Monday, January 08, 2007

Still More Data on the Theft of Ethics Books

Last month, I noted that ethics books are more likely to be stolen than non-ethics books in philosophy (looking at a large sample of recent ethics and non-ethics books from leading academic libraries). Missing books as a percentage of those off shelf were 8.7% for ethics, 6.9% for non-ethics, for an odds ratio of 1.25 to 1. However, I noted three concerns about these data that required further analysis. I've now done the further analysis.

Here are the concerns:

(1.) Older books are more likely to be missing, and the ethics books were on average a couple years older than the non-ethics books.

I addressed this concern by eliminating from the sample all books published prior to 1985. This brought the average age of the books to the same year (1992.9 for ethics, 1992.7 for non-ethics). On these reduced data, the ethics books were still more likely to be missing: 7.7% to 5.7%, for an odds ratio of 1.35 to 1 (p = .015).

(2.) Ethics books are more likely to be checked out than non-ethics books in philosophy, and there is a tendency for books that are more checked out to have a higher percentage of the off-shelf books missing -- not just a higher percentage of the holdings missing, but a higher ratio of missing to off-shelf-but-not-missing.

I addressed this concern by further reducing the sample, eliminating all the "popular" ethics and non-ethics books -- those cited at least 5 times in the relevant entries of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (This left only fairly obscure books, presumably known to and borrowed by only professors and advanced students in the field.) This actually seems to have increased the effect: 8.5% to 5.7%, for an odds ratio of 1.48 to 1 (p = .026).

(3.) Finally, some people were concerned that maybe law students were driving the effect. Therefore, finally, I eliminated from analysis all "law" books, defined as those books for which at least 10% of the U.S. holdings were in the four law libraries included in the analysis (UCLA, Harvard, Stanford, and Cornell law). This had little effect: 8.3% to 5.7%, odds ratio 1.46 to 1 (p = .044). Also, the percentage of ethics books missing from the four US law libraries was only 7.0%, versus 8.3% for the US non-law libraries.

So it's not (supposedly vicious) law students. And it's not a bunch of (supposedly conscience-impaired) undergraduates stealing Rawls. The effect is large, and statistically significant, just looking at books likely to be borrowed only by professional ethicists and students with a serious scholarly concern with ethics.

Based on these data, it seems indeed that ethicists do steal more books!

Coming soon: I did a similar analysis of the thefts of "classic" texts in ethics and non-ethics -- e.g., Mill's On Liberty vs. Descartes' Meditations. Any predictions?


Anonymous said...

This is interesting. I could be wrong, but I'm guessing there might be a difference between those doing normative ethics and meta-ethics. (E.g., it's harder to imagine a Kantian/utilitarian normative ethicist stealing Kant's Critique of Practical Reason or a copy of Singer and His Critics, than say, a meta-ethicist stealing Gibbard's Wise Choices, Apt Feelings.) No offense to meta-ethics!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

That's an interesting thought, Boram. I'm hoping to divide the books by subfield, and see if there are differences -- but I'm not sure I have enough power to detect any but pretty gross differences.

My intuitive sense from looking at the data is that there isn't the effect you suggest. Gibbard's Wise Choices had 4 missing of 28 off shelf for an (above average) missing percentage of 14%; but Scheffler's very metaethical Human Morality had 10 off shelf and none missing. Neither Singer and His Critics nor any other Singer book met the criteria of inclusion on the list. But for what it's worth I did make a list of obvious feminism texts, and overall they seemed to be missing about the same rate as the overall pool.

Unknown said...

Wow, interesting!

The only thing that occurs to me is this:
Many fields of study *require* an ethics class, which is generally outside the standard field of study. People are more likely to resent required classes outside their own field of study as compared to elective classes, or classes in what they chose to study.
People who resent the class may be more likely to steal books?

Furthermore, a lot of majors and degrees schedule the ethics class first (I know my MBA class schedule did). As time goes on, people who are less committed would drop out.
People who are less committed may also be more likely to steal books.

Just throwing ideas out. This is really fascinating.

Unknown said...

Maybe check out introductory ethics texts, and interdisciplinary ethics texts?

Anonymous said...

Having worked in circulation at an university library for 6 six years, what basis do you have for equating a missing status in a catalog for stolen?

Clearly the books are unavailable (or I should say probably), but you have no access to whether the book is stolen or not. It may just be misshelved. I would always go look for a book that was supposedly missing, and ensure that I looked several shelves to either side of where it was supposed to be. I can't give an accurate figure, but I'd guess I found them at least 20% of the time.

Have you talked to the circulation departments of these libraries and enquired into the various uses of the "missing" status. All missing statuses are not created equal. They mean different things in different library systems, and they are applied differently due to different policies.

And what about the books that are still marked available but are, in fact, missing and perhaps were even stolen?

As a cataloger, I would love to believe that the catalog is 100% accurate, but it is not.

You have a very interesting hypothesis, but I fail to see how your methodology (as it stands) can even begin to answer the question.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info! It would be interesting to know the diagnosis of this phenomenon (beyond the cautious one that ethicists are no more ethical than others), because it is very strange.

