Thursday, January 23, 2014

New Essay in Draft: The Moral Behavior of Ethicists

... which is a recurrent topic of my research, as regular readers of this blog will know.

This new paper, co-authored with Joshua Rust, summarizes our work on the topic to date and offers a quantitative meta-analysis that supports our overall finding that professors of ethics behave neither morally better nor morally worse overall than do philosophers not specializing in ethics.

You might find it entirely unsurprising that ethicists should behave no differently than other professors. If you do find it unsurprising (Josh and I don't), you might still be interested in looking at another of Josh's and my papers, in which we think through some of the theoretical implications of this finding.


Anonymous said...

I actually find it surprising.
I think they do not really make a significant connection between how they are and what they think about.

it is not the only thing irrational that happens.

holy people, for instance, think a lot about their character and how they should act toward other people.
what they think is also how they act.

Rolf Degen said...

There are a lot of studies on the question if (more or less) religious people are more or less prosocial than nonbelievers. If you take the results as a whole (I did a review in German), there are no differences between the groups:

But there is one difference: Religious people THINK they are more prosocial, and many others agree.

Anonymous said...

Rolf Degen...

I was referring to holy people, not religious people. there is a difference.

unfortunately, I can not read german to read your article.

I actually need more explanations to understand why professors doing ethics do not act ethically.
it is really beyond my understanding.

Rolf Degen said...

There are no holy people!

Rolf Degen said...

If the acquisition of ethics expertise does not change behavior, perhaps there is a genetically determined set point to each persons morality score. I wonder if there is actual research on how much individual moral behavior tendencies can change after all over lifetime. Reasoning (what ethicist do) was designed by evolution to help us win arguments, says the Argumentative Theory of Reasoning.

Marco Devillers said...

I like philosophy for the fact that people just string together words, give it an interpretation, and then have fervent debate about the exact meaning of it all.

In short, I like philosophy for its war faring attitude.

Since these are war faring people, shouldn't it stand to reason they are less ethical?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Rolf: I am inclined to read the religiosity literature in the same way. Unfortunately, most of the reviews that I have seen conclude that there is a small positive relationship between religiosity and ethical behavior, which I am inclined to think reflects a failure of those reviews to take account of a general positivity bias in most psychological research, including presumably that research. (I discuss what non-effects look like in a blog post from this summer.) I'd love to see you do a really thorough review of the literature and place it in an English-language journal where it might get some attention!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon and Rolf: I think there might be some "holy" people -- but they're probably not who they think they are.

Marco: I haven't seen evidence that philosophers are less ethical than other professors (see Josh's and my forthcoming piece in Philosophical Psychology for extensive discussion of this). But professors in general might tend to be academic combatants, and I haven't seen good comparisons between professors and non-professors. One possibly important confounding factor, too, is that ethicality is probably associated with self-control and reduced impulsivity, and the latter is probably also associated with the ability to have academic success in college and graduate school.

Rolf Degen said...

One problem with the research on religiosity and ethical behavior is the fact that morality is a complex construct that encompasses so many domains and behaviors. It is very hard to find studies that cover the whole playing field. And some behaviors are contradictory. The field of "harm" encompasses "nice" behaviors, like helping the needy. But "justice" often encompasses "unnice" behavior, like altruistic punishment of bad behavior. Not even clear if anyone can behave equally good in both domains. And then there are the other Haidt-foundations.

Anonymous said...

so holy people do not or can not exist.

religious people are wrong to begin with? or no more ethical than non-religious people?

we can not be very ethical, in essence? in general...can this be true?

and then ethical philosophers do not act ethical, because they are only humans. but other people who do not do ethics can act more ethically.

I believe holy people can exist.
there are facts? from the past, at least.
they act ethically, in the sense that they judge you less and can take more nonsense from other people. at least this is what I understood.
and they do not want to harm you.

Rolf Degen said...

Eric, could you expand on the "holy" people? I could puke when I hear people calling other people holy. There are no holy people, only "holier than you" people. Take the Dalai Lama. That creep really accepts other calling him "your holiness". And a lot of our thinking pals fall for that guy. Don't they have any hypocrisy alarm?

Anonymous said...

I just believe that holy people might exist.
Even what you said, that only "holier than others" is still good enough.

But I have a huge problem with this "holy" as well, I was just thinking about what it might mean/imply. I am against it, believe it or not.

the concept of "holy" might be useful in making these distinctions of what it means being ethical or not. being holy is a limit.

