Where (literature) would you recommend I start if I wanted to explore the intuition that the practice of philosophy makes/could (if proper) make philosophers better moral agents? Thanks.

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    Its easy to show that philosophy does not guarantee that philosophers are better moral agents, though your "could make" clause could be valid. Its too easy to show that one can use the knowledge to take advantage of other's attempts at morality. As for literature, if nobody else recommends specific works for you, you could always try SEP's definition of morality page (plato.stanford.edu/entries/morality-definition), and read the works cited in the bibliography
    – Cort Ammon
    Mar 2, 2016 at 4:00
  • If you have "All Knowledge" then free-will in the sense of being able to do wrong vanishes, so more and more understanding makes one "more moral" in the limit. But just before that point, the idea of right and wrong goes missing, so you never get there. Free Will and Determinism become non-sequiturs also. And as 1 COR 13 points out, if you have All Knowledge and understand all mysteries, and have All Faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not Love, you are nothing. (That's what he said at the beginning.) (Shhh! You'll ruin the story!)
    – user16869
    Mar 3, 2016 at 21:19

3 Answers 3


There are lots of different answers to this that have been offered:

  1. The idea that someone can be a better moral agent requires first there being a notion of being a better moral agent. Many philosophers have rejected that there is such a thing - that is, that moral behavior is merely a result of cultural or practical norms. "Being morally better" is only a name we put on behavior we happen to like.

  2. Some philosophers seem to claim that philosophy does make one a better moral agent. As Jo Wehler mentioned, Socrates/Plato agree with this: in addition to Symposion, it is also discussed in the Republic. Aristotle spoke in Nicomachean Ethics of the role philosophy plays in becoming more moral (along with habituation to a moral life). Marcus Aurelius in Meditations lists several people who he sees as having improved his moral behavior as a result of the lessons he's learned from them. Augustine also discusses in Confessions the role Cicero's work Hortensius played in his turning away from a sinful way of life. Many in antiquity would agree with the proposition.

  3. There are philosophers in the Christian tradition who point to Paul's letter to the Romans ("I hate what I do") to say either that (a) philosophy does not make you a better moral agent (this was held especially by certain early Christians like Tertulian, but other later, more devotional, works such as that of Louis de Montefort think philosophy merely a distraction), or (b) philosophy can help, but does not lead to perfect happiness (Aquinas is an example of a proponent of this).

In all, it seems the answer to this depends on first answering what qualifies someone as a better moral agent: is it through a life of quiet contemplation (Cicero), obedience to divine law (Tertulian), actions themselves (Aristotle), or merely a convenient name we put to someone acting in a way we like (nominalists)?

  • I have seen variations of your argument 1. quite a bit and it has resonated with me. I'm wondering, do you think there would be a benefit (or even "Has it already been done?") to transcribing a moral system historical guide? Where people could look up concepts like "Abortion" and see what dates / historical periods / etc. where it was morally acceptable all the way through to today? Because it's dead on. What YOU consider moral appears to be dependent upon your social circle. I grew up in Fundamentalist christianity... drinking was a sin. I now love a good Jagermeister... I have no guilt. Hmm. Mar 3, 2016 at 15:22
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    I try to keep my opinions out of answers, but I find approach (1) problematic generally ... there are cases where some things are merely a human convention (your example of drinking alcohol being a good one), but an approach like in (1) excuses human sacrifice, slavery, abuse of women and children, and many other things that were seen as socially acceptable in certain times and places. Mar 3, 2016 at 15:28
  • When you say "excuses" do you mean it makes light of it, or that it makes it acceptable? My thoughts weren't to morally accept, nor denounce, certain practices as moral or immoral, but rather to present individual stances / concepts and illustrate the common moral acceptance and denouncement of specific times. Mar 3, 2016 at 15:31

You might find this blog post by Eric Schwitzgebel interesting. He conducted a series of empirical studies to try and determine if professional ethicists behaved more morally than others. His conclusion:

Ethicists do not appear to behave better. Never once have we found ethicists as a whole behaving better than our comparison groups of other professors, by any of our main planned measures. But neither, overall, do they seem to behave worse. (There are some mixed results for secondary measures.) For the most part, ethicists behave no differently from professors of any other sort – logicians, chemists, historians, foreign-language instructors.

One of the things that I found most interesting was that the data showed that ethicists "embrace[d] more stringent moral norms on some issues, especially vegetarianism and charitable donation," but didn't actually behave any better with regard to those issues. In other words, ethicists were more likely to believe that eating meat was immoral, but just as likely to eat meat as everyone else.