I've heard that econ grad students tend to choose "defect" (rather than "cooperate") more than the average in Prisoner's Dilemma, and that makes sense given the prevailing assumptions about homo economicus in that discipline. But the apparent tendency for ethicists to be more hypocritical or immoral (or whatnot) than average is beyond my grasp. Are there plausible explanations available for this?

It might be instructive to compare the data you've collected with an anonymous internet survey of grad students and philosophers pursuing ethics (with questions such as: "Are you a moral objectivist, relativist, etc.", "What should be the main objectives of teaching ethics to undergraduate students: (a) to inculcate critical thinking skills, (b) to become better persons, etc." and so on). Perhaps this could help in diagnosing the problem. But the worry is that people who don't return library books will tend to be the ones who couldn't care less about volunteering info for surveys.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the helpful and interesting suggestions, Ted, Mark, and Boram!

Ted: You may be right -- and that may explain why more well-known texts are more likely to be missing than others. However, the effect persists even just looking at texts that are unlikely to be assigned for general education courses or courses serving non-majors; so I don't think what you say can be the whole story. Sometime in the next week or so, I'll post on my results on classic texts like Mill's On Liberty that are very widely used in required courses.

Mark: You raise good methodological points. Definitely not all libraries mean the same thing by "missing". Texas takes it very seriously, for example, only listing a text as missing if they've essentially given up on it after a search; whereas Cornell, I believe, lists even simply overdue texts as missing. (In analyzing Cornell's results I didn't classify a book as "missing" unless it was listed by Cornell as missing for at least a year.)

You are right that books are sometimes missing simply because they are misshelved; and certainly books may be stolen and not discovered to be missing because no one bothers to search for them. So it's not a perfect measure! But I see no reason to suppose there would be any asymmetry between ethics books and non-ethics books (especially once check-out rates are taken into account) in either respect. So the rates at which texts are listed as missing in the catalog can stand as a fair approximation of the rates at which they are stolen. If your experience is representative, and about 20% of the books that are listed as missing are actually only misshelved, that still means a substantial majority of books listed as missing really have been misappropriated or lost.

"Stolen" is a strong word. Some missing books, of course, are merely lost by the patron, rather than intentionally stolen. Or, somewhere in-between, a professor may move and negligently pack her library books along with her other books. But losing or packing up someone else's property is already a kind of irresponsibility and moral failing. Even misshelving a book (if the patrons are to blame for books "missing" due to misshelving) is a kind of culpable negligence and irresponsibility.

Boram: I, too, am puzzled by the effect. I'm nervous about the validity of internet surveys due to (typically) very low and therefore unrepresentative response rates. I also don't think many serious scholars of ethics are amoralists or relativists of the more pugnacious sort (though of course there are a few), so I doubt that the effect is driven by ethicists who see themselves as not beholden to moral standards.

It may be that thinking about ethics professionally, and noticing the back-and-forth of argument, can lead to either (1.) skill in rationalization of immoral behavior or (2.) a kind of distancing (to some extent) from, and gamesmanship about, moral norms. But I don't know.

Brachinus said...

Maybe philosophy students just have a playful sense of irony.

fishzle said...

Maybe, people aren't consciously "stealing" books. Perhaps Ethics books have nice covers and they make nice book ends. Perhaps, they're being used to prop up furniture, because we all know ethicists working at burger places...

Books can be consumed for different reasons.

If we stretch my hypothesis, perhaps they're being burnt by students struggling to keep warm in winter...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Now we're starting to get to the more creative hypotheses!


Anonymous said...

Traditionally, people looking for answers to the questions discussed by ethicists looked to theologians such as Thomas Aquinas. Ethics as an abstract subject was created by people who, while rejecting religion as an authority, were unwilling to face the utter amorality of scientific objectivity.

As they were not entirely successful in developing an alternative philosophical basis for morality, it's not too surprising that people interested in their approach might be more easily tempted than others to steal.

Anonymous said...

Another two possible explanations:

Psychiatrists are more likely to have mental illnesses than the rest of the population. Could it be that ethicists are drawn to their vocation through having flawed ethics? As opposed to their decision-making becoming perturbed during the study of ethics.

Some readers perceive that the act of reading an ethics book has earned them ethical brownie points, which then offset the theft of the book.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, Frank and Anon, it's definitely a possibility that the people who are drawn to ethics start out more ethically problematic. I'm not particularly attracted to that hypothesis myself, but I wish I could think of a way to check it empirically.

And I agree there may also be some sort of "conservation of morality" effect: Doing one good deed gives license to be a creep for a while -- like exercising then treating oneself to ice cream. I wouldn't be surprised if there is some truth in this.

Anonymous said...

I read before that Aristotle supported the theft of books were it to be in the thief seeking knowledge and wanting to better his understanding. I have also read the contrary of Aristotles ethics on theft.I live in Ireland and saint Colum Cille is said to have caused a battle called the battle of the books when he failed to return a book he wanted to copy. Thousands were slaughtered.

Patricia O'Callaghan said...

I am inclined to think that it could be simply the fact that ethics can determine behaviour as well as thinking whereas other branches of philosophy may not reflect in behaviour. So I think it's a good thing that people want to take these books and they may be unlikely to steal in other circunstances. Maybe the need for the book overcomes any qualms .