At philosophy functions there seems to be an abundance of vegetarians or semi-vegetarians, especially among ethicists. In my quest for some measure by which ethicists behave morally better than non-ethicists, this has seemed to me, along with charitable donation, among the most likely places to look. (On my history of failure to find evidence in previous research that professional ethicists behave better than anyone else, see here.)
Earlier this year, Joshua Rust and I sent out a survey to three groups of professors: Ethicists in philosophy, philosophers not specializing in ethics, and a comparison group of professors in other departments. After a number of prods (verging, I fear, on harrassment), we achieved a response rate in the ballpark of 60%, which is pretty good for a survey study given the wide variety of reasons people don't respond. Among our questions were three about vegetarianism.
First we asked a normative question. The prompt was "Please indicate the degree to which the action described is morally good or morally bad by checking one circle on each scale". Nine actions were described, among them "Regularly eating the meat of mammals such as beef or pork". Responses were on the following nine-point scale (laid out horizontally, not vertically as here)
O very morally badWe coded the responses from "1" (very morally bad) to "9" (very morally good).
O somewhat morally bad
O morally neutral
O somewhat morally good
O very morally good
It seems that ethicists are substantially more condemnatory of eating meat (at least beef and pork) than are non-ethicists. Among the 196 ethicsts who responded to this question 59.7% espoused the view that regularly eating the meat of mammals was somewhere on the morally bad end of the scale (that is, 4 or less in our coding scheme). Among the 206 non-ethicist philosophers, 44.7% said eating the meat of mammals is morally bad. Among the 168 comparison professors only 19.6% said it is morally bad. (All differences are statistically significant.)
We posed two questions about respondents' own behavior. One question was this: "During about how many meals or snacks per week to you eat the meat of mammals such as beef or pork"? On this question, 50 ethicists (25.5%), 40 non-ethicist philosophers (19.4%), and 23 other professors (13.7%) claimed complete abstinence (zero meals per week). (The difference between the ethicists and comparison professors was statistically significant, the other differences within the range of chance variation.) Ethicists reported a median rate of 3 meals per week, the other groups median rates of 4 meals per week (a marginal statistical difference vs. the non-ethicist philosophers, a significant difference vs. the comparison profs).
Now by design that question was a bit difficult and easy to fudge. We also asked a much more specific question that we thought would be harder to fudge: "Think back on your last evening meal (not including snacks). Did you eat the meat of a mammal during that meal?" We figured that if there was a tendency to fudge or misrepresent on the survey, it would show up as a difference in patterns of response to these two questions; and if there was such a difference in patterns of response, we thought the latter question would probably yield the more accurate picture of actual behavior.
So here are the proportions of respondents who reported eating the meat of a mammal at their last evening meal:
Ethicists: 70/187 (37.4%)There is no statistically detectable difference between the ethicists and either group of non-ethicists. (The difference between non-ethicists philosophers and the comparison professors was significant to marginal, depending on the test.)
Non-ethicist philosophers: 65/197 (33.0%)
Professors in other departments: 75/165 (45.4%).
Conclusion? Ethicists condemn meat-eating more than the other groups, but actually eat meat at about the same rate. Perhaps also, they're more likely to misrepresent their meat-eating practices (on the meals-per-week question and at philosophy functions) than the other groups.
I don't have anything against ethicists. Really I don't. In fact, my working theory of moral psychology predicted that ethicists would eat less meat, so I'm surprised. But this how the data are turning out.