He doesn't claim that the data explains why this is so, but his personal theory is this:

Genuine philosophical thinking critiques its prior strictures, including even the assumption that we ought to be morally good. It damages almost as often as it aids, is free, wild and unpredictable, always breaks its harness. It will take you somewhere, up, down, sideways – you can’t know in advance. But you are responsible for trying to go in the right direction with it, and also for your failure when you don’t get there.

I tend to agree with William James' take on the subject in The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life:

The ethical philosopher, therefore, whenever he ventures to say which course of action is the best, is on no essentially different level from the common man. "See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil; therefore choose life that thou and thy seed may live"--when this challenge comes to us, it is simply our total character and personal genius that are on trial; and if we invoke any so-called philosophy, our choice and use of that also are but revelations of our personal aptitude or incapacity for moral life. From this unsparing practical ordeal no professor's lectures and no array of books can save us. The solving word, for the learned and the unlearned man alike, lies in the last resort in the dumb willingnesses and unwillingnesses of their interior characters, and nowhere else. It is not in heaven, neither is it beyond the sea; but the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth and in thy ear, that thou mayest do it.

You may also be interested in John Dewey who had a theory of the value of ethics and philosophy in education. His book Moral Principles in Education is an important work. This essay on Deweyan Ethics describes some of his thought on the subject as follows:

Because all ethical systems are one, including school and “life,” the “central theme in Dewey’s ethics it is that the application of intelligence to moral problems is itself a moral obligation” (Putnam, 2006, p. 271, emphasis in original). Through the process of intellectual inquiry, individuals can empirically evaluate the given effectiveness of one action over another in terms of the “common good” that each particular action brings about. Individuals have an obligation to put moral ideas “to the test” not by blindly receiving knowledge and accepting it, but rather through examining whether or not certain decisions have definitively positive impacts on the community.

As the essay describes it, Dewey was someone who argued that intellectual inquiry could lead individuals to have a greater impact on the "common good."

  • This involves pretty bad experimental design, or just classism. The studies are already constrained to professors, presumably for convenience. Any effect that philosophy has on one's morality may be at a lower level than that. Lack of capacity for reflection is going to keep you from being a decent educator of any variety, much less a professor.
    – user9166
    Mar 2, 2016 at 18:52
  • But instilling a habit of reflection is something philosophy endeavors to do in the name of making one more ethical. Consider a very different social class: literature, acting and studying philosophy all seem to reduce criminal recidivism in those who never had the opportunity to study them before ("blue-collar" rather than "white-collar" criminals.)
    – user9166
    Mar 2, 2016 at 18:55
  • I noticed the fact that the participants were all professors, too, but came to a different conclusion. It was probably a way to control for other differences. Confining the study to people of similar socio-economic background means that factors other than the study of ethics would have less of a distorting effect on the results. That being said, I do take the results of the study with a grain of salt. It is interesting as a starting point for thinking about the question. Mar 2, 2016 at 20:24
  • "But instilling a habit of reflection is something philosophy endeavors to do in the name of making one more ethical." Philosophy doesn't endeavor to do any such thing. Some philosophers pursue it in order to become more ethical. Some pursue it for other reasons. Philosophy, however, has no motives of its own. Mar 2, 2016 at 20:35
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    No worries :) I did, in fact, misconstrue you, but unintentionally. I agree that a habit of reflection can improve moral agency. I am not sure that the study of philosophy produces better results in this area than other subjects that one might study. The benefits of philosophy in particular are what I thought (perhaps mistakenly) the OP's question was about. That is where my answer and my comments were directed, and I missed your point in the process. Mar 2, 2016 at 22:06

It was Socrates - as portrayed by Plato in his work Symposion - who claims that understanding what virtue is makes people virtuous. E.g., see Symposion 212a. But in the same work Alkibiades, who once was a pupil of Socreates, confesses that he himself was not able to act virtuously, despite having been taught by Socrates (216bf.)

Accordingly I recommend Plato's Symposion as an introductory text to the question whether philosophy makes men virtuous.

  • "Nothing succeeds like Success." In other words, Philosophy makes men virtuous if it succeeds in doing so, otherwise it does not. But is that the fault of Philosophy? Over to Religion... You can teach me all the weight-lifting in the world, but I will never be as strong as Arnold Schwarzenegger. If I am not capable of "really understanding", then I will not be really virtuous. I might be a parrot for example. (Repeating what I have been taught virtue is without realizing what it means.) Right behavior is not sufficient. Can we fully know the truth? Is an approximation good enough?
    – user16869
    Mar 3, 2016 at 21:30

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