Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Do Ethicists Steal More Books?

When I was young, my father and I used to joke about stealing Bibles, or breaking into a Christian store and making off with a load of crucifixes. The irony appealed to us, on the assumption that an important part of wanting a Bible or a crucifix is endorsing a set of values that includes the repudiation of theft. There's something likewise ironic, it seems, in stealing an ethics text (or should I say deliciously wicked?).

One might expect Bibles and books extolling the life of virtue to be relatively less stolen than similarly popular books with no moral message. On the other hand, given my sense that ethicists, on the whole, behave no better than the rest of us, maybe we shouldn't expect a difference. In casual conversation, I've sometimes heard it remarked that ethics books seem, indeed, more likely to be missing from libraries than books in other areas of philosophy -- which would comport nicely with the sense some people have of the particular viciousness of ethics professors. However, the impression that ethics books are more likely to be stolen might derive from their simply being more popular, or it might be a saliency effect -- perhaps we're more likely to be struck by and remember a theft of Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals than a theft of Kripke's Naming and Necessity.

Here at the University of California, we have access to a system called Melvyl, which gives circulation information on all the books in the University of California system. The main campus libraries at Berkeley, Irvine, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Diego, and Santa Cruz also give due date information, including for overdue books. So we can inquire: Are ethics books more or less likely to be overdue or missing from these UC campuses than other philosophy books?

I looked at the book reviews in Philosophical Review from 1994-2001. I included in my survey books that were clearly in ethics (excluding philosophy of action, political philosophy on proper governance [rather than private virtue], and other borderline cases). As a comparison class, I also looked at books that were clearly outside of ethics if the review started on a page number divisible by four. This gave me 76 ethics books and 67 non-ethics books. Almost all these texts were held by at least 5 of the 6 campuses; some texts had multiple copies at a single campus.

The ethics books were listed as off the shelf (checked out or missing) in 73 cases (between the 6 campuses) out of 452 held copies, for an off-shelf rate of 16.1%. Of these, 8 were overdue or missing (5 missing or lost; 1 more than 1 year overdue; 2 less than one year overdue), for a 1.8% deliquency rate per copy. 11.0% of the off-shelf books were delinquent.

The non-ethics books were listed as off the shelf in 66 cases out of 379 held copies, for an off-shelf rate of 17.4%. Of these, 7 were overdue or missing (actually, all 7 were simply missing, none overdue), for a 1.8% delinquency rate per copy. 10.6% of the off-shelf books were delinquent.

These numbers are too small to draw any definite conclusions, but they do seem to suggest that, among philosophical books prominent enough to be reviewed in Philosophical Review, ethics books are checked out and stolen at very nearly the same rate as non-ethics books -- neither more nor less.

The University of California has a pretty good system for tracking down overdue books. I wonder to what extent the low delinquency rates are due to good enforcement rather than the conscientiousness of the patrons. In this connection, it would be interesting to do a study of libraries that depend primarily on the honor of the patrons. The UCR Philosophy Department Library is an example of the latter (as opposed to the main library, Rivera, whose holdings are included in Melvyl, described above); but unfortunately there's no systematic record of its holdings.

If any readers of this blog have access to the circulation records of a consortium of libraries, or have access to information from which they could infer deliquency rates in libraries that depend mostly on the honor of the patrons, and are interested in exploring this issue farther, I'd love to hear from you!

18 comments:

kboughan said...

I can't help with library databases, nor can I furnish data on ethicists, but I'll offer a similar issue I have with many social historians.

Social historians often profess that a motivation for their work is a concern with social justice, nearly always of a liberal or leftist type. Many even say that part of their mission as professors of social history is to advance the cause of social justice. Many are quite explicit about this to undergraduates, to the point of tedium.

Yet I notice that many of the loudest exponents of social justice among academic historians treat those immediately in their power arbitrarily, thoughtlessly, even cruelly. There are feminist historians who terrorize their female graduate students; labor historians who multiply the burdens and slash the benefits of graduate instructors, and pointedly ignore their attempts to unionize.

In short: Those you think would behave most equitably toward their students and junior colleagues frequently don't. Indeed they are often far worse than historians whose research agendas have no direct association with social justice issues.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that without information pertaining to who checks out the books, we will be unable to draw any of the conclusions mentioned about Ethicists. What we would be in a better position to infer, and what might be equally interesting, is something like "Do the contents of ethics books influence their borrowers?". (Rates of delinquency similar to the general catalog implying that they do not.) Is it safe to assume that a large enough number of those borrowing ethics books are indeed what one would want to call Ethicists?
Just some concerns about method. I am not an Ethicist so far as I know.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for your comments, kboughan and anonymous! What you say, kboughan, comports with what I've found many graduate students and junior faculty to say about ethicists -- though I still wonder to what extent it's driven by saliency. The union supporter who opposes the student union may loom larger in our memory and thought than the union supporter who opposes the student union.

