Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Ethicists' Courtesy at Philosophy Conferences

In 2008 and 2009, my collaborators and I stalked philosophy conferences noting instances of courteous and discourteous behavior. Our aim was to collect evidence about whether ethicists behave any more courteously, on average, than do other philosophers. We used three measures of courtesy:

* talking audibly while the speaker is talking (vs. remaining silent);

* allowing the door to slam shut while entering or exiting mid-session (vs. attempting to close the door quietly);

* leaving behind clutter at the end of a session (vs. leaving one’s seat tidy).
Ethicists did not behave detectably differently by any of the three measures, thereby proving that they are not Confucian sages. (In fact, there was a session on neo-Confucianism among the coded sessions.)

We assume that disruptively yakking, littering, and slamming doors tends neither to advance the greatest good, to flow from universalizable maxims, nor to display morally virtuous character traits. Thus, these results fit with Josh Rust's and my overall finding, across several studies, that ethicists behave no morally better, on average, than do other people of similar social background.

We did find, however, that audiences in environmental ethics sessions tended to litter less.

Full details here.

2 comments:

Nick said...

Why, when studying moral philosophers, do we get to use the word “moral” in a loose, “common-sense” way in order to measure immorality? Surely the existence of moral philosophy is itself a testament to the fact that the meaning of this term is highly contested, and that the phrases “more moral” and “less moral” are quantitatively meaningless until some consensus is reached.

Consider, for example, a Nietzschean moral philosopher who believes in a morality that involves raising “superior” types and hindering inferior ones. Such a person would be acting contrary to their moral principles if they helpfully responded to “challenged” or academically inferior students via email. Yet, according to these studies, failing to respond to student emails is an indication of immoral behaviour. What are we to say to this Nietzschean? More importantly, how can we possibly say that the Nietzschean’s survey results indicate immoral behaviour? They do nothing of the sort.

I fear that this is the sort of “result” that gives Experimental Philosophy a bad name. Philosophy is, at least, an attempt to get clear on some of our most general and central concepts. “Morality” is just one of those. To try to measure morality before a broad consensus is reached on the meaning of the term is to completely ignore the idea of philosophy itself.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Nick: I disagree completely. I see no likelihood of a philosophical consensus on the meaning of the term "morality" -- or at least a consensus on anything more precise than our relatively loose ordinary-language sense of the term -- and I would mistrust such a consensus were one to arise. And I don't want to hold Nietzsche to his own standards, I want to hold him to moral standards independent of his opinion. If we hold people in general, or philosophers in particular, only to their own moral standards, we give a free pass to all people who rationalize their way into noxious, self-serving standards, e.g., Eichmann.