Should ethical philosophers be ethical themselves?

New Yorker profile of the ethical philosopher Agnes Callard blew up on Twitter a few weeks ago. Agnes Callard is a philosopher of ethics at the University of Chicago. Her profile blew up not because of her academic work or insights, but because of her personal life. 

The short version is that, about 12 years ago, Agnes Callard divorced her husband to marry her graduate student that she had a crush on. She then talked and wrote incessantly about how brave it was that she did that. Now, 12 years later, she’s contemplating divorcing her graduate student as well. Miraculously, despite all of this, both her ex- and current husband still seem quite fond of her, and the three of them live together and raise a blended family.

In this profile, Agnes comes off as, frankly, an unethical, selfish person. She muses incessantly about the trickier parts of love and marriage, but seems to avoid the basic issue of obligation that comes with either of those. By the end of the profile, you get the sense that she’s been a net negative for her ex-husband, who she not only divorced out of the blue but prevented from moving on; her current husband, who she tortures with continual “philosophical” threats of divorce; and the University of Chicago philosophy community at large, given that not only did she marry her graduate student, but she somehow also managed to get him a job teaching philosophy at UChicago ahead of all of her philosophy grad students.

I don’t think Agnes Callard’s immorality is in question by any ethical standard. What I think is in question, however, is whether this makes her a bad ethical philosopher.

The easy answer, and the one most ethical philosophers would go with, is no. If we think of ethical philosophers like any other kind of academic, then bad personal ethics should not make someone a bad ethical philosopher. In this view, what a philosopher writes stands on its own on its own virtues. In this point of view, we should read philosophy like we’d read anything else. We should erase the byline and judge the writing on its own merits. Agnes Callard’s personal life has no more bearing on her work than Einstein’s does on his1.

I don’t buy this. Ethical philosophy really isn’t like any other kind of discipline. There aren’t any objective truths in ethical philosophy. It asks a lot of our “moral intuitions” to make its points. Even compared to other philosophical disciplines, it’s very hard to come to any kind of definitive answers in ethical philosophy. Branches of ethical philosophy that do come to counterintuitive conclusions through logic, like utilitarianism, are usually regarded with suspicion by ethical philosophers and laymen alike2.

It seems evident to me that there’s then something repugnant about reaching ethical conclusions through pure logic. If all our intuitions tell us that air is weightless, but our mass calculations tell us that air has weight, we are ok with believing our mass calculations and trusting that air has weight. If all our intuitions tell us that posting on Twitter is harmless, but some guy’s ethical framework (that he posts on Twitter) tells us that it’s unethical to post on Twitter, we will probably ignore him3.

So, ethical philosophy is in a weird spot. On the one hand, it is still an academic discipline, in which we’re willing to listen to experts who claim they know better than us. On the other hand, we have very strong intuitions, and we’re willing to ignore people whose claims go against our intuitions.

And I think this latter point points to a fundamental mistrust at the heart of ethical philosophy. We can never fully trust an ethical philosopher’s work on its own and we reserve the right to deny their conclusions without even having to engage with their reasoning. So, an ethical philosopher has to not only inspire trust with their work itself, but with themselves.

That’s why I think Agnes Callard is a bad ethical philosopher. Her mistreatment of both of her husbands is not akin to Einstein’s mistreatment of his wives (see footnote 1). It’s closer to a professor of biology who gets making up figures. When I review a biologist’s papers, I have to trust that their data is as honest as they could make it. If I think there’s a chance that they just made up numbers, the rest of the paper is like a fruit of a poisoned tree.

When I review Agnes Callard’s work, I have to trust that her reasoning is as honest as she could make it. If I think there’s a chance that her moral intuitions are skewed, the rest of her work is like a fruit of a poisoned tree.

You know, I used to teach Introduction to Western Philosophy to Chinese students. I would ask them at the beginning of the ethics section if they thought ethical philosophers were more ethical than the average person. They would generally answer no, and they’d be correct, according to surveys of ethical philosophers.

I’d tell them that they should be disappointed that they were correct. I’d say that they shouldn’t think of philosophy as just another course to trudge through. I’d tell them that when I taught them epistemology, they should treat it as a chance to change how they think. And, when I taught them ethics, they should treat it as a chance to evaluate and change how they lived. They should be suspicious of any ethical philosopher who didn’t do the same, in the same way they’d be suspicious of a dentist with bad teeth. Either that ethical philosopher (or dentist) tried and failed, or they never even tried. I don’t know which is worse.

At the end of the course, I’d do a wrap-up lecture. When I wrapped up ethics, I always liked to quote Rilke’s immortal ending lines from “Archaic Torso of Apollo”:

For here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.


Einstein was a terrible spouse. He treated his first wife like an unpaid maid, and cheated a lot on his second wife.


For example, Bentham’s strict utilitarianism suggested that the state should promote pleasure and discourage pain to the greatest extent possible. Bentham had no problem with the idea that this might mean that a state library might overstock trashy romance novels and understock Shakespeare, given that most people would get more pleasure out of romance novels than Shakespeare. John Stuart Mill, following after Bentham, did have a problem with this and weakened this with an absurd idea of “higher and lower pleasures”, and that Shakespeare is therefore better than Fabio. This made utilitarian logic a lot messier, but avoided Bentham’s repugnant conclusion.


The only people I’ve ever known to actually be able to follow unintuitive ethical conclusions in their daily life have been the effective altruists, who do reason themselves into veganism and insane amounts of charitable giving. But even they can get swayed from their carefully reasoned positions by proper incentives. Witness SBF’s corruption of the effective altruist establishment via his boatloads of money, which the effective altruists had no problem accepting and using regardless of its provenance or its intended destination. I’ve written about this before.