Friday, April 20, 2007

The Moral Behavior of Ethicists: Opinions Revealed in Conversation and on Questionnaires

Questionnaire respondents at the Pacific Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association a few weeks ago and at the Eastern Division meeting a few months ago said that ethicists behaved about as well, on average, as non-ethicists. At least, that's what the average non-ethicist said. Ethicists thought ethicists behaved a little bit better.

These results surprised me, not because I think ethicists actually behave particularly better or worse than non-ethicists, but because of what I've heard in conversation. I have probably spoken to about 200 philosophers about the moral behavior of ethicists. I'd say about 55-60% say ethicists behave about the same as non-ethicists, about 35-40% say they behave worse, and only about 5-10% say they behave better. On the questionnaire, on the other hand, responses were closer to 1/3 - 1/3 - 1/3.

Why this difference between my questionnaire results and what people say in conversation?

Some possibilities:

(1.) In conversation, ethicists will be shy about saying ethicists behave better, since that might seem insulting to non-ethicists. (Of course, this wouldn't explain the fact that many non-ethicists said on the questionnaire that ethicists behave better.)

(2.) Saying ethicists behave worse, or about the same, makes for more entertaining conversation, but it may not reflect the speaker's true opinion. (It seems a little strange to me to suppose that non-ethicists especially would deliberately hide their opinions about this, but maybe it's plausible as a covert conversational pressure operating non-consciously.)

(3.) People might be reluctant to say ethicists behave better because it risks seeming naive -- and more so in face-to-face conversation than in an anonymous questionnaire. Conversely, saying that ethicists behave the same or worse might seem worldly and sophisticated.

(4.) My inclination to think that ethicists don't behave better, or much better, may come across very early in the conversation. (I hope not, but I don't really know. Why my bias should have an asymmetic effect -- causing those with higher opinions of ethicists to adjust their statements but not those with lower opinions -- would need to be explained.)

(5.) Some respondents might worry about showing the profession in a bad light and so present themselves, in a formal survey, as a bit more sanguine about the behavior of ethicists than the really are. In conversation they might be more frank.

(6.) The more cynical philosophers, with darker views in general and darker views of ethicists in particular, may be less likely to volunteer to complete a questionnaire than the average philosopher, causing sanguine philosophers to be overrepresented in the respondent pool. This might have been especially true at the Eastern meeting, where many people seemed to assume my co-investigator, Josh Rust, was selling or advertising something. (At the Pacific, the sign clarified that it was a "philosophical/scientific" questionnaire; and I -- who knew probably 100 people at the meeting -- personally was at the table half the time.)

(1)-(4), if true, suggest that the questionnaire is the more reliable instrument; (5)-(6) that informal conversation is more telling.

Any thoughts?

No comments: