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Eleanor Price (producer): I’m Eleanor Price.

Christiane Wisehart (producer): I’m Christiane Wisehart.

Eleanor Price: And this is Examining Ethics, brought to you by the Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University.

[begin music]

Christiane Wisehart: On today’s show, we’re stepping a little outside of what we normally cover. Instead of talking about ethics, we’re going to talk about the field of ethics, and the culture of the philosophers who study ethics. Specifically, we’ll be talking about the parts of the moral philosophy world that confuse us and maybe you, our listeners.

Eleanor Price: First we hear some on-the-street reporting from our old friend and independent producer Sandra Bertin. Then, we’ll talk to our own resident ethics expert Andy Cullison, and another ethicist, Emily McWilliams. They answer some of our most pressing questions about the world and culture of moral philosophy.

Christiane Wisehart: Why are you so rude at dinner parties? [laughter]

Andy Cullison: Just clarifying, this is for all of ethicists? [laugher]

Eleanor Price: Stay tuned for all of this on today’s episode of Examining Ethics!

[end music]

Eleanor Price: So Christiane, not sure if you were aware, but we work at the Prindle Institute for Ethics.

Christiane Wisehart: We do, don’t we? We also make this here podcast, which is about ethics.

Eleanor Price: That it is. Our job means that we interact with a lot of moral philosophers and ethicists.

Christiane Wisehart: We do. And because neither of us studied philosophy or ethics, sometimes the world of moral philosophy─as lovable as it is─can be a bit…alien to us. So this episode is a great big dive into the culture and quirks of the moral philosophy universe. In our first segment, independent producer Sandra Bertin did a little investigating for us. She roamed the streets of New York City, trying to figure out what we’ve always wondered─if anyone understands moral philosophy jargon besides moral philosophers.

[begin music]

{Sandra Bertin, “Jargon Quiz Show”}

Sandra Bertin: This is Sandra Bertin and I am on Wall Street right now. It’s a bustling Tuesday afternoon and I’m about to ask people at random if they know moral philosophy jargon. So let’s see if anyone will talk to me. Okay the first one is moral relativism. What does it mean?

Person 1: It’s like..Everything isn’t… wait, is it? Everything isn’t good or bad it’s all like on a gradation or is it everything is good and bad and it’s all comparative. Ahhhh! [buzzer sound]

Person 2: People thinking their ─ that their culture is more relat─ Is more relative than someone else’s culture. [buzzer]

Person 3: I have no idea.

Sandra Bertin: Want to guess?

Person 3: No. [buzzer]

Person 4: Transparency? [buzzer]

Person 5: Moral relativism is the idea that all morals are relative to you and your experiences. [ding sound]

Sandra Bertin: Nailed it. Good job. OK. Next one: nonmaleficence.

Person 6: Is it like not being like centered in oneself? [buzzer]

Person 7: Does it have to do with your…

Person 8: I feel like it has to do with perception and performing..

Person 7: ─ perception yeah ─

Person 8: But I’m not sure. [buzzer]

Person 9: Not sure but it reminds me of the evil witch in Sleeping Beauty. [buzzer]

Person 10: I’m assuming maleficence is something bad and it’s not doing something bad. [ding]

Sandra Bertin: Yes! Not hurting others, exactly. Good job. What about─ [laughs]

Person 10: My friend’s giving me the thumbs up.

Sandra Bertin: [laughs] Okay, next one. The naturalistic fallacy.

Person 10:  Naturalistic fallacy. So a fallacy is like a flaw in someone’s argument and I’m assuming that I don’t really know what it means by naturalistic I’m assuming it has to do with. Like. Just the way something is like a state of being. Ahh, I don’t know.

Person 9: Oh God. I mean fallacy. Well probably derives from the word phallic which as we all know is penis-like. [buzzer]

Person 12: It’s the fallacy of using the natural qualities of something as being like a benefit or making the argument more truthful.

Sandra Bertin: Yes, you’re so close! It’s when you assume two things that are usually conflated together are actually equal but they’re not. So like assuming something… defining something as good, as pleasurable is actually incorrect. As they’re not equal because it just so happens that a lot of good things are pleasurable. Does that makes sense?

Person 12: Yeah it does! That’s interesting.

Sandra Bertin: Alright, cool! Great job, guys!

Person 13: These guys aren’t regular people!

Sandra Bertin: Who are these people?

Person 12: We spend a lot of time talking about moral relativism specifically.

Person 13: I’ll be the regular person. I don’t know any of these. [laughs]

Sandra Bertin: And then the last one: contractarian ethics.

Person 13: Never. Tap out. [laughs] I’m just a freshman! [buzzer]

Person 12: So when you’re in an agreement and then you do you are contracting to act in a certain ethical manner. [buzzer]

Person 14: I feel like it’s like fine print in contracts. [buzzer]

Person 15: So ethics designed by a person or a group and then people agree to follow the contract. [ding]

Sandra Bertin: Yes! It can also be used as like a hypothetical thing. So like we can pretend that we’ve all entered a contract together and we treat each other as if we have.

Person 15: Oh, okay.

Sandra Bertin: You got it you got it, really good job! Thank you so much for stopping!

{end Sandra Bertin, “Jargon Quiz Show”}

[end music]

Christiane Wisehart: So I just want to say for the record, I would have answered exactly zero of those correctly.

Eleanor Price: [laughs] Honestly, I have a lot of questions about the naturalistic fallacy still─

Christiane Wisehart: Right, what is going on with that [laughs]─

Eleanor Price: But it isn’t just the jargon that can be confusing to outsiders, or us, or anybody. Even after you’ve gotten to know a philosopher or two, there can still be parts of the moral philosophy culture that just don’t make a lot of sense.

Christiane Wisehart: Yeah so, I decided to sit down with two of my favorite ethicists, Emily McWilliams and Andy Cullison, and get to the bottom of some questions I’ve always had about philosophy culture.

Christiane Wisehart: All right first question: Why do you use Latinate language? For example: Prima facie, a priori, etcetera…

Andy Cullison: Who does that? [laughter]

Emily McWilliams: I think I do it in papers because I’m lazy and don’t want to have to think of another way to say the same thing. But I try not to do it in class because it does feel like it obscures understanding and then─you then have to pause and explain what the language means and then go back to explaining the point you were originally making. And that makes it less likely that people understand the original point that you were making. But I do do it in papers.

Andy Cullison: I can’t help but think the prima facie might have been directed at me. [laughs]

Christiane Wisehart: I don’t know…maybe?

Andy Cullison: I think a lot of these Latinate kinds of phrases that philosophers use are just kind of hangovers from some time way back when somebody well-known built it into their view and so whenever you discuss their view you’re sort of stuck using the Latinate phrases they use. And then it just becomes a really bad habit. You use it to write about it you start talking about it and then it just becomes kind of habitual. I’m with Emily on trying not to use them. I think it’s actually bad to be using them.

Christiane Wisehart: Why are you so rude at dinner parties? [laughter]

Andy Cullison: Just clarifying, this is for all of ethicists, generally? [laughter] Not…not us in particular…

Christiane Wisehart: Well no yeah, not not─ neither of you are guilty of this behavior. But because I work at the Prindle Institute for Ethics, you know, I─I’m around ethicists and philosophers a lot. And I’ve been at so many dinners where I will be in what I believe is deep in conversation with someone who will then as soon as another philosopher comes to the table, stop the conversation full stop and just start talking to the other philosopher in such a way that they physically sort of turn themselves away from me and our conversation, and to a new conversation. And this has happened enough times that I think it might be, if not all philosophers, at least a problem in this community.

Andy Cullison: That’s a good question.

Emily McWilliams: It’s fair.

Andy Cullison: I’d be curious to know if it happens with philosophers, in terms of where they are in their career. So let me just give you an example. One of the things I noticed when I left grad school is I suddenly had no one to talk to. Cause you go to grad school and you pick a grad school based on an area of interest. So Rochester, it was epistemology. So you were surrounded by like 15 people who were all like interested in what you’re interested in. And then the weird thing is when you get hired away and you’re an early career philosopher outside of it, you get hired as an epistemologist because they don’t have anybody who does epistemology. So suddenly you go from this environment where on any given day you can walk into the grad student lounge and there’s like five people to talk to… to like never having anyone like that. And then you go to a thing like where suddenly you’ve got like four people who are like at your stage, your career, they’re doing all this stuff. It’s like you’re in grad school again. I’d be curious to know if it’s more common when philosophers are in that early career stage just out of grad school. I’d be curious to know if like grad student philosophers would be as bad at this.

