In the first part, we summarize our empirical research on the moral behavior of ethics professors.
In the second part, we consider five possible explanations of our finding that ethics professors behave, on average, no better than do other professors.
Explanation 1: Philosophical moral reflection has no material impact on real-world moral behavior. Jonathan Haidt has called the view that explicit moral reflection does have a substantial effect on one's behavior "the rationalist delusion".
Explanation 2: Philosophical moral reflection influences real world moral behavior, but only in very limited domains of professional focus. Those domains are sufficiently narrow and limited that existing behavioral measures can't unequivocally detect them. Also, possibly, any improvement in such narrow domains might be cancelled out, in terms of overall moral behavior, by psychological factors like moral licensing or ego depletion.
Explanation 3: Philosophical moral reflection might lead one to behave more morally permissibly but no morally better. The idea here is that philosophical moral reflection might lead one to avoid morally impermissible behavior while also reducing the likelihood of doing any more than is strictly morally required. Contrast the sometimes-sinner sometimes-saint with the person who never goes beyond the call of duty but also never does anything really wrong.
Explanation 4: Philosophical moral reflection might compensate for deficient moral intuitions. Maybe, from early childhood or adolescence, some people tend to lack strongly motivating moral emotions. And maybe some of those people are also drawn to intellectual styles of moral reflection. Without that moral reflection, they would behave morally worse than the average person, but moral reflection helps them behave better than they otherwise would. If enough ethicists are like this, then philosophical moral reflection might have an important positive effect on the moral behavior of those who engage in it, but looking at ethicists as a group, that effect might be masked if it's compensating for lower rates of moral behavior arising from emotional gut intuitions.
Explanation 5: Philosophical moral reflection might have powerful effects on moral behavior, but in both moral and countermoral directions, approximately cancelling out on average. It might have positive effects, for example, if it leads us to discover moral truths on which we then act. But perhaps equally often it becomes toxic rationalization, licensing morally bad behavior that we would otherwise have avoided.
Josh and I decline to choose among these possibilties. There might be some truth in all or most of them. And there are still other possibilities, too. Ethicists might in fact engage in moral reflection relevant to their personal lives no more often than do other professors. Ethicists might find themselves increasingly disillusioned about the value of morality at the same time they improve their knowledge of what morality in fact requires. Ethicists might learn to shield their personal behavior from the influence of their professional reflections, as a kind of self-defense against the apparent unfairness of being held to higher standards because of their choice of profession....
Full essay here. As always thoughts and comments welcome, either by email or attached to this post.