10 July, 2008


A friend sends me a link to an article in the Scientific American, entitled 'An Unethical Ethicist?' I try to read through the intricate morality tale, but all I can think about is the word, ethicist. Why does it stick in my craw?


The word's suffix groups it with physicist, geneticist, classicist, historicist, lyricist, publicist—the OED lists 133 in total, but the others are either compounds or much more obscure. This group, however, is illusory: or rather, it consists of two meaningful groups—those words that derive from nouns and adjectives in –ic, and those that derive from nouns in –ics. Thus: lyric, public, historic, on one side, and physics, genetics, classics, and ethics on the other. Here it will be worth quoting the OED at length, on –ic and –ics:
In English, such words of this class as were in use before 1500 had the singular form, and were usually written, after French, –ique, –ike, as arsmetike, magike, musike, logike (–ique), retorique, mathematique (–ike, –ik), mechanique, economique, ethyque (–ik); this form is retained in arithmetic, logic, magic, music, rhetoric (though logics has also been used). But, from the 15th c., forms in –ics (–iques) occur as names of treatises; and in the second half of the 16th c. this form is found applied to the subject-matter of such treatises, in mathematics, economics, etc. From 1600 onward, this has been the accepted form with names of sciences, as acoustics, conics, dynamics, ethics, linguistics, metaphysics, optics, statics, or matters of practice, as æsthetics, athletics, economics, georgics, gymnastics, politics, tactics.
The formation of agent-nouns in –ic is predictable: arithmetic, logic, magic, music and rhetoric all have agents in –ician (although we also have rhetor, straight from the Greek). But –ics is unpredictable. Mathematics has –ician. Economics has not economicist but economist. Linguistics, likewise, has linguist, although curiously, the OED offers linguistician ('One who is versed in linguistics') as opposed to linguist ('One who is skilled in the use of languages', 'A student of language; a philologist', but not a student of linguistics). Athletics has athlete, and gymnastics gymnast. Georgics, of course, has nothing.

But hold on a moment; let's look at these groupings. Are we really to say that 'æsthetics, athletics, economics, georgics, gymnastics, politics, tactics' go together as 'matters of practice', as opposed to 'sciences'? Surely aesthetics and politics sit neatly next to ethics, just as economics fits next to linguistics. The streamlining of categories is beginning to look like a mess.

Still worse when we examine types of agents themselves. The politician is the man who practices politics, while the politicist—there are citations old and new in the OED—is the man who studies it. But the aesthetician, like the aestheticist, is the man who studies aesthetics; the practicer is the aesthete, which in turn goes formally with athlete. Metaphysics has been studied both by metaphysicians and, less recently, by metaphysicists. The criteria for –icist as against –ician appears bound neither to form nor to function. Rules collapse.


Before I began thinking about this in detail, ethicist stuck in my craw because its suffix seemed to give it a legitimacy as a technical discipline, like physicist and geneticist. But the whole point about ethics, to me, is that it is utterly lacking such an apparatus, despite the efforts of generations. To say 'I'm a physicist' is to identify not just your profession, but your body of knowledge—your scientia. But to say 'I'm an ethicist' is to identify only a profession: your body of knowledge can be no different to that of another. The very notion of an ethicist seemed, and I think still seems, incoherent to me: at best he could be reduced to a policy-maker, a jurist, a counsellor, or a bloviator. Hence the Wiki list of ethicists is really just a list of thinkers, or even more blandly, of people.

If we consult the OED on ethicist, we are in for a surprise. The first thing it says is '= ETHICIAN'. Indeed, ethician is attested earlier, from 1889, whereas ethicist appears only in 1891. French, by way of comparison, seems more comfortable with éthicien than with éthiciste, although the Trésor lists neither. Ethician seemed to fit better with aesthetician and metaphysician. We all have our ethics, our aesthetics and our metaphysics; none has validity as an objective scientia. And so one wants the morphology to reflect the conceptual agreement: one wants a stricter distinction between –icist and –ician.

But, damn it, there are mathematicians, physicians, technicians and all the rest. Language betrays me. It always does.


John Cowan said...

See this Linguist List posting on linguistician.

I don't see any problem with calling a philosopher whose field is ethics an ethicist, though I agree the word is over-applied. Whether philosophy of any sort is a scientia is a question I tiptoe around.

Anonymous said...

I went to an Ethicist's Convention once. I kept one hand on my wallet the whole time.


Raminagrobis said...

Ethics? Isn't that a place not far from Thuthics?

John Emerson said...

Ethicists make a distinction between primary ethics and secondary ethics, and they specialize in secondary ethics. Primary ethics is the actual practice of ethics, and everyone can and must be a primary ethicist, ethician, ethist, or ethete. Philosophical ethicists study the science or theory of ethics (secondary ethics) and are justthe same as anyone else regarding primary ethics. Since specialists in secondary ethics are normally called ethicists, primary ethicists should be called something else -- I would say ethetes, like athletes and aesthetes.

Ethicists distinguish between act utilitariansism, rule utilitarianism, act consequentialism, rule consequentialism, many kinds of emotivism, many kinds of deonticism, and many kinds of virtue ethics. Their discussions consist of arguments as to which of these meta-ethics is superior. No actual ethical problems are harmed in ethicists' discussions; they exclusively discuss questions of the "Algernon eating Aunt Agugusta's cucumber sandwiches" type.

Someone like Gandhi or Martin Luther King would be a champion ethete. Someone like the Marquis de Sade might well be a major ethicist. Ethetics (applied ethics) is not taught in schools, but only ethics, and Sade would flunk MLK's or Gandhi's sorry ass in the snap of a finger. He'd be right, too, because ethetes don't know diddly about scientific ethics.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Ah, now we're getting somewhere! I'm not sure which I found worse during my undergraduate degree, (primary) ethics or (secondary) metaethics. The case for ethete vs. ethicist has some merit, but it still seems as though you're hedging between first-order ethics and being ethical--which is actually the classic fudge in the Gorgias. MLK and Gandhi might be supremely ethical people without being able to debate the ethics of racism, for instance, let alone the meta-ethics of utilitarianism. So it seems like we want three terms, not two.

John Emerson said...

We still have ethician and ethist. I'd say that someone who actually behaves ethically would be an ethist, leaving "ethician" for a kind of therapist who re-ethicizes people.