Are philosophers immune from ethics?

- Frank J. Leavitt, Ph.D.

The Jakobovits Centre of Jewish Medical Ethics, Faculty of Health Sciences, Ben Gurion University of the Negev
Beer Sheva, ISRAEL (Home Tel/FAX: +972-2-9963048)

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 6 (1996), 29-30.

It's amazing how willing philosophers are to discuss ethical theory and other people's ethics, and how reticent they are about discussing their own ethics. A recent article in an American popular journal (1) illustrates - if it is true - the poverty which philosophy has come to. It's about a scandal over the work of Saul Kripke who is thought of in America as being a very great philosopher. Kripke has a doctrine in the philosophy of language which might be explained too briefly and superficially as saying that the use of a proper name to designate an object is unconnected to most of the descriptions we usually associate with the person or object designated. Stated with reference to the world ("de re") rather than with reference to language ("de dicto") this means that although some qualities are essentially connected with us, most are not. So even if we lived in some other possible world we would be the same people we are now. Stated with respect to bioethics, "peri bion" about life, this means that you would be the same person you are even if your life had been very, very different. It follows that who you are has little to do with what you do. For it seems to follow from Kripke's philosophy that if you hadn't wronged some neighbor in the past but had helped him you would nonetheless be the same person you are. This doctrine could be used to help avoiding ethical responsibility. We are responsible for our actions because our actions go to make us who we are. The Rabbis said in the Treatise of the Fathers, that at some point we are going to have to give an accounting for every tiny detail of our deeds. But this is deep foundational bioethics which I'll have to try to clarify elsewhere.

The scandal is about whether Kripke's philosophy of language is original or whether he cribbed it, perhaps unintentionally, from another American philosopher named Ruth Barcan Marcus. At a recent meeting of the American Philosophical Association, Quentin Smith delivered a paper (2) arguing that Kripke got his ideas from a 1962 lecture by (then Miss) Ruth Barcan. Smith's paper and the ensuing debate have not yet arrived in our library. But it is not my intent to discuss the actual details of the debate but rather some ethical issues which arise from Jim Holt's account.

I don't think anyone will seriously accuse Kripke of intentional plagiarism. And unintentional plagiarism is sometimes difficult to avoid. I once published an article on Aristotle in a Hebrew journal, and only discovered much later that some of the ideas were published earlier by Brody (3). I really don't know whether I got the ideas from Brody, perhaps through a third party, or whether I thought them up myself independently. Or maybe both of us learned from a third party, and forgot. Perhaps I should have done a literature search before writing the paper, but I wrote it at a time when I had no money to travel to libraries. In any case I apologize publicly to Brody for my unintentional failure to cite him.

The most shocking thing about the Kripke affair is that, at least according to Holt's article, Kripke is very upset about Smith's accusations. Why should Kripke care? A philosopher is supposed to be a lover of wisdom, and a true lover of wisdom will seek truth disinterestedly, not caring who gets credit for discovering it. As my friend and teacher, John Hulley, once said to me: "I hope people plagiarize me. Then more people will get to know these important ideas." But philosophy has degenerated from the quest for truth to the quest for academic promotion, fame, lecture fees and book royalties. Holt quotes Robert Solomon as saying: "When people start fighting over who first got the ideas, the movement must be dead." (p. 39). I think philosophy is close to dying. Spinoza refused a professorship at the University of Heidelberg because it would, among other things, restrict his freedom of research (4). What philosopher today would turn down a lucrative, prestigious professorship to live simply and pursue truth? I hope bioethics will not go the way of philosophy and other academic disciplines, and that we shall pursue truth, ethics and the meaning of life, unselfishly and unpridefully. The big test will come when HUGO is over and all the money for "Ethical Legal and Social Implications" suddenly dries up. Will bioethicists continue to pursue the ethic of life, or will they fade away?

The second most shocking thing about the affair was a letter which Holt attributes to three distinguished philosophers, Elizabeth Anscombe, Donald Davidson and Thomas Nagel, who allegedly wrote: "A session at a national APA [American Philosophical Association] meeting is not the proper forum in which to level ethical accusations against a member of our profession, even if the charges were plausibly defended." The letter then allegedly "goes on to demand that the APA issue a public apology to Kripke" (p. 31). I say "allegedly" because I cannot believe that three such smart people wrote such nonsense. Every other profession, at least the biological and medical sciences, publicly discusses its own ethics, often with much soul-searching. The Duesberg affair, the French blood bank scandal, and the question of whether or not Gallo got his ideas about HIV from Montaigner, are freely discussed at conferences on retroviruses. Informed consent, the Tuskeegee trials and the like are freely discussed at medical conferences. I don't see what makes philosophers so holy they cannot discuss their own ethics. Indeed, I have been to APA meetings and judging from what I've seen, it would seem that between the ruthless job market and the partying it wouldn't hurt to find a little time for ethics.

Nagel once wrote an article called "The Absurd" in which he argued that life is meaningless. If nothing means anything anyway, why should he care if somebody criticized his friend?

I am reminded of a recent seminar I attended in a philosophy department. A guest lecturer from the United States discussed philosophical implications of an experiment in psychology. In order to do the experiment, the psychologist had to lie to his subjects. I asked the lecturer if the psychologist informed his subjects in advance that he was going to lie to them. She said "No".

Then I asked: "If not, was it an ethical experiment?"

She replied with disdain: "Perhaps we can discuss that later."

But she never did discuss it, nor did any of the other participants find it worth discussing the fact that we were sitting around drawing philosophical conclusions from an unethical experiment.

Of course some information can be got only by doing unethical experiments. In such cases we should live without the information. Science is not the most important thing in the world. Some people, especially Aristotle, seem to have thought that if knowledge is your main goal you will be virtuous. But this is wrong because there are vicious ways to pursue knowledge.

Actually Ruth Barcan-Marcus should be praised for not protesting publicly these twenty years that Kripke has been getting credit for ideas which at least prima facie look like hers. In refraining so long from getting into the dirt and provoking confrontation, she showed a quiet dignity and modesty which are of the essence of ethics.

I don't know either Kripke or Ruth Barcan-Marcus personally, but on the basis of Holt's article, it seems that she is closer than he to the "philosophical virtues" which Maimonides described in a passage, which like much of his philosophy, reminds one of East Asian thought. Most of the things people think are bad for them, are really good for them; and most of the things people think are good for them are really bad for them. And especially material success, fame, prestige, honour are temporary, illusory and nonsense (5).


Holt J. Whose idea is it anyway? a philosophers' feud. Lingua franca: a Review of Academic Life, January/February 1996: 29-39. (Page references in text to this article).To be published in the journal Synthese.
Brody BA. Towards an Aristotelian theory of scientific explanation. Philosophy of Science 39:20-31 (1972).
Letter: Spinoza to Fabritius, 30 March 1673. in Benedict de Spinoza, RHM Elwes, tr. 1993. Dover reprint 1955. Vol II. 374-375.
Moshe ben Maimon. On Asthma. S. Benveniste tr. S. Muntner ed. Jerusalem, Mossad Harav Kook, 1965. p. 88 (Hebrew).

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