Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Moral Behavior of Ethics Professors: Peer Opinion

At the Pacific Division meeting of the APA last week, Josh Rust and I offered passersby chocolate for completing questionnaires on the moral behavior of ethics professors.

We did a preliminary study of this at the Eastern APA. It also connects to a general interest I have in the relationship between moral reflection and moral behavior.

The survey came in two versions. The key questions in Version 1 were:

1. Take a moment to consider the various ethics professors you have known, both as colleagues and in the student-mentor relationship. As best you can determine from your own experience, do professors specializing in ethics tend, on average, to behave morally better, worse, or about the same as philosophers not specializing in ethics? (Please circle one number below.)

[The numbers then ran from 1 ("substantially morally better") to 4 ("about the same") to 7 ("substantially morally worse").]


2. [same question, but with the comparison group being "non-academics of similar social background"].

For comparison, identical questions were asked about "specialists in metaphysics and epistemology (including philosophy of mind)".

Version 2 was similar, but it asked the respondent to think about the particular ethicist in your department whose name comes next in alphabetical order after yours (looping around from Z to A if necessary). [Thanks to Jonathan Ichikawa for formulating this question, in a comment on this blog!] Again, for comparison, identical questions were asked about the metaphysics and epistemology specialist in your department. In both versions we collected demographic information about area of specialization, rank, type of institution, and graduate school.

277 people completed questionnaires out of about 1300 registered for the meeting. There were some cute stories, too. Among them: An eminent ethicist who shall remain nameless grabbed a chocolate from our table without completing the survey, then dashed off, saying "I'm being evil!" I don't think she realized that her behavior was actually pertinent to the content of the questionnaire!

Preliminary results: Ethicists think ethicists behave slightly better than philosophers specializing in other areas. Non-ethicists think they behave the same.

On Version 1, ethicists' mean response for the question comparing ethicists' behavior to the behavior of non-ethicists was 3.44 (where 4 is "about the same") (t-test vs. 4, p = .01). M&E specialists got a mean of 4.26. On Version 2, they rated an arbitrarily chosen ethicist in their department better, compared to others in their department, than an arbitrarily chosen M&E specialist (3.38 vs. 3.98) (p = .05)

On Version 1, non-ethicists rated ethicists at an even 4.00 vs. other philosophers. (About 1/3 said they behaved better, about 1/3 said they behaved worse.) On Version 2, non-ethicists rated both the ethicists and the M&E specialists at about 3.5 compared to others in their departments (showing a slight bias toward favoring individuals over groups, but no better opinion of ethicists overall).

More thoughts (including analysis by rank and institution type) to come soon!


Anonymous said...

Interesting. Do you have the data to see whether M&E specialists talking about other M&E specialists look the same as ethicists talking about other ethicists?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

The closest I have is this: Non-ethicists regard M&E specialists as morally on par with ethicists. But how many of the non-ethicists see themselves as M&E specialists?

I would guess about half, given that M&E is defined in the questionnaire to include philosophy of mind, and given that I'm excluding from this analysis people who claim ethics as an "area of competence" but not an "area of specialization" (which I would assume would include most of those political philosophers who don't see themselves as ethicists). The bulk of the remainder would be historians of philosophy and those philosophers of science and logicians who see themselves as not doing M&E.

Roman Altshuler said...

Maybe this has been addressed in comments on previous posts, but I wonder if this sort of survey shows anything at all about the relation between moral behavior and moral reflection. (1) Some meta-ethicists may not care at all about normative ethics, and in those cases there shouldn't be any difference in behavior compared to M&E specialists. (3) There may be no substantial connection between philosophical moral reasoning and non-philosophical moral reasoning (even for the same person), so the link between the ethicist's reflection and behavior may be severed even before the stage of putting thought into action is reached. (3) If they're not Kantian ethicists, their moral reflection is a priori wrong. :)

Some thoughts: Why not add some standard moral dilemmas to help classify the respondents' approach to moral reasoning? Maybe ask specifically about applied ethicists rather than ethicists in general? Maybe have non-ethicists evaluate not just the behavior of the ethicists they know, but also ask their opinion of those ethicists' expressed and/or specifically philosophical moral reflection?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, Roman!

