Can studying philosophy make you a worse person?

It’s certainly not guaranteed to make you better, if you believe the findings of a study recently covered in the Scientific American: 

For almost a decade, Schwitzgebel and Rust have compared the self-reported and observed behaviors of ethicists to that of other academics. Behaviors included voting, staying in touch with your mother, meat-eating, organ and blood donation, responsiveness to student emails, charitable giving and talking during someone else’s lecture.

Schwitzgebel and Rust conclude in a 2014 paper that ethicists’ behavior is “indistinguishable” from that of other professors . . . Schwitzgebel suggests, many modern philosophers see ethics not as a guide to living but as a set of “abstract problems” with “no bearing on day-to-day life.” If ethicists draw upon their training in their personal lives, they do so to justify ethically dubious actions. We ‘excel at rationalization and excuse-making,’ Schwitzgebel acknowledges. In other words, ethicists are sophists, like lawyers.”

As someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about philosophy and right moral action, this is really disappointing, to say the least. If I had more faith in academia in general, I might take it harder.

But it’s not difficult for me to believe these findings.

All our lives we’re trained to believe that learning will make us better. We spend at least 14 years of life reading without putting our learning to work in a real world context. This is supposed to work and turn us into “good citizens.” Schwitzgebel and Rust’s research and – let’s admit it – our own experiences suggest that accumulating philosophical knowledge does not always drive right moral action. In fact, it can sometimes enable the opposite.

Philosophical knowledge and acquired wisdom has made me better in some ways, but only to the extent to which I have acted on it quickly. The longer I sit on knowledge of what I know I should be doing – without doing it – the more likely I am to choose the option of inaction or even evil. Knowledge becomes a reproach to me when I don’t use it, so I can actually come to hate the truth. When it’s not, I use it as a way to feel superior to others and immune from the duty to act rightly. This is what can happen all to easily with putting research before action in any field of study.

Fortunately, I’ve not reached the extremes of evil, just as I have not reached the extremes of good. But other people who cared about philosophy – like Martin Heidegger – also fell far enough to justify the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. All their knowledge did not prevent their corruption.

There are thousands of books written on philosophy and ethics. You could choose to spend a life reading them all. If you choose that way, you’ll have an excellent excuse to never bring your philosophy past the library doors.

Talk is cheap. So is reading.

If you can speak with the words of Aristotle or Plato but don’t have integrity between your knowledge and actions, you are (to paraphrase St. Paul) a “resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”

Be something better. Finally, do what philosophy was supposed to do. Wisdom raises her voice in the streets: you have the truth already, or what you need of it. What will you do with what you have? Act first on that truth – invest your wisdom in the world around you. But if you try to reap before you sow, your harvest will rot in the barns.

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