Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Self-Reported Moral Behavior of Ethics Professors

New essay in draft here, co-authored with Joshua Rust.

We examine the self-reported moral attitudes and moral behavior of 198 ethics professors, 208 non-ethicist philosophers, and 167 professors in departments other than philosophy on eight moral issues: academic society membership, voting, staying in touch with one's mother, vegetarianism, organ and blood donation, responsiveness to student emails, charitable giving, and honesty in responding to survey questionnaires. On some issues we also had direct behavioral measures that we could compare with self-report. Ethicists expressed somewhat more stringent normative attitudes on some issues, such as vegetarianism and charitable donation. However, on no issue did ethicists show significantly better behavior than the two comparison groups. Our findings on attitude-behavior consistency were mixed: Ethicists showed the strongest relationship between behavior and expressed moral attitude regarding voting but the weakest regarding charitable donation.

Warning: This essay is monstrously long -- 70 pages! In earlier (uncirculated) drafts we had tried to keep it to normal journal-article length, but eventually we decided to give up on that. It's a very complicated study, so it just takes some space to lay it all out properly.


Josh said...

I wouldn't worry too much about the length, factoring in the quality and clarity of the writing, the size of the text, and graphs it certainly doesn't read like 70 pages.

Very interesting study. I've heard many people opine that (modern) Philosophy's only practical benefit to society comes from the field and sub-fields of ethics. Ethics,to those that subscribe to this idea, is the only field in Philosophy that affects how we live. In my experience they also tend to think that Philosophy outside of ethics is oftentimes abstruse gibberish, and is almost always practically useless. These people might be tempted to think that this study somehow indicates that the study of ethics doesn't affect ones life either, thereby tossing ethics onto the pile of "useless" Philosophy. I mean if ethics professors don't behave morally better than average, what is the likelihood that the study of ethics will be useful in the average persons life? (of course there seems to be a difference between merely studying something and actually reflecting upon it)

My response (to this contention I've created from experience) would be that the study of ethics is responsible for many of these issues even being on the moral table. While vegetarians have been around for a long time (Plutarch for example), in contemporary America the moral question of eating meat wouldn't even be a legitimate academic question if not for philosophical reflection. While ethics professors may not behave morally better on the whole, the study of ethics has shifted the ethical paradigm to the point where average moral behavior is far better than previous paradigms. What might be most important is the actual moral ratings those surveyed decided on. It seems like these moral ideas may form the paradigms, but our actual behavior might be victim to the paradigms of our youth. Maybe behavior, while not immune, is difficult to adjust through reflection. We might have a socially created proclivity to behave in a certain way, despite thinking it is the wrong way to behave intellectually.

Alright now that my tangential rambling is through, a couple of quick points.

How difficult was it boiling down these ethical issues? The eating meat one seemed particularly tough. I mean I don't eat meat, not because I think eating meat is wrong in itself, but because of the way animals are reared for consumption. Rating regularly eating meat of mammals at face value would almost make me want to rate it as much less morally bad. Now if I read into the question the fact that 99% of people who regularly eat meat aren't eating "ethical" meat, I would rate it as quite morally bad, but I'm tempted to say eating mammalian meat isn't bad on its own. This is probably a trivial quibble, and If I were to answer it I would read into it the fact that regularly eating meat all but guarantees support of unethical practices.

I was also surprised that such a significant % (comparatively) sided with virtue ethics. I know it has been around for a long time in various forms, and its popularity is increasing, but 29% was surprising to me. This is of course caused by my relative ignorance of the state of academic ethics.

The relation of moral behavior and normative moral opinion in general is something that has interested me for a while, thanks for doing the work to produce such an interesting analysis!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for your kind remarks, Josh.

I agree that the vegetarianism question is subject to the complications you mention -- as indeed are all the normative questions. I messed around with the questions, adding complications and clarifications in an attempt to resolve such difficulties, but I found that adding clauses (about, e.g., "ethically treated animals") raised as many questions as it answered, so in the end we decided to keep the questions short and simple.

In the Bourget-Chalmers survey, 18% of respondents selected virtue ethics over deontology, consequentialism, or other, but "other" was the most popular position, and we didn't have an "other", just "skeptical" and "no settled position", which are perhaps less inviting than "other". That difference in response options might explain some of the difference in choice.

I do think that our research raises questions about the extent to which studying ethics improves moral behavior. To the extent that practical effect is among one's aims in studying (or as an administrator, in requiring) philosophy, I think there is reason for concern. I'm inclined to think that either philosophy should be justified differently, or we should work harder to try to figure out whether there is a *way* of studying philosophy that is more effective in changing moral behavior than the ordinary (21st century, Anglophone) way of studying philosophy is.