I'm sympathetic with the concerns you raise, too, anonymous. The matter must be handled carefully. However, most of the books I looked at, including most of the delinquent books, were the kinds of things few undergraduates would read: contemporary research monographs in ethics. In all likelihood, most of the checkouts are by graduate students and professors doing research in ethics -- people I'd be happy enough to call "ethicists" for the purposes of these reflections. Now maybe even if most of the checkouts are by such people, most of the delinquencies are by non-ethicists -- undergrads or non-philosophers or philosophers who don't work in ethics -- but my guess would be that's not the case. In some libraries (such as UCR) you can get a sense of who has a book out by its due date; that might be worth looking at.

Genius said...

In my experience I'd say there is a very small relationship between being in a field with more a social approach and being in a more Individual dog eat dog field (not a scientific analysis - just a general impression).

Not much of a connection but I think in a big enough sample you will find that 16.1 % keeping ahead of the 17.4% even if not by much.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Hi, genius! When you say "keeping ahead", do you mean higher or lower rates of delinquency among ethicists?

Genius said...

I think a little lower.

I think we are SURPRISED by ethisists not being amazingly moral - but I'd be surprised if they are not at least a little more comunity minded since the economists seem to be a little less so.
There are probably all sorts of other things at play of course. for example if the book is very complex there may be somthing socio economic in it.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for clarifying, genius. I'd like to accept your view here, genius -- and in fact I think most other views are either empirically dubious or distressingly cynical -- but I'm willing to let the empirical chips fall where they may. Unfortunately, at the same time, as you point out, it could be empirically rather complex, with confounding factors....

Eric Sotnak said...

There has been some research that shows no appreciable correlation between religiosity and ethical behavior. After seeing how some of my colleagues who teach ethics sometimes behave, I have come to have strong suspicions that something very similar goes on regarding academic ethics. Also, I’ve caught more students cheating in Ethics classes than in any other.

I’m not sure what to make of this. One possibility is that people suffer such massive weakness of the will that they often do what they believe to be wrong because they are overwhelmed by temptation. Another possibility is that people are so good at rationalizing their behavior that they manage to make themselves believe what they are doing is not wrong at all.

The fallout from this, for me, has been that I have serious doubts regarding how useful classes in Ethics really may turn out to be.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment, Eric! I'm worried about the same thing.

I haven't yet looked systematically at the literature on the relationship (or lack of it) between religiosity and moral behavior, but the results you mention don't surprise me. Where have you seen this?

Eric Sotnak said...

One relevant study is described here: http://moses.creighton.edu/JRS/2005/2005-11.html

Another relevant study is Batson, C. D. 1983. Sociobiology and the role of religion in promoting prosocial behavior. Journal of Personality and
Social Psychology 45:1380–85.

Sometime I'm sure it would be worthwhile to try to get a wider sampling of relevant literature.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, I must do this. Thanks so much for the references!

Eric Sotnak said...

I just came across this today, which is somewhat relevant, albeit not scholarly...

http://www.calendarlive.com/music/cl-et-christian10oct10,0,1519920.story?coll=cl-music

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if these fit in under the category of political philosophy/ethics, but I've noticed that books on non-liberal political philosophy tend to go missing from libraries, notably stuff on anarchism. I assume that those who steal books on anarchism on doing so under anarchist principles, but that could be over-assuming. I was trying to find a few texts for a course this term and 4 of the 7 books on anarchism I tried to find were missing, stolen, or not returned.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting thought! Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia does tend to go missing at high rates -- but I'm not sure those rates are statistically higher than Rawls's A Theory of Justice....

Anonymous said...

That's disappointing: I thought the ethical thing to do was to steal ethics books, sell them on Amazon, and donate the proceeds to Oxfam.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

But how are other people going to know that that's the ethical thing, if you steal the books that say so? Better to steal chemistry textbooks! ;)

Anonymous said...

I just discovered this blog and I am amused at the irony here. An ethicist who never returned ("stole?") the set of Classical Chinese grammar books I once loaned him is posting on a different thread of this bolg about the ethical behavior of ethicists.