Friday, January 12, 2007

Do Ethicists Behave Better Than the Rest of Us? Peer Opinion

Do you think that ethicists, in general, behave morally better, worse, or about the same non-ethicists? I've often posed this question to other philosophers in informal conversation. Most of my interlocutors say "about the same" or "worse"; only a few say that ethicists behave overall better (which would seem to comport with my findings that ethicists steal more books).

Josh Rust and I distributed a questionnaire on this issue at a meeting of the American Philosophical Association a few weeks ago. Josh sat at a table near the book exhibit and offered people snacks in exchange for filling out a questionnaire. The questionnaire came in two versions. Version A asked respondents to compare the moral behavior of the ethics professors they knew first to the behavior of non-ethicists in philosophy and second to that of non-academics of similar socio-economic background. Version B asked similar questions about the moral behavior of the specific ethicist in their department whose name comes next in alphabetical order after theirs (looping from Z to A if necessary). All questions used a scale of 1 to 7, from substantially morally better (1) to about the same (4) to substantially morally worse (7).

54 respondents completed Version A. The mean result on Question 1 (ethicists vs. non-ethicists in philosophy) was exactly 4 ("about the same"). On Question 2 (ethicists vs. non-academics of similar social background) the mean result was 3.9 -- which was not statistically different from 4, given the relatively small sample size. In other words, philosophers when asked their general opinion about ethicists, thought they behaved about the same as non-ethicists.

One interesting trend in the data had to do with academic rank: Undergraduates and distinguished professors were the most sanguine about the behavior of ethicists, assistant professors the least sanguine. Here are the mean responses to Question 1, divided by rank (the means for Question 2 are very similar):

Undergraduate: 3
Graduate student: 3.8
Adjunct instructor, lecturer, or post-doc (non-tenure track): 4.1
Assistant professor (tenure track): 4.6
Associate professor: 4.3
Full professor: 4.3
Distinguished professor: 3.3

Given the small sample, though, it's hard to know whether the appearance of a trend here (with the grimmest views around tenure-time!) is simply chance.

On Version B, the results looked better for the ethicists, with means of 3.4 (Question 1) and 3.2 (Question 2), both statistically different from 4.0. In other words, philosophers thought, on average, that the ethicist next after them in the department roster behaved both better than the rest of the department and than non-academics of similar social background.

So which is it? Do ethicists behave better or not? Which version of the questionnaire better reflects real philosophical opinion? An argument can be made either way. Version A might be misleading due to something like what psychologists call a saliency or availability effect: When asked to think about the moral behavior of ethicists, perhaps the first cases to come to your mind will be cases of particularly nasty ethicists. Version B attempts to control for that, but people may be overly charitable to individuals when asked to compare them to a group -- it may be easier or more comfortable to attribute below-average moral behavior to a group than to a particular individual you know.

Josh and I hope to sort some of these issues out with a longer questionnaire to be distributed at another meeting -- if we can get permission!


Lester Hunt said...

As a moral philosopher myself, I've been interested in this issue for many years. I only just now found out about your research project.

An old friend of mine, call him X (he is not Chair of a very distinguished philosophy department), once told me he had an idea he called X's Law: "In any given philosophy department, the morally worst person is the moral philosopher." I've always thought this was at least close to the truth, but would be glad to be proved wrong!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I've heard many such opinions in conversation. Thus, the results of Version A were something of a surprise to me. I thought people would say ethicists were worse!

Some possibilities:

* Philosophers do, on average, tend to think that ethicists are (again, on average) morally worse, but they're reluctant to say that on a public instrument like a questionnaire.

* People in conversation with me are responding to something in the conversational situation -- like a perceived preconception on my part -- that evokes a more cynical answer about ethics than they'd give in a more neutral context.

* Seeming cynical seems smarter or makes for more clever conversation, skewing the results of my informal conversations, but not affecting the questionnaire results.

* Philosophers with less cynical than average views about ethicists are disproportionately likely to fill out a questionnaire by the book display at an APA. For example, maybe more sanguine philosophers are more likely to attend APAs, or go to the book display, or -- and this seems plausible to me -- happily walk up to a stranger to fill out a questionnaire for a piece of candy. Josh Rust said that he heard passersby make comments that seemed to reveal an assumption that our questionnaire was some corporate sales pitch; those same people, who don't generally stop for the questionnaire, make also be more cynical about ethicists.

Lester Hunt said...

My own folk-theoretical malign view of moral philosophers is an application of a wider theory, which you have probably also heard expressed in conversation, that people tend to be attracted to a field of study because it studies qualities that they lack. (Obviously, this only applies to fields that study some human trait or other.) If I had moral virtue myself, if I lived with it every day, I wouldn't find it so fascinating. It's the alien, the strange, that interests us.

I don't know whether this means that I am prejudiced in favor of my folk theoretical view, or whether the more general theory could actually count as evidence for it.

Anonymous said...

I've often thought this but with respect to professional philosophy professors in general- one gets the sense that to many of them 'rationality' must be fairly mysterious.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, Lester, that's another thought I've often heard in conversation. My personal view is that ethicists aren't worse, though -- only that the immoral ones are particularly salient and memorable! However, I'm open to the empirical evidence either way. (And I hope to gather more over the next several months.)

Anonymous, you may be right, but I also wonder if it's a saliency effect or representative of a particularly bad philosophy department. In my own experience, I've found philosophers not a bad lot. I get along well with my colleagues at UC Riverside and find them to be generally good people (even the ethicists!); and the same is true of my peers from graduate school at Berkeley. My impression is that UCR has an unusually harmonious department, though, so maybe I'd have a dimmer view if I were somewhere else.

Anonymous said...

I meant to contrast rational with irrational rather than with unethical. Though I can see how it may seem natural to make the inference from irrational to unethical. As far as my own intuitions are concerned, these two are not necessarily tied together, though my intuitions on these matters are particularly untutored.

I think the saliency effects interpretation here is partly correct. We expect those who think in the abstract about rationality, or who are rational about the abstract in practice, to have that carry over into other aspects of their lives- and it is particularly striking, to me at least, when this isn't the case.

Anonymous said...

Eric, I posted a little note about your questionnaire, with a link to your site, at:

Or if for some reason this long url doesn't work you can click on my mane, above.


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting post on your blog, Lester. I'd encourage anyone who has made it this far down the comments list to go check it out!

Thanks for clarifying that, anonymous. I suppose I haven't noticed any lower rate of rationality, either, among philosophers -- though neither does it seem as much higher as one might have naively expected. (I remember being disappointed, in my first philosophy class as a sophomore, that my professor didn't seem very sage-like and wise!) What you say about the saliency effect seems quite likely to me.

Anonymous said...

You note that survey B is problematic because it compares an individual vs a group.

Couldn't you control for this in the future by comparing, say, the next person in the alphabet who is an ethicist with the non-ethicist before you in the alphabet? Or some such business.


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

That's a good thought, c&d -- and I should have thought of something like that beforehand! My current thinking is to do a second take on the questionnaire with exactly parallel questions about the moral behavior of specialists in metaphysics & epistemology. Then I can see if there's the same individual-is-better-than-the-group effect with them, which will allow me to go back and interpret the present results.

I'd be interested to hear if you think that would be sufficient. One problem with changing the question (rather than adding a parallel question) is that it makes comparison with the present results problematic.