Emily McWilliams: I would think grad students would be just as bad but for different reasons, because they’re self-conscious and want to prove that they have something philosophically interesting to say. I would think they would be just as bad. It seems like it’s just a… like a failure to make relevant distinctions which is ironic, but the case you described sounds like a failure to understand what the function of a dinner party is. I can see the reason that you might fail to make that distinction because, well I finished grad school in the spring of 2016. And so I am re-learning how to engage with other philosophers when there aren’t people who are formally responsible for taking care of me. A lot of it comes from going to conferences and talking to other people about the papers that I’m presenting there. And there, when you have the social functions, I think it’s part of the function of those events that you’re using them to talk to other philosophers about your work. And so philosophers might be trained to think that whenever you see or at least young philosophers might be trained to think that whenever you see another philosopher at dinner this is your time to engage them about your work. But I think that’s just a failure to make the distinction between different contexts and that we should quit it. That sounds terrible. (laughter) Sorry that happened to you ─ multiple times, no less.

Andy Cullison: There’s something peculiar about doing philosophy as an occupation, it is this weird sort of thing that you do it because you absolutely love it and it’s very much like a part of your life. And like who you are and it’s not like you’re making widgets or something where it’s like I have a work life and I have a personal life. And so at a dinner party they don’t think of talking philosophy the way a business person would think of it as like talking shop. And so it just doesn’t seem─ like like this is just what I do. This is. I talk philosophy with people and anybody who wants to talk to me, and so they just─ I think that might also be part of it, is we we haven’t we haven’t learned that that’s basically talking shop and when you’re around people who have different occupations there’s this kind of social norm of like talking about things other than whatever your work happens to be.

Emily McWilliams: I always hated in grad school when I would bring a non philosopher friend around to interact with my philosophy friends and people wouldn’t be able to stop talking shop and leaving them out. I always resented that.

Christiane Wisehart: Okay, so, to me, a classic philosopher/ethicist thing to do is to use like really out-there examples in your arguments. And the most famous one for ethicists is something called the “trolley case.” So the first thing I want you to do is explain what the trolley case is, and then I want to know like why ethicists use examples like this.

Andy Cullison: The most basic trolley case. A trolley is going down a track. It’s headed toward five people who are tied to the track. They can’t get away. You’re too far away to save them but you have the option of flipping a switch to divert the trolley to another track. But you realize when faced with this decision that there’s a single person tied to that track. And so you’re faced with this decision, this dilemma: do I do I just let the trolley go down and kill these five people or do I actively flip the switch and make it kill one to save the five? And so that’s the ─ that’s the first part of it. And most people have the intuition that you should flip the switch and kill the one to save the five. But when you say that then it introduces these other kinds of puzzles and it’s used to sort of generate a kind of puzzle in your moral intuitions. So here’s one way in which it’s used. OKay so you say you should flip the switch. What if you had the opportunity of painlessly killing someone without warning and harvesting their organs to save five people. Right. It seems like you’re faced with the same kind of decision: kill one to save many. Yet most people have a strong visceral reaction against that. They think it’s morally atrocious to use someone in that way, harvest their organs. And now you have a genuine philosophical puzzle. Why is it okay to flip the switch in the first case which most people seem to think but not okay to kill the person and harvest their organs in the second case?

Christiane Wisehart: That example is… is weird. It’s a weird situation to think about. It’s hopefully unrealistic. What’s the purpose of an example that’s kind of out of this world or unrealistic? [laughs] What work does that do for ethicists?

Andy Cullison: The trolley case strikes me as one of the least weird of the examples we could go with. [laughs] One of the reasons to go with a case like that is when thinking about moral problems and trying to figure out what morality is like, it is kind of nice to get away from examples that you might relate to because there’s this thought that your judgment might be clouded, you might already have an opinion about examples that are more familiar. So like you don’t want to talk directly about things like abortion or drone strikes or things that people are really heated and passionate about. You want to just sort of say like okay like get away from anything that you might have encountered. What do you think morally about this case over here? And so trying to go with the case that people haven’t encountered, trying to go with a case where it doesn’t seem like they might have a stake in the outcome of the debate is I think helpful to try and really zero in on genuine intuitions about the nature of right and wrong. Take the example that I gave. If I had asked you: is it okay to kill someone and harvest their organs? You have this strong visceral reaction like oh my gosh that’s just horrible. Right. So if I tried to zero in on your intuitions about the nature of right and wrong by starting with that example you might think oh you can never really kill one to save many. But if I start with… what about this like weird case where like, people are just tied to tracks. It’s designed to highlight that there might be a conflict in your moral intuitions, that there’s there’s an inconsistency in your moral intuitions, that’s how yo─that’s how you generate the philosophical puzzle and say hey there’s something we really need to think about here because something’s got to give.