You are absolutely right that we shouldn't leap hastily from evidence about peer *opinion* about the behavior of ethicists to conclusions about ethicists' actual behavior. These results are suggestive, I think, only in a broader context of research that looks more directly at behavior. (I am doing a bit of research along these lines, but it's a difficult topic to study directly!)

Your point about a potential difference between meta-ethicists and applied ethicists is a plausible one that several people have made. I worry, though, about cutting things too fine, given the relatively low statistical power of the methods and the likely small size of the effects, and given the overlap between people interested in meta-ethics and normative ethics. (The same holds for your other suggestions -- interesting ideas, but maybe too ambitious at this early stage of research.)

Regarding Kant: You might have meant this tongue-in-cheek, but I'll answer it seriously. I hope, in my studies, to focus on issues about which most Kantians and non-Kantians would agree. For example, both utilitarians and Kantians probably think the theft of library books is usually wrong. In Version 2 of the questionnaire described here, I asked people to list 2-3 aspects of the target's behavior most relevant to their assessment, and people tended to say things like "honesty", "integrity", "treatment of students" -- again, Kantians and utilitarians can probably mostly agree on these things.

On the issue of the potential disconnection between philosophical reasoning about ethics and everyday reasoning -- well, that's exactly the sort of issue that I think results like this raise in an interesting way, and the kind of thing I'd like to explore more!

Justin Kalef said...

If there is, as Roman suggests and I agree, a substantial disconnect between 'philosophical' and 'non-philosophical' moral reasoning (allowing for the moment the an institutional definition of 'philosophical'), then what exactly are the aims of philosophical moral reasoning? And what is the justification for the demand on the public to support research and teaching in these areas?

I'm not suggesting that _only_ those areas of research and teaching that have clear benefits to the bulk of the people ought to be entitled to governmental subsidy, etc.; but surely there should be truth in advertising. Many philosophers, departmental webpages, and introductory texts suggest that philosophy will provide its students with (inter alia) the understanding (and even, according to some sources,the motivation) to lead a moral life, regardless of the cavils of the bulk of prominent 20th century philosophers. Are these just mindless paraphrases of Plato, written with no consideration of the speaker's long years of experience? Or is this a conscious attempt to deceive the public and potential students into supporting or entering a course of study that simply does not involve what people say it involves? Or something else?

I can't yet tell whether this is of interest to you, Eric -- sorry if it's too far off-topic.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Justin, that is exactly the sort of issue I'm interested in.

Here's something to consider: If you were aiming to create an ethics course that would have the maximal positive moral effect on your students, what would you teach and how? My guess is that the standard "ethical theories" course would not be the ideal choice for this goal.

Of course, there are excellent reasons to contemplate ethical theories (as there are to contemplate metaphysical theories), but I think philosophers could be clearer about their motivations and their justifications in teaching ethics....

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that training to become a good ethical reasoner and ethical actor involves a) the critical evaluation of practical cases (including, to some extent, a consideration of what features are the same or different between different moral cases); b) the development or cultivation of good moral habits; and c) the development or cultivation of moral motivation.

I take it that a) and b) are pretty well parallel to what one goes through in learning a trade, skill, art, sport or what have you. No decent trade school would send out electricians who had spent the bulk (or all) of their education considering the relationship of different countries' electrical currents(radical discontinuity? Trans-national reducibility? 'Best' current? Etc.). Students begin with what is most practical and learn the theoretical when it is in the service of the practical. I don't see why ethics needs to be any different, aside from on two points:

1) There are some people with whom one can't have a fruitful discussion about what should be done, because they are skeptics, relativists, etc. about morality or have other sorts of theoretical doubts about the whole ethical enterprise. For these individuals, one needs to deploy some meta-ethical arguments. This is different from the learning of most trades -- carpenters never need to begin by justifying their entire practice.