I actually like Dalai Lama, but I do not know much about him.
I watched a few videos about him, interviews, that is all.
He is non-violent and believes in peace and things like that?
for me, that is just good enough.
I do not think it can be useful though with people who want to be violent and harmful, that sort of attitude. when facing such situations.

I am really far from capable of understanding moral problems, I find them really difficult.

Rolf Degen said...

Being "holier than you" is an English idiom that means being self righteous or hypocritical. Here is some literature:

In effect it means that supposed holiness is often ass-holiness.

Anonymous said...

"In effect it means that supposed holiness is often ass-holiness."

what you said is true as well.

self righteous people and hypocritical. I think I met such people.

I just hope there are good people that do good. when you are in need, there is no other way. someone has to help you.

thank you for the article.

Marco Devillers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marco Devillers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Callan S. said...

Does it get to the point where we ask if an ethicist is really just another type of anthropologist?

We don't expect anthropologists to act like the tribes they study, do we?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Sorry I've fallen behind on replying to comments -- stomach flu!

Callan: I prefer to look at fields case by case, but I don't quite see the analogy between ethicist and anthropologist. It's not the usual ethicist who approaches the topic with the idea of studying the folk patterns of this weird ethics-thing.

Rolf: I guess my inclinations pretty much align with yours in this matter. I just don't want to be insist on it, for a suitably restrained sense of "holy".

Callan S. said...

Sorry to hear about the stomach flu, Eric! Hope that's eased - atleast it's alot easier to get through when living in the first world. :)

On the subject, you genuinely surprise me - how do ethicists study things? Without detachment? I'm really surprised! Surely they study all sorts of ethics - what if they study some sort of nazi ethics - surely then they study the folk patterns of this wierd nazi ethics thing? They are detached from the subject, surely?

I'll be my usual blunt (as if 'usual' is an excuse for it) and say an ethicist who doesn't study from a position of detachment seems more like a priest?

Anonymous said...

I teach ethics frequently, although it is not my specialization. I have a couple of thoughts in response to your paper:

1) In the studies that involve self-reports of behavior, it might be the case that ethicists are actually better behaved but more honest about their behavior.

2) Most non-ethicist philosophers are exposed to a decent amount of ethics at talks, chatting with colleagues. Maybe being good at ethical reasoning is something of a range-threshold ability. A certain amount of training in ethical reasoning gets you to behave better, more than that does not make you any better. Non-ethicist philosophers may pick up enough ethics to do the right thing at the same rate as those who think about it more.

3) Maybe this is related to your toxic rationalization suggestion, but ethicists are far more likely to have unorthodox ethical views (such as Singer's view that infanticide of disabled infants is morally permissible). So they may well not agree with you that one has an obligation to answer the emails of an undergraduate who is not one's student, or to be polite, etc.

4) This is definitely related to the toxic rationalization suggestion: I have suspected that philosophers may be less willing than others to admit they have implicit biases because they see themselves as exceptionally rational. Similarly, I wonder if ethicists are not even explicitly rationalizing certain bad behaviors, but simply assuming that because they are ethicists, what they are doing is the right thing.

5) Plenty of ethicists are in fact ethical anti-realists of one stripe or another.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon: Thanks for those thoughtful, interesting comments! Let me take them one at a time.

(1): I agree that is a possibility. However, in the Schwitzgebel & Rust forthcoming survey study we used several measures of dishonest / "socially desirable" responding and we found no evidence that ethicists were either more or less honest in their responses than were the comparison groups.

(2.) Some of our studies, especially the Schwitzgebel & Rust forthcoming survey study, also use non-philosophers as a comparison group, and overall we find no differences. In one study of student charitable giving, I found no evidence of increased charitable giving over time among philosophy majors. Admittedly, that study is pretty weak evidence. In general, the evidence of the effectiveness of university ethics education on real-world moral behavior is very problematic, but overall it seems to show no effect. (I review this evidence in my paper in draft, "Do Ethics Classes Influence Student Behavior?")

(3.) I agree. But again the Schwitzgebel & Rust survey study is relevant. Ethicists seem to behave no more in accord with their own norms than do other groups of professors.

(4.) I'm inclined to agree with that!

(5.) That's probably true, but see my comment on (3). I do think one interesting possibility is that one consequence of studying ethics is that one comes to care less about being ethical, even by one's own normative standards.