Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Generosity of Philosophy Students

At University of Zurich, when students register for classes, they have the option of donating to charities supporting needy students and foreign students. Bruno Frey and Stephan Meier found, in 2005, that economics students were a bit less likely to donate to the charities than other students (62% of economics students vs. 69% of others gave to at least one charity). However, the effect seemed to be more a matter of selection than training: Economics majors were less charitable than their peers from the very beginning of their freshman year. Thus, they were not made less charitable, Frey and Meier argue, by their training in economic theory.

How about philosophy students? Could the ethical component of philosophical education have any effect on rates of charitable giving? This relates to my general interest in whether ethicists behave any morally better than non-ethicists.

Frey and Meier kindly sent me their raw data, expanded with several new semesters not reported in the 2005 essay. Here are some preliminary analyses. I looked only at undergraduates no more than 30 years old. In total, there were 164,550 registered student semesters over the course of 6 years of data.

In any given semester, 72.0% of students gave to at least one charity. Majors with particularly high or low rates of giving and at least 1000 registered semesters were:

Below 65%
Teacher training in math & natural sciences: 54.8%
Business economics: 58.7%
Italian studies: 61.4%
Teacher training in humanities & social sciences: 62.9%

Over 80%
Sociology: 81.3%
Ethnology: 82.7%
Philosophy: 83.6%

Among large majors, philosophy students were the most generous! Does this bode well for the morally salutary effects of studying philosophy?

Unfortunately, as in the original Frey & Meier study, a look at the time-course of the charitable giving undermines the impression of an indoctrination or training effect.

Percentage of Philosophy majors giving to at least one charity, by year:
1st year of study: 85.4% (of 411 student semesters)
2nd year: 86.9% (of 289)
3rd year: 85.2% (of 250)
4th year: 85.2% (of 236)
5th year: 82.5% (of 171)
6th year: 83.1% (of 136)
7th year: 81.3% (of 107)
8th year or more: 73.2% (of 183)

It seems that studying philosophy is not making students more charitable. If anything, there is a decrease in contributions over time.

There is also a decrease among non-philosophers, from 75.4% in Year 1 to 66.0% in Year 7 and 61.0% in Year 8+. This looks like a sharper rate of decrease, but difference in the decrease may not be statistically significant, given the small numbers of advanced philosophy students and the non-independence of the trials. Looking at individual students (under age 40) for whom there are at least 7 semesters of data, philosophy majors are just as likely to increase (37.4%) or decrease (27.2%) their rates of giving as are an age-matched sample of non-philosophy majors (42.4% up, 30.2% down).

(Oddly, although overall rates of giving are lower among more advanced students, more students increase their rates of giving over time than decrease their rates of giving. These facts can be (depressingly) reconciled if students who donate to charity are less likely than students who don't donate to continue in their studies.)

Why are Zurich philosophy students more likely to donate to these charities than students of other majors? Does philosophy attract charitable people? I'm not ready yet to draw that conclusion: It could be something as simple as higher socio-economic status among philosophy majors. They might simply have more money to give. (Impressionistically, in the U.S., philosophy seems to draw wealthier students; students from lower income families tend, on average, to be drawn to more "practical" majors.)


Edouard said...

Great stuff, Eric.

You correctly notice that philosopher's contribution decreases over time.

Of course, it seems clear that this decrease has nothing to do with studying philosophy, since the effect is also found in other fields. Possible explanations are not hard to invent. It might be that as students get older, they depend less and less on their parents. Futhermore, older students might have needs that younger do not have (e.g., children for the older ones, etc.).

It would also be interesting to look at how much philosophy students give to charities, if you have the raw data, instead of merely looking at the proportion of students who give to charities. It might be that students give more as they get older, even though less students give.

With respect to the explanation you propose, philosophy students seem overall to be more liberal than their peers. It might be that liberals give more to charities.


Dan said...

Oddly, although overall rates of giving are lower among more advanced students, more students increase their rates of giving over time than decrease their rates of giving. These facts can be (depressingly) reconciled if students who donate to charity are less likely than students who don't donate to continue in their studies.

