An axiom of intellectual traditions east and west is that scrutinizing yourself and humanity in general makes you a better person. That is, nicer, happier, wiser. As Socrates put it 2,400 years ago, “examining myself and others is the greatest good.”
This assumption, which I’ll call the Socratic principle, underpins a wide range of ideologies, from Buddhism, Confucianism and stoicism to psychoanalysis, cognitive behaviorism and evolutionary psychology. It is also the rationale for psychotherapy, meditation and humanities courses.
Self-examination leads to self-knowledge, which makes you more ethical and therefore happier, because being good means being happy, according to Socrates. Deep, sustained inquiry might even help you reach the state of supreme wisdom known as enlightenment.
If the Socratic principle is true, experts on the mind-body problem—which encompasses mind, morality, meaning and other aspects of the human condition--should be especially virtuous and serene, because their knowledge is especially deep. Right?
But scientists and humanities scholars I’ve interviewed for a book on the mind-body problem doubt that claim, at least as it applies to themselves and others in their fields. Take David Chalmers, a philosopher of consciousness to whom I spoke last year.
“I’m not sure how deep an integration there is between what I think about philosophically and the way I live,” Chalmers said. “I’d love to be able to say, ‘Here is how the insights I’ve had about consciousness have transformed my life.’… I’ve basically lived my life the way I want to live it without necessarily being all that reflective at the practical level.”
This disconnect between the professional and the personal, Chalmers suggested, is typical of philosophers, even those who focus on moral issues. He referred me to research by philosophers Eric Schwitzgebel and Joshua Rust showing that ethical philosophers aren’t particularly ethical.
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. Brooding over these findings in a recent essay, Schwitzgebel seems disappointed in himself and his colleagues. Socrates and other ancient sages, he notes, believed that “the main purpose of studying ethics was self-improvement” and that “philosophers were to be judged by their actions as much as by their words.”
In contrast, 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.
The major weakness of the Schwitzgebel-Rust research is that it compares ethicists to other academics. I’d like to see comparisons of specialists in the human condition with lay folk like mechanics, firemen, engineers, bankers, ballet dancers, basketball players, orthopedic surgeons and journalists.
Just as we should ask whether economists are wealthier than average and physicians healthier, so we should investigate whether mind-body experts—including scientists, mental-health workers and humanities scholars—are happier and nicer.
Such studies might reveal that mind-body experts aren’t especially good at managing their own minds and behavior. They might even be worse, because they were more troubled to begin with. That is a common explanation for the popular belief that psychologists and psychiatrists are “more screwed up than the rest of us,” as Psychology Today once put it. (Considering the implications of this claim, it should be investigated more thoroughly.)
As I mentioned above, Chalmers and other experts on the mind-body problem I’ve spoken to lately seem skeptical of the Socratic principle. Here are a few other responses:
DEIRDRE MCCLOSKEY, ECONOMIST
Deirdre McCloskey is a professor of economics, history and philosophy who describes herself as “a literary, quantitative, postmodern, free-market, progressive-Episcopalian, Midwestern woman from Boston who was once a man.”
I asked her if a life of intellectual investigation makes you more virtuous, as the ancient Greeks believed. “I just don't think there is much evidence for it,” she replied. “I’ve known ignorant people who were saints. I have known learned people who were devils.”
She noted that a “startlingly high percentage” of the officers in the SS, one of the most fearsome instruments of Nazi power, had advanced degrees in the humanities. The film Schindler’s List dramatizes this irony, McCloskey added. In one scene, a German officer arresting Jews in their home sits down at their piano and plays a “marvelous piece of Mozart.”
OWEN FLANAGAN, PHILOSOPHER
Owen Flanagan is a philosopher who specializes in mind, morality and meaning. I asked him if philosophers or other professional truth-seekers are happier or more virtuous than other people.
Flanagan started shaking his head before I completed the question. “Absolutely not,” he said. “Academics—philosophers, let’s just say--are more ill-formed than your average person. I mean, we make jokes about the high autistic potential of academics.”
Flanagan chuckled. “How do you tell the difference between philosophers and mathematicians? The philosopher is the one who looks at your shoes when he’s speaking to you.” When I looked puzzled, Flanagan explained that mathematicians look at their own shoes while speaking to you.
Flanagan (who has superb social skills) has written admiringly about Buddhism and other Eastern traditions. I asked if he believes in enlightenment, a state of supreme bliss and moral perfection. “No,” he said, as if I’d asked if he believes in Bigfoot.
CHRISTOF KOCH, NEUROSCIENTIST
Christof Koch is a neuroscientist who heads the Allen Brain Institute and is an authority on consciousness (see our Q&A). Knowing how the brain and mind work, he said, doesn’t necessarily give you more self-control. “You have more abstract self-knowledge,” he explained. “It's necessary but not sufficient” for self-management. “You have to internalize the knowledge. How does it apply to me?”
Being more knowledgeable often means you are better at self-deception. “You have these different urges, and you have difficulty controlling them, and you rationalize this somehow, because you are very smart.”
Koch said life—rather than scientific knowledge--has made him a better, happier person. Difficult experiences help you “understand your strengths and weaknesses.” But he acknowledged that he had always been pretty happy, even when his marriage broke up. “I never once went through a depression,” he said.
I doubt these experts are being modest about the personal benefits of expertise. Their skepticism seems sincere, and it seems borne out by familiar stories about Freud’s mendacity, James’s anxiety, Jung’s psychosis, Wittgenstein’s weirdness, Heidegger’s fascism.
But we shouldn’t reject the Socratic principle based on mere opinion and anecdotes. We need rigorous studies of the effects of expertise in the human condition. Here is what I predict such studies will show:
Prolonged investigation of mind, morality and the meaning of life can have positive and negative effects on certain individuals. It helps some experts become kinder and more content, while it makes others more anxious or arrogant.
But in most cases expertise does not significantly alter temperament. If you were a miserable jerk at 20, you will still be one at 40 or 60, in spite of your training in philosophy, psychoanalysis or neuroscience. If you are blessed with a sanguine temperament, like Christof Koch, delving into the human condition won’t harsh your mellow.
If empirical tests falsify the Socratic principle, should humanities professors like me stop telling students that “the unexamined life is not worth living”? Let me pose that question more broadly: if delving deeply into the human condition cannot make us better people, or yield definitive answers, why bother?