Emily McWilliams: I think with any case that you’re designing in order to try and get people to have a particular moral intuition in order to make some larger point about morality you want to isolate one particular factor that that intuition is responding to. And so if you go with a real world case like the harvesting one to save the five and the evil doctor example there might be a number of things that you’re reacting to and this is related to what Andy said. So you know it might be that we naturally think of that as murder and murder is this morally-laden term but in the trolley case, you’re trying to see whether it’s the fact that you’re causing this one person to die that is what’s driving the intuition. And so you’re able to cook up this kind of abstract unrealistic case in order to isolate that one factor and sometimes that can be a useful thing to do because we don’t merely want to know what intuition people have but we also want to know what that intuition is responding to or what’s driving it. And usually use that to make some larger point.

Christiane Wisehart: Okay, so next question. Why are there so many men in philosophy?

Andy Cullison: Yeah. You know there’s a really good I mean that’s a really good sociological question. A lot of the standard answers that I would think of don’t actually fit. Life as a philosophy professor is much easier if you’re not the one responsible for child rearing for example. And so if you take sort of traditional patriarchal structures that put that burden more on women. That was my first thought but that doesn’t explain it because if that were true then other fields would be just as male dominated. Right so there’s something peculiar about philosophy and it can’t just be explained by sort of traditional reasons why a field might be male dominated I can hazard some guesses. One reason might be that if you look at the history of philosophy there’s this pretty awful misogynistic tradition of, you know, male philosophers very openly being like that philosophy is just not something that women can do. There’s like a long tradition in the history particularly of Western European philosophy of that kind of attitude. So you very early on get a field that only men are doing right. At least, women are doing it too but only the men’s work is getting talked about right. So, there ─So it’s men’s work that gets to be part of the canon so to speak. That could have something to do with it. But I mean it… that can’t be it either because that that was true of say like English, like that the first secondary discussions of English literature I’m sure those were probably pretty male dominated.

Emily McWilliams: It seems like it’s not just the canon but it’s the idea of what it takes to be a philosopher or what you need to be a philosopher. I mean I think that the reason some of the, those philosophers throughout history have thought that women couldn’t be philosophers is because they thought women lacked the rational capacities to do philosophy, so lacked the capacities that are partly constitutive of what it means to do philosophy. I, as a young grad student, had male colleagues, other grad students, not faculty, but other grad students say these things to me pretty explicitly. (Christiane Wisehart: What??) Yeah. I once had a friend of mine and he was further along in grad school than me say that, tell me that before he met me he never thought that he could be friends in the genuine sort of full blown sense with a woman because he never thought that women could be as rational as men could. And he wanted a genuine philosophical friendship so that I was the first example of a woman who was fully rational in the sense that men are.

Christiane Wisehart: Oh my god. (Andy Cullison: Wow) I’m sorry that sucks.

Emily McWilliams: I mean it does. It does suck. And if I, if I experienced that I can’t imagine what people one or two generations before me experienced. I think it must have been much worse and much more explicit.

Andy Cullison: And if someone is willing to just openly say that and not realize that there’s something problematic. I mean imagine how many people are probably thinking that but (Emily McWilliams: right.) just not saying it.

Emily McWilliams: Right. Or if not endorsing the thought, that it’s operative on them in some way.

Andy Cullison: Or that it’s an implicit bias or some kind. Right. So maybe that maybe that maybe there’s some significant implicit bias and explicit bias that makes people (Emily McWilliams: right.) you know tend to not hire, tend to not focus on you know working with students.

Emily McWilliams: Yeah I think there’s been I mean there’s been a lot of sort of more recent empirical work aimed at figuring out what it is that keeps women out of philosophy and I think we just don’t, because we’re pretty early on in committing serious resources to doing that empirical work. We just don’t have real answers yet. But luckily there’s more resources being devoted to figuring it out.

Christiane Wisehart: I saved my hardest question for last.

Emily McWilliams: Oh good.

Christiane Wisehart: And this is specific to ethics, which is why aren’t ethicists any more moral than anyone else? (laughter)

Emily McWilliams: That’s a great question. That’s an excellent question. There was I remember seeing on a blog about a decade ago, a philosophy blog that it had been shown empirically that more ethics books went missing from the library than other general philosophy books. (laughter) It’s an example, I don’t have an explanation.

