the last two days reading solely about the issue of validity and reliability in psychiatric nosology). Lastly, (and this is not a researched claim) I think you have to be a bit mad to get a Ph.D. You have to have a single-minded focus and dogged commitment, usually to questions that no one but you cares about.

Recently, because I am in such debt (getting a Ph.D. is expensive too!), many family members and friends have encouraged me to go to law school. The idea is that I would earn more, I would be able to use my skills in ways that make an immediate difference, etc. I spent some time thinking seriously about this. But, at the end of the day, I realized that the one thing I have going for me with the Ph.D. in philosophy is that I am doing what I actually love. I care about the questions I am asking, I care about teaching students how to think better and argue better, and I care about truth-seeking in general. What is interesting is that doing what you love, what you care passionately about, does not always guarantee that you are happy. Odd, eh? I might be happier if I worked less, had less debt, could leave my work at work, or could better separate my work life from my personal life. But, I would not be following my passion.

Does following your passion make you more ethical? Obviously not. And, I come back to what the issue of what one is pursuing by pursuing a Ph.D. One is searching for the best answer, not the answer that one prefers to believe. And, not the answer that people will pay you to give. Maybe, that distinction is what might make a Ph.D. more likely to be ethical than say an M.B.A.