I'm not familiar with the Swiss educational system, but a quick google suggests that many students get their degree after 4-5 years. So it may be that students who finish in 4-6 years tend to be relatively generous, and those who need more than 6 or 7 years tend to be relatively ungenerous. If the generous students are getting their diplomas, not dropping out, then I believe that "depressingly" is misplaced. Is there information in the data set on which students get their diplomas and how long they take, which would make it possible to check for this?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the kind words, Edouard! I agree that the decrease has nothing to do with studying philosophy; there's even a (non-significant) trend for studying philosophy to reduce the decrease.

It would indeed be interesting to look at differences in the amounts given, but unfortunately that's not possible with these data, since the amounts given to the charities are fixed: CHF 7 (about US $4) to the needy student fund and CHF 5 (about US $3) to the foreign student fund.

Good point, Dan! The data I have can partly address your comment. Unfortunately, I don't have data on whether students who have stopped attending did so because they completed their degrees, but I do have overall time-course data. The drop off in enrollments really accelerates around Year 6. The decline in giving is steady after the second semester, and definitely continues after Year 6. So the truth might be somewhere between my pessimistic interpretation and your optimistic one. Maybe when I prepare the final analyses for publication I'll take a more careful look at the issue, examining the time course for particular students who leave before the fourth year.

Tucker Lieberman said...

Perhaps philosophy students, conscious of the dearth of philosophy jobs available upon graduation, have idealistic attitudes towards money, while teacher candidates, who expect to begin with a modest income of about $30,000, have a more pragmatic approach and count their pennies more carefully. The typical philosophy student does not have a firm preconception of how much money she or he will have five years after graduation, and may possibly overestimate, thus choosing to donate more than her peers have chosen to donate.

It may also be the case that philosophy students come from families that worry less about money, and hence are less concerned when their child chooses one of the more "theoretical" majors. By "worrying less about money," I am not suggesting that they come from wealthier families (although they might), but rather that their families might value a good liberal arts education and generosity above having a skill in a specific trade or profession and earning a particular salary. I do not think the question of charitable donations is separable from overall attitudes towards money.

-- Tucker (B.A. in Philosophy, currently working in finance)

alex said...

it could be that people who choose certain types of degree have certain types of attitudes. in this case, economy students tend to be more "rational egoists" and so "less altruistic".

i study sport ethics and in this field there is a similiar question: does sport makes people more "competitive" (read: more "egocentric" like the champions of our sports)?

in the '70s a study demonstrated that people with a strong attitude toward personal achievement (regardless of an ethical way to play the game) come to sport to have satisfaction. so, the old adagio "sport builds character", a new one could be more accurate: "sport reveals character".

even in sport people can be divided in the two categories of more or less generous.

i don't think that wealthy people chose philosophy and bacause thet're wealthy they can affor generosity. at least, not here in europe (i'm italian); here it's just the opposite, i would say: wealthy peole choose economics.

two data are problematic: students of teacher training not generous, and the decrease over the years. for the first, i don't know; but the second can be explained: when you pass the 4 or 5 year you pay higher taxes, you are older and your parent's support is less than in the first years - you must spare money for yourself. that's all.

so, generally, i think it's a matter of attitude (and the education you received from your parents)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Nice comments, Tucker and Alex!

Tucker, your analysis seems very plausible. This could well be the best interpretation of those aspects of the data.

Alex: Now you've made me wonder to what extent sport has an effect on character. If you have some references on this, I'd be interested to see them. As for wealthier students choosing economics, that may be so. I just don't have the data; and it may vary country-to-country. I don't even know if wealth is associated with higher rates of giving to these charities. Your explanation of the decline in charitable giving with years of education (I should also mention with age, which is obviously related) in terms of having to be more self-supportive seems a reasonable conjecture.

It all seems pretty conjectural, except for the following (which is what I came to the data to think about): Studying philosophy doesn't have much affect on one's rates of charitable giving.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Whoops, one thing in tension with Alex's explanation for the decline in giving is the fact that individual students are more likely to increase than to decrease their rates of giving over time....

Genius said...

as peopel grow older they become more right leaning and less idealistic. So it could be that.

Also they may become disenchanted by their specific charities and just not have the time to find a new one.