Andy Cullison: People often talk about you know the Prindle Institute, what are you up to? And I say well we’re in the business of ethics education, dialogue, and research. And they’re like, “So can you like─ do you really think you can make somebody be moral, is that what you’re doing, you’re teaching people to be good people?” And I say well I─ you know the thing is that ethics education is only a piece of that. I can’t I can’t make someone be moral. They have to care about being good. And so if they care about doing good, I can help them get better at reasoning through and trying to figure out what the good thing to do would be. And so now apply that to ethicists. What ethicists are trained to do is, they’re trained to reason through these problems in a really sophisticated, clear, and precise way, at least most of them are. And, but… but that alone wouldn’t guarantee that an ethicist is going to do the right thing if deep down the ethicist has you know not a strong desire to do good, studying ethics doesn’t necessarily give you one important piece to doing doing the good thing.

Emily McWilliams: Yeah. Yeah. Here’s here’s a possible hypothesis. I don’t even– I don’t even know if it’s a hypothesis but here’s one thing you might think, which is that people choose to study a subfield because it’s sort of mysterious to them or because they don’t understand it intuitively. So for the same reason that someone who finds ethics mysterious might choose to study it, someone who’s bad at practical reasoning might work on practical reasoning within philosophy. And so the advantage that that might give you is that you’re able to study it from you know a more quote unquote objective perspective as an anthropologist would or from the outside. And you might think that, well, at least there’s an argument to be made that that might make you better at─ better at doing the philosophy itself, better at figuring out what it is that morality consists in if it’s not intuitive to you from the get go. I’m not sure whether there’s any empirical research to back that up but it’s one thing that might explain it.

Andy Cullison: There’s another hypothesis that I’ve heard people throw around when it comes to ethicists, which is ethicists, because they study ethics and because they pay attention to all the morally relevant features, are going to be really really good at rationalizing their behavior, because they will always be able to zero in on something and if they latch on to it, and you know sort of self-deceive themselves into thinking that in this case that’s the weightiest consideration, they could end up justifying a lot of behavior.

Emily McWilliams: Yeah we have the skills to be really good motivated reasoners and we have the same motivations as everyone else and that’s a fatal combination. [laughter]

Christiane Wisehart: Do you guys have any rude questions for me since I’ve been so mean and rude to you guys?

Andy Cullison: Why do you hate philosophers so much. (laughter)

Christiane Wisehart: Putting you on the spot.

[begin music]

Eleanor Price: Honestly, I found that conversation super illuminating!

Christiane Wisehart: Yeah, it was really helpful for me to hear some of those answers and I think it gave me a lot more empathy for all those moral philosophy weirdos. [laughter]

Eleanor Price: [laughter] They need that. Listeners, do YOU have any questions about the world of ethics or moral philosophy that you’ve always wanted answers to? If you do, we might actually do another round of these kinds of questions for an upcoming episode.

Christiane Wisehart: If you have questions, just shoot us an email at and let us know!

Eleanor Price: Also, if you’re a high school student who is really into ethics, or you know a high school student who is really into ethics, we wanted to let you know that the Prindle Institute is now offering ethics scholarships here at DePauw University.

Christiane Wisehart: Yeah, super exciting. So if you want to know more information about our scholarships, just, again shoot us email us at You can also find links to information about those ethics scholarships on our webpage, that’s Please be sure to rate us on Apple podcasts─it helps us get new listeners, it’s still the best way to get our show out there.

Eleanor Price: And we love hearing what you have to say! (Christiane Wisehart: We do.) We’ll have links to all of the topics we mentioned in our show notes page for this episode at

Christiane Wisehart: For updates about the podcast, interesting links and more follow us on Twitter: @examiningethics. We’re also on Instagram: @examiningethicspodcast and Facebook.

Eleanor Price: The views expressed here are the opinions of the individual speakers alone. They do not represent the position of DePauw University or the Prindle Institute for Ethics.

Christiane Wisehart: Examining Ethics is hosted by the Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University. Eleanor Price and Christiane Wisehart produced the show, with editorial assistance from Sandra Bertin. Sandra Bertin also conceived, wrote and produced our first segment. Special thanks to our guest Emily McWilliams. Our logo was created by Evie Brosius. Our music is by Blue Dot Sessions and Podington Bear and can be found online at freemusicarchive.ORG. Examining Ethics is made possible by the generous support of DePauw Alumni, friends of the Prindle Institute, and you the listeners. Thank you for your support.

Easter egg:

Christiane Wisehart: Okay, why are there so many beards in philosophy and ethics? (laughter)

Emily McWilliams: I don’t have one so I can’t answer this question.

Andy Cullison: It’s Plato’s fault. [laughter]