In 2009, Josh Rust and I ran a survey asking hundreds of ethicists, non-ethicist philosophers, and comparison professors, first, a variety of questions about their views on ethical matters (e.g., vegetarianism, voting, staying in touch with one's mother) and second, about their own personal behavior on the same matters. (No identifying information was associated with the responses, of course.) Some previous posts on the survey are here and here and here.
Now one of the cool things about this study is that in some cases we also have data on actual behavior -- thus enabling a three-way comparison of normative attitude, self-reported behavior, and actual behavior (as you'll see in the links above).
Thus, a measure of honesty falls out of the questionnaire: How well are the self-reports related to the actual behavior? Actually, we have two different types of measures of honesty: For most of the topics on which we didn't have direct behavioral data we asked two behavioral questions, one vague and easy to fudge, the other concrete and more difficult to fudge without explicit deceptive intent. So, for example, we asked at how many meals per week the respondent ate the meat of a mammal (the fudgy question) and also whether she ate the meat of a mammal at her last evening meal not including snacks (the concrete question). If, hypothetically, half the respondents who reported eating mammal meat at 3 or fewer meals per week also reported having eaten it at the last evening meal, we could infer that that group of respondents were fudging their answers.
We created a composite of six types of suspicious (or demonstrably false) responses and we compared the rates of suspicious responding between the groups. The six measures were:
* comparison of self-reported number of votes since the year 2000 with actual voting records;We found that all three groups showed similar rates of suspicious responding: 50% of ethicists, 49% percent of non-ethicist philosophers, and 49% of comparison professors gave at least one suspicious response -- variation well within chance, of course, given the number of respondents. (Remember that on the second three measures a suspicious response is not necessarily a lie or even an unconscious self-serving distortion, but only an answer or pattern of answering that seems more likely to be false or distortive than another pattern would be, when aggregated across respondents.)
* comparison of claims to have voted in the Nov. 2008 U.S. general Presidential election with actual voting records;
* comparison of claims of 100% or 95% responsiveness to undergraduate emails with responsiveness to emails that we had sent that were designed to look as though they were from undergraduates (see here, and yes we got IRB approval);
* for philosophers only, comparison of claims of membership in the American Philosophical Association with membership records (excluded from the analysis in this post, but discussed here);
* comparison of a general claim about how often the respondent talks with her mother (if living) with a specific claim about date of last conversation;
* comparison of a general claim about how often the respondent donates blood (if eligible) with a specific claim about date of last donation;
* comparison of a general claim about meals per week at which the respondent eats the meat of a mammal with a specific claim about the last evening meal.
Thus, as in previous research we failed to find any evidence that ethicists behave any better than other socially comparable non-ethicists.
This is assuming, of course, that lying or giving distorted answers on surveys like ours is morally bad. Now, as it happens, we asked our respondents about that very issue, and 87% (89% of ethicists) said it was morally bad to answer dishonestly on surveys like ours. We also had a measure of how bad they thought it was -- a 9-point scale from "very morally good" through "morally neutral" to "very morally bad". As it turned out, there was no statistically significant relationship between normative attitude and rate of suspicious responding.
Near the end of the survey, we also explicitly asked respondents whether they had answered any of the questions dishonestly. Few said they did, and answers to this question appeared to be unrelated to rates of suspicious responding: Among respondents with no suspicious looking responses, 6 (2.2%) said they had answered dishonestly, compared to 7 (2.6%) of the respondents with at least one suspicious response.
Finally, we had asked the philosophy respondents whether they prefered a deontological, consequentialist, virtue ethical, or some other sort of normative ethical view. Deontologists are often portrayed as sticklers about lying -- Kant, the leading historical deontologist, was notoriously very strict on the point. However we detected no difference in patterns of suspicious responding according to normative ethical view. To the extent there was a trend, it was for the consequentialists to be least likely to have suspicious or false responses (47%, vs. 56% for deontologists and 58% for virtue ethicists; this analysis includes the APA question).