Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Condoms and Alcohol Containers, the MLA and the APA

I've been talking a lot recently about the moral behavior of ethicists. One thought I sometimes hear is this: Philosophers behave more morally than non-philosophers, but ethicists don't behave any better than other philosophers.

So: Can we test this?

One project I have cooking is on rates of charitable giving among philosophy students at University of Zurich. Hopefully, I'll have some data to post on that soon! (Any guesses?) But here's a story I heard at the Pacific APA in April that might shine some amusing light on the issue.

The Modern Language Association is the leading professional association of literature professors. The American Philosophical Association is the leading professional association of philosophers. Both hold their largest annual meetings in late December. One year the MLA and the APA met in the same hotel, I was told, one right after the other. Any good empirical philosopher would thus wonder whether the housekeeping staff might have insights into the difference between philosophers and lit professors. Evidently, word came back that at the MLA meeting there were lots of condoms and dirty sheets. At the APA meeting, there wasn't much of that but quite a few more alcohol bottles.

(Shoot, now as I'm telling this story, I'm finding myself worried that it's apocryphal. If anyone knows confirming or disconfirming details, let me know, and I'll post it as an update here. Minimally, the following is true: Literature professors dress way better than philosophy professors [except Alva Noe]!)

I'll assume that most people don't go to the MLA with their spouses; and I'll assume that sexual infidelity is a greater wrong than excessive alcohol consumption. So it looks like there is more sin at MLA than APA meetings.

Of course, this could be simply differences in opportunity -- only 20% of philosophers are women. At last weekend's SPP, one woman told me she heard about a man there who was hoping "to get laid". She unthinkingly responded, "oh, I didn't know he was gay!" I doubt the maids found many used condoms at that meeting!


Anonymous said...

The sexual infidelity is wrong assumption is not trivial. Here's a piece of data, cited by the economost Robert Frank. The more economics people have studied, the lower their rates of charitable giving (Frank does not take this to reflect well on his profession).

When conducting your study, it might be important to control for kinds of charitable giving. For instance, Americans are more philanthropic than citizens of many European countries, but this difference reverses if you exclude tithing. Of course, there are substantive philosophical issues here.

Jonathan Ichikawa said...

One reason (of many!) this is a tricky area to investigate is that without a lot of serious and contentious metaethics and normative ethics, we won't have a very good idea of how to measure moral behavior, especially once we have to start weighing vices.

Incidentally, I was confused at first by this passage: I'll assume that most people don't go to the MLA with their spouses; and I'll assume that sexual infidelity is a greater wrong than excessive alcohol consumption. So it looks like there is more sin at MLA than APA meetings. Is the assumption that almost all of the relevant people are married? Some of us are at liberty to engage in vice-free (or at least: infidelity-free) sexual activity at conferences.

Incidentally (and UNRELATEDLY!) I'm sorry to have missed you all at the SPP this year. I ended up performing in an opera in New York last weekend, which was a cool opportunity, but I was sorry to miss out on the SPP goodness. Some of my friends and colleagues went, and said it went well.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, anon and Jonathan! I agree with you, anon, that charitable giving would be good to look at. In fact I have some data on it right now that I'm hoping to get to soon! (And yes, the small literature on economists and charity is an interesting comparison.)

Yes, Jonathan, I missed seeing you at the SPP -- but a chance to perform in an opera is something not to be missed! I did say "spouses", but I meant to include partners of all sorts. I assume most people in that demographic do have partners and that they do not have "open relationships". But if 15% don't, and half of them have sex, that *might* be enough for housekeeping to notice, I suppose. Well, I don't take it *too* seriously as data!

On your larger point that I am making normative assumptions -- I am. I see no way to study this without doing so. But I hope that my normative assumptions aren't *too* questionable; or that if one is, it won't matter if the overall arc of the data in many areas all points in the same direction.

anne jacobson said...

the story about the SPP deserves some further comment. Maybe some philosophy grad student heard there are more women in psychology? But isn't it pretty sad to tell people you are hoping to get laid?

Not a happy story! but I'm still glad I found your blog.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Anne! Your conjecture is plausible. Poor, desperate, philosophy grad students! Going to SPP meetings is definitely not the right strategy....

Erika said...

Do you mean to compare charitable giving of philosophy students vs other students, or philosophy of ethics students vs other philosophy students? Grad students, undergrads, or just students in general? (I may be wrong with the categories I am listing here since I am not familiar with the University of Zurich) Strictly in a monetary sense, or otherwise as well?

It’s been my experience that most students, especially grad students, fit the “starving student” model, ie struggling to pay for their education, housing, food, etc. I would guess that since most students barely have or earn enough money to take care of themselves and are otherwise in huge amounts of debt, rates of charitable giving amongst them may be low. I would also think that ethically speaking, some people may find it is more ethical not to donate at the moment, rather than to spend money which they have not yet earned. Perhaps “ethical” people in such a situation do not give much monetarily, but are involved in or volunteer with many charitable organizations, and give support in other ways.

Anyway, I will be interested in the results when you post them.

Manuel said...

A little late on this thread, but some data that somehow seemed loosely relevant:

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Febin, my policy is to delete comments with links to non-academic sites. Feel free to resubmit your comment without the link.