As regular readers know, Joshua Rust and I are interested in the moral behavior of ethics professors -- namely, do they behave any better? Pending the invention of the moralometer, though, it's a bit tricky to measure actual ethicists' actual moral behavior. Josh and I are forced to be a little creative. Here's one of our ideas: Assuming it's morally better, generally speaking, to respond to undergraduate emails than to ignore them, we can look at the rate at which ethicists respond to undergraduate emails, compared to other professors.
Thus inspired, Josh and I sent phony emails to several hundred professors -- emails designed to look like they came from an undergraduate. (Yes, we got human subjects ethics approval first; and yes we're aware that in spamming philosophers we are perhaps coming uncomfortably close to being a test case for our own thesis.) One of our emails asked about the professors' office hours; another expressed interest in declaring a major and asked for the name of the undergraduate advisor. Research question: Would ethicists be more likely than the other groups to respond to the emails?
No, it turns out. Here are the response rates:
Group: 1stemail , 2ndemailThis variation is well within chance (chi-squared, p = .51, .60).
Ethicists: 59.0% , 53.6%
Non-ethicist philosophers: 58.0% , 49.8%
Non-philosophers: 54.6% , 54.1%
Interesting enough, perhaps, as confirmation of our general finding (so far) that ethicists behave no better than non-ethicists. But this study had an additional twist: Many of these same professors also completed a survey we sent them -- a survey asking them, among other things, to rate the morality of "not consistently responding to student emails" on a nine point scale from "very morally bad" through "neutral" to "very morally good". We also asked: "About what percentage of student emails do you respond to?" followed by a blank for them to enter a percentage. Thus, we could compare normative attitude, self-described behavior, and actual behavior. (We hasten to add, here, that all identifying information was removed for analysis: We are not interested in the responses of particular individuals but only of groups.)
Our survey respondents said they nearly always responded to undergraduate emails. More than half estimated that they responded to 100% of undergraduate emails. More than 90% estimated that they responded to 90% or more of undergraduate emails. On the face of it, these appear to be gross overestimates -- I'm tempted even to say, in the aggregrate, borderline delusional (though I don't doubt that there are a few very conscientious email responders out there). When I reported these numbers recently in a talk to undergraduates, they laughed out loud. Ethicists reported neither more nor less responsiveness than did the other groups.
Those who reported responding to 100% of undergraduate emails were indeed somewhat more likely to respond to both emails: 47.2% versus 29.0% for those who claimed less than 100% responsiveness (chi square, p = .003).
Oddly, however, we found no relationship whatsoever between professors' expressed attitudes about the morality of consistently responding to undergraduate emails and their actual behavior. 83.0% of professors said it was morally bad not consistently to respond to undergraduate emails, but these professors were no more likely to respond to our emails than were the 17.0% who said it was morally okay not to respond. In fact, 65.5% of those who said it was okay not to respond consistently to undergraduate emails responded to our second email, compared to only 55.3% of those who said it was bad not to respond. (This was within the range of chance variation given the smallish numbers involved in this particular set of conditions, but the 95% confidence interval for the difference in response rates tops out at a 3.2% advantage for those who think it is morally bad not to respond -- so at best they're responding at practically the same rate.)
On none of these measures did ethicists appear to respond or behave any differently, or any more or less self-consistently, than the non-ethicist philosophers or the comparison group of non-philosophers.