Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Are Ethicists More Attentive Daughters and Sons?

Not by self-report, at least. Here's a bit more data from a survey Josh Rust and I conducted of ethicists, non-ethicist philosophers, and comparison professors in other departments in five U.S. states. (Other preliminary survey results, and more about the methods, are here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

In the first part of the survey we asked respondents their attitudes about various moral issues. One thing we asked was for them to rate "Not keeping in at least monthly face-to-face or telephone contact with one’s mother" on a nine-point scale from "very morally bad" (1) through "morally neutral" (5) to "very morally good" (9). As it turned out, the respondent groups were all equally likely to rate not keeping in contact on the morally bad side of the scale: 73% of ethicists said it was morally bad, compared to 74% of non-ethicist philosophers and 71% of non-philosophers (not a statistically significant difference). There was a small difference in mean response (3.4 for ethicists vs. 3.7 for non-ethicist philosophers and 3.3 for non-philosophers), but I suspect that was at least partly due to scaling issues. In sum, the groups expressed similar normative attitudes, with perhaps the non-ethicist philosophers a bit closer to neutral than the other groups. (Contrast the case of vegetarianism, where the groups expressed very different attitudes.)

In the second part of the survey we asked respondents to describe their own behavior on the same moral issues that we had inquired about in the first part of the survey. We asked two questions about keeping in touch with mom. First we asked: "Over the last two years, about how many times per month on average have you spoken with your mother (face to face or on the phone)? (If your mother is deceased, consider how often you spoke during her last two years of life.)" The response options were "once (or less) every 2-3 months", "about once a month", "2-4 times a month", and "5 times a month or more". Only the first of these responses was counternormative by the standards of the earlier normative question. By this measure there was a statistically marginal tendency for the philosophers to report higher rates of neglecting their mothers: 11% of ethicists reported infrequent contact, compared to 12% of non-ethicist philosophers and only 5% of non-philosophers (chi-square, p = .06). (There was a similar trend for the non-philosophers to report more contact overall, across the response options.)

Second, we asked those with living mothers to report how many days it had been since their last telephone or face-to-face contact. The trend was in the same direction, but only weakly: 10% of ethicists reported its having been more than 30 days, compared to 11% of non-ethicist philosophers, and 8% of ethicists (chi-square, p = .82). We also confirmed that age and gender were not confounding factors. (Older respondents reported less contact with their mothers, even looking just at cases in which the mother is living, but age did not differ between the groups. Gender did differ between the groups -- philosophers being more likely to be male -- but did not relate to self-reported contact with one's mother.) So -- at least to judge by self-report -- ethicists are no more attentive to their mothers than are non-ethicist professors, and perhaps a bit less attentive than professors outside of philosophy.

Maybe this isn't too surprising. But the fact that most people seem to find this kind of thing unsurprising is itself, I think, interesting. Do we simply take it for granted that ethicists behave, overall, no more kindly, responsibly, caringly than do other professors -- except perhaps on a few of their chosen pet issues? Why should we take that for granted? Why shouldn't we expect their evident interest in, and habits of reflection about, morality to improve their day-to-day behavior?

You might think that ethicists would at least show more consistency than the other groups between their expressed normative attitudes about keeping in touch with mom and their self-reported behavior. However, that was also not the case. In fact the trend -- not statistically significant -- was in the opposite direction. Among ethicists who said it was bad not to keep in at least monthly contact, 8% reported no contact within the previous 30 days, compared to 13% of ethicists reporting no contact within 30 days among those who did not say that a lack of contact was bad. Among non-ethicist philosophers, the corresponding numbers were 6% and 27%. Among non-philosophers, 4% and 14%. Summarized in plainer English, the trend was this: Among those who said it was bad not to keep in at least monthly contact with their mothers, ethicists were the ones most likely to report not in fact keeping in contact. And also there was less correlation between ethicists' expressed normative view and their self-reported behavior than for either of the other groups of professors (8%-13% being a smaller spread than either 6%-27% or 4%-14%). It bears repeating that these differences are not statistically significant by the tests Josh and I used (multiple logistic regression) -- so I only draw this weaker conclusion: Ethicists did not show any more consistency between their normative views and their behavior than did the other groups.

Perhaps the ethicists were simply more honest in their self-described behavior than were the other groups? -- that is, less willing to lie or fudge so as to make their self-reported behavior match up with their previously expressed normative view? It's possible, but to the extent were were able to measure honesty in survey response, we found no trend for more honest responding among the ethicists.


Brad C said...

Hi Eric,

It would be interesting if you guys collected data like this on pastors, rabbis, imams, etc.

These people seem to be more focused on helping others think through and deal with ethical dilemmas and, as an Aristotelian, I think they are a better test case for the claim that better reasoning about ethical issues will improve one's behavior than the case you have been investigating.

What do you think?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Brad: I would love to do some work on clergy! But I am not in the right social circles, so I don't have an insider's perspective on what would be a good test and how to conduct it. And probably one would need different recruitment/observation techniques for different religions, so it will take a lot of work to have generalizable results.

I will say that among the approximately half-dozen clergy I have chatted with about this issue, not one has said that she believes that clergy on average behave morally better than laypeople. (However, I don't rule out the possibility that they are partly being intentionally modest on behalf of their profession.)

CrankyProfessor said...

Umm - no, they're not being modest. There have been several studies on divorce rates for clergy, and they are as high or higher than everyone else's.

I don't find the philosophers of my acquaintance (assuming that "professor in a dept of philosophy" = "philosopher" less prone to fudgery when it's about campus politics.

ruthdemitroff said...

Speaking as a mother, I would imagine there is an inherent power struggle at play. Does one become an ethicist through academic discipline or by being the matriarch of a family? In many cultures the women elders have the final say when it comes to ethical matters and it is the source of both their status and power within the community. Power and status within one's community may be more satisfying than a monthly phone call from a far flung child.

Troy Camplin said...

What is the purpose of an "ethicist"? That should tell us something about the issue. If what is ethical is what creates social bonds, meaning it is what arises naturally in a society, then a professional ethicist can in fact act as an immoralist precisely because of the extent to which they question current morals and propose new ones. Thus, they are in fact not more ethical, but less. On the other hand, if such people merely act as eminent critics of the self-organizing ethical order, then they are part of the system, and will behave according to those norms, even while trying to understand ethics and critique it. Thus, we would get the results in question.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Troy: I agree that the question about the moral behavior of ethicists is tangled up with questions about both the actual and the proper role of ethicists in society. I suppose I am conventional enough in my moral convictions to think that if studying ethics is not enhancing your appreciation of the value of things like being an attentive daughter, participating in democratic decision-making, being courteous to people, respecting public property, etc., then there is something amiss.