2) There are also some genuinely interesting metaphysical and epistemological questions regarding how moral statements and properties fit in with non-moral ones (and how we can know the truth of any of these statements). However, if the point of a course in morals should be to have the "maximal positive moral effect" on our students, as you say, then clearly these issues (insofar as they are _not_ meant to help overcome genuine doubts about the viability of the whole moral project) are a distraction from that purpose. For that reason, they probably belong in a course on metaphysics or epistemology.

As for acquiring good habits, the best thing would be to look at how people learn anything else that requires good habits: manual trades, sports, etc. It seems that the key is to have the student work through a number of carefully designed simulations that are as close as possible to the situation in which these skills will need to be used. Many disciplines of this sort make the student go through drills in order to reinforce the appropriate behaviors. I'm not sure how or whether that would work in ethics: any ideas?

The extra one is c) -- motivating people to be moral. I find this really depends to a large extent upon the instructor's ability to make psychological appeals to his/her students, and to help them clearly associate a sense of shame or disgust with immorality, and the opposite with morality.

And yes, I think this would be radically different from the way ethics courses are presently taught. I can never decide whether this is due to the demands of the classroom format, or to the apathy and/or incompetence of instructors regarding teaching, or to some confusion as to what the aims of a course on ethics ought to be. Probably it's all three.

However, if we don't find ways to motivate people to be ethical (and show them how to figure out what is ethical), who will? I can't be satisfied, as A. J. Ayer was, to say that this is a matter best left to clergymen and politicians.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Very interesting comment, Justin! I don't find much to disagree with there.

Regarding inculcating habits: I have heard that some universities have started requiring a small amount of charity work of their students, and that students graduating from those universities are substantially more likely in the future to volunteer for charities than those who graduate from other universities. (Of course, this may partly be because students who like the idea of charity are more likely to be attracted to universities that require it.)

Of course, on the flip side, there's the phenomenon that requiring or paying someone to do something often reduces the likelihood that the person will do that thing voluntarily in the future....

(I should confess that I myself can't recall ever having given time to a charity -- unless you consider committee work and refereeing charity!)

Anonymous said...

Did you take into account that people are more likely to not behave / follow procedures when under stress (or competition) such as deadlines and performance expectations? Perhaps the ethicists are under more stress to produce new research under tight timelines. Also stealing books can be a way of preventing competing researchers having same data.

Side note: The chocolate stealer may have been addicted to the chocolate and unable to control her actions.

I have seen some similar issues with Quality Assurance and Regulatory people in the pharmaceutical industry. They were they worst ones at following procedures, keeping their areas clean etc. when they worked in manufacturing. They are more interested in the appearance of quality and and requlatory compliance than actual product quality and compliance. They generate many procedures that are contradictory, illogical and logistically impossible while taking no responsibilty for their actions or procedures.

Also I have had QA ask me accusingly of losing a given batch record. I often look over their messy desks, when they are not around to only find it there?

Have you made an effort to find any stolen library books by checking the most obvious places, someone's office who is doing research on a related subject? Also did you check researchers published work for references to the missing books?

River Eddy

Anonymous said...

Did you consider subdividing between ethics specialists in graduate versus wholly under graduate departments? In my (limited) experience it has seemed to me that ethics specialists in primarily undergraduate programs have more frequently displayed a heightened sensitivity to ethical issues in practical life than those based in research-oriented programs involved in graduate training. So perhaps you might get different results if you grouped results by the sorts of institutions at which your respondents were based.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

Eddy, sorry to take so long to notice your comment. Usually I catch them through my comments feed. What you say about QA rings true to me.

Jennifer: We did analyze responses by respondents' institution type but didn't find any significant effects.