Friday, June 11, 2010

Do Kantians Really Behave Worse Than Other Ethicists?

As I noted in a previous post, Kantian ethicists seem to have a reputation among philosophers for behaving worse than other sorts of ethicists. But who has any systematic empirical data on this? Well, Josh Rust and I do!

Our data are based on a questionnaire Josh and I sent to hundreds of philosophers last year (more description and other results here, here, here, and here). The questionnaire asked first about the goodness or badness of theft from a friend, paying membership dues to the APA, voting in public elections, having regular conversations with your mother, eating the meat of mammals, being an organ donor, being a blood donor, responding to undergraduate emails, and donating to charity. Then, second, we solicited self-reports of these same behaviors (except for theft). In some cases we also have direct data about actual behavior. Near the end of the questionnaire, we asked about normative ethical view -- that is, about the philosopher's general theoretical approach to ethics. The response options were consequentialist, deontologist, virtue ethicist, skeptical, or no settled position.

(If you're not familiar with those terms: Consequentialists think, roughly, that one should act so as to produce the best expected consequences for everyone. Deontologists think, roughly, that one should act according to certain moral rules, such as don't lie or don't kill innocent people, even if you know that abiding by those rules won't produce the best consequences overall. Kant is currently the most eminent deontologist. Virtue ethicists think, roughly, that ethics is about having moral virtues like honesty, courage, and kindness.)

First, let's look at the general distribution of theoretical approach. Ethicists were more likely to be deontologists (29%) than consequentialists (10%), whereas non-ethicists were split about equally between those two positions (17% for both). One might wonder about causal direction here: Does seriously studying ethics tend to lead philosophers to abandon consequentialism? Or are consequentialists less likely to become ethicists? Or...? Rounding out the answers: 30% of ethicist and 27% of non-ethicist respondents espoused virtue ethics, 29% of ethicists and 33% of non-ethicists said they had no settled position, and 2% of ethicists and 6% of non-ethicists expressed skepticism. We detected no differences by age or gender.

There were two questions where I thought consequentialists, deontologists, and virtue ethicists would differ substantially in their normative opinions -- the meat question and the charity question. Consequentialists have a reputation for emphasizing the importance of charitable donation and vegetarianism (most famously Peter Singer). Surprisingly to me, however, the groups showed no difference in moral opinion on these questions. Only 52% of consequentialists rated "regularly eating the meat of mammals" toward the morally bad end of the scale, compared to 58% of deontologists and 53% of virtue ethicists -- well within statistical chance. Likewise, the mean percentage of income that respondents said that the typical professor should donate to charity was 7.5% (for consequentialists) vs. 7.4% (for both virtue ethicists and deontologists), again well within chance. Apparently, Singer's views aren't representative of consequentialists generally.

Virtue ethicists were less likely than others to say that it's morally bad not to be an organ donor (48% vs. 65% for consequentialists and deontologists) and that it's morally good to regularly donate blood (81% vs. 94% of consequentialists and 91% of deontologists). Virtue ethicists were also least likely to say it was good to pay membership dues to support one's main disciplinary society (59% vs. 80% of consequentialists and 74% of deontologists). Responses to the other normative questions seemed to be about the same for all groups.

Looking at self-reported and actual behavior: Virtue ethicists were least likely to belong to the APA (philosophers' main disciplinary society), based on our examination of the membership list: 58% vs. 65% of consequentialists and 74% of deontologists. However, they were just as likely to report being members (74% vs. 67% and 77%). Virtue ethicists were also least likely to report having an organ donor indicator on their drivers' license (58% vs. 78% and 70%). On the other hand, the deontologists were the ones who reported the longest lapse of time since their last blood donation (for eligible donors): 1994 vs. 2001 for consequentialists and 2000 for virtue ethicists. (Does this have anything to do with Kant's odd views on the matter?) And consequentialists appeared to be more responsive to the survey's charity incentive: Half of the questionnaires went out with a promise that we would donate $10 to a charity of the respondent's choice (among six major charities) when the survey was returned. 67% of the consequentialists' returned surveys were charity-incentive surveys, compared to 46% of deontologists' and 51% of virtue ethicists'.

We found no other differences in self-reported behavior, or in actual measured behavior -- including voting rate in public elections (based on actual voting records), responsiveness to sham undergraduate emails we had sent, or detected honesty or dishonesty in their survey responses.

In sum, we found no evidence that deontologists -- many or most of whom are presumably Kantians, broadly speaking -- behave any worse than professors who favor other normative theories.


D said...

This similarity seems to show that, at least on the items tested, the theories espoused are not what are forming the moral beliefs. Instead, the moral beliefs could be forming by the usual societal and internal processes, and then justified using the different theories.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, D, that seems likely to me. However, since there were some differences on organ and blood donation, the evidence is not entirely univocal.

jon said...

The answers on the "eating the meat of mammals" can indicate many different things. In the last decade the contribution of animal rearing (most centrally livestock) to climate change has been much discussed. So morally negative answers there could be based on views of significant animal moral status AND/OR views of negative duties to fellow humans. If you specify that question more interesting differences might crop up.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I agree, Jon. I didn't want to get too complicated in the survey, but my own view is that it is straightforwardly better not to eat mammal meat for environmental reasons having to do with duties to other human beings and that the animal rights question is less straightforward. If the only duty is environmental, then there's no perfect obligation not to eat meat -- reducing meat consumption would be more like reducing water consumption and reducing one's pollution.