Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Ethicists and Political Philosophers Vote Less Often, Apparently, Than Other Philosophers

I assume that voting in public elections is a duty (a duty that admits of excuses and exceptions, of course) and that it's morally better to vote conscientiously than not to vote.

In previous research, I've found that:
(1.) ethics books are more likely to be missing from academic libraries than other philosophy books (full essay here),
(2.) philosophy students at Zurich do not give increasing amounts to student charities as their education proceeds, and
(3.) (with Joshua Rust) a majority of philosophers think ethicists behave, on average, no better than non-ethicists of similar social background (full essay here).

With Josh Rust's and my current findings on voting patterns, that's now four consecutive studies suggesting that ethicists behave no better than, or maybe even worse than, comparable non-ethicists.

Looking at voter history data from California, Florida, North Carolina, and Washington State, we found voting rates among professors registered to vote:

Ethicists: 0.97 votes/year (227 records total)
Political philosophers (a subgroup of ethicists): 0.95 votes/year (96 records)
Non-ethicist philosophers: 1.07 votes/year (279 records)
Political scientists: 1.11 votes/year (244 records)
Other professors: 0.93 votes/year
The differences over .07 votes/year are statistically significant. The results are stable controlling for age, gender, ethnicity, state of residence, institution type, and political party. Controlling for rank doesn't substantially change the results, except that it raises the voting rate of the comparison group of "other professors" to a rate between that of ethicists and non-ethicists, so that it can't be said that philosophers vote more often than non-philosophers.

Now I'd have thought political philosophers, like political scientists, would be more engaged than average with the political process. Instead -- depressingly (to me; maybe you'll rejoice?) -- it seems that they're less engaged, at least if voting is taken as the measure of engagement.

When I face moral decisions -- decisions like "should I go out and vote even though I'd rather look for Weird Al videos on YouTube?" -- I often reflect on what I should do. I think about it; I weigh the pros and cons; I consider duties and consequences and what people I admire or loathe would do. I am implicitly and deeply committed to the value of reflection in making moral decisions and prompting moral behavior. To suppose that moral reflection is valueless is pretty dark, or at least pretty radical.

Yet if moral reflection does us moral good, you'd think that ethics professors, who are presumably champions of moral reflection, would themselves behave well -- or at least not worse!

(Josh Rust and I will be presenting these results as a poster at the Society for Philosophy and Psychology meeting next week. The full text of the poster will be available shortly on the Underblog.)

Update, June 26:
In the last couple days, Josh and I were able to do a first analysis of new data from Minnesota. In that state, the ethicists and political philosophers appear to be so conscientious in their voting that it knocked the p-value of our main effect from .03 to .06 -- in other words, the trend in Minnesota was so strong the other direction that we can now no longer feel sufficiently confident (employing the usual statisical standards) that the trend we see for ethicists to vote less is not due simply to chance. So we should probably amend our thesis from "ethicists vote less" to the weaker "ethicists vote no more often". However, the Minnesota data also seem to introduce some potential confounds (such as that Minnesota philosophers seem to have unusual job stability) that complicate the interpretation and that we may want to try to compensate for statistically. So the final analysis isn't in!


Anonymous said...

Perhaps political philosophers affect to "objective" or disinterested study of political systems, behavior, and principles, and non-participation (with presumptive absence of partisan bias) is part of that conceit? Or is that off the mark completely?

ADHR said...

I wonder how many of the philosophers you surveyed would agree that voting in public elections is a duty. After all, if, upon reflection, many philosophers determine that voting is, at best, a weak duty (one easily overridden), then that would account for your observations.

Genius said...

But then surely non ethisist philosophers would think about whether voting is a dut, more, or at least as much, as "other professors"?

there must also be something else going on.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks!

Kboughan: There may be some of that; other specialists in that subarea seem pretty opinionated about current issues. Of course, if neutrality is only affected, and not genuinely felt, then I'd guess they'd vote just as much....

Adhr and genius: It took me a minute to get your idea, adhr, but I think it must be this: Voting may be a duty, but it is *less* of a duty or a more easily overridden duty than most people think; ethicists may discover this, and consequently vote less than ordinary folk. (And maybe non-ethicist philosophers are no more likely to discover this than other professors.)

In light of that possibility, I should probably reframe my working assumption about voting being a duty -- I need to assume that it's a duty to vote at least as often as we do ("we" being, in this context, professors). And actually, that seems a lot more questionable than the bare assertion that voting is a duty, given the high rate at which professors vote. Thanks for pushing me on that!

Anonymous said...

Eric, I'm not sure why we need to assume that voting is a duty at all in order to broach the question of "overall patterns," as you put it elsewhere. Whether voting is a duty or not, the differences in voting frequencies are there. But by assuming that voting is a duty and according it a central place in your project, you're diverting attention away from a large swathe of valid alternative explanations for those differences, and we're left considering just one or another "intrusion" (a curious fact or faulty assumption) in the duty calculations of ethicists and political philosophers -- as if that's all that ethicists and political philosophers are concerned with! Could it be that many of them spend less time theorizing what our duties are transcendentally and more time theorizing how the sense of duties develops immanently? The former strikes me as a naive conception of what most practitioners find truly interesting. Sort of like when layman think that all philosophers spend their time arguing more or less about the Matrix.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Hi Badda!

I'm not sure I completely understand the distinction between "theorizing what our duties are transcendentally" and "theorizing how the sense of duties develops immanently" -- but it sounds a bit like the first is more traditional ethics and the second is more moral psychology, no?

ADHR said...


Sorry if I was unclear; but, yes, that was the point I was trying to get across.

Things could get even messier if we abandon the idea that duties are discoveries, and instead endorse that the claim that they are (say) inventions. For example, Gil Harman argued (approximately) that moral duties only exist when (and only exist insofar as) there is a shared set of mutual expectations on behaviour. If that's correct, then it may be that the shared set doesn't exist between all potential voters (or even all professors), and hence not all voters have a duty to vote.

The difference in voting behaviours is interesting; I'm just wondering if there's a theoretical commitment that's driving it. That is, if we can explain the lower rate of voting amongst ethical and political philosophers on the basis of what they think about ethics and politics (respectively). Indeed, if that sort of explanation would fly, then it could be concluded that ethical and political philosophers show an admirable consistency between their express philosophical views and their demonstrated behaviours.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like, maybe, but I don't put too much stock in that distinction myself without thinking that ethicists, in that case, must be a little naive in treating duties like passive objects to be discovered. But if you're bound to those categories, then so much the worse for speculation on what lurks behind the discrepancies in voting frequencies. Not all self-described ethicists may share that conception of what defines their field.

The distinction I am making is between those who think that duties are discovered and those who chart their genealogies even as they willfully implicate themselves in their creation.

But my point, really, is that whether duties are discovered or not, I don't understand why it must be assumed that voting is a duty at all in order to feel the need to account for the discrepancies in voting frequencies -- unless you're trying to accomplish something else that you're not stating, like trumping the multiple self-identities of ethicists with your concept of what they must be doing if they are "properly" to be called ethicists at all, the better to restrict possible explanations.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Adhr: The broader agenda that brings me to this is pretty simple. I'm just curious about whether ethicists behave morally better than others of similar social background or not, so I'm trying to find a variety of measureable moral behaviors on which a large number of ethicists and non-ethicists can be compared; since I share the (what I take to be) general assumption that voting is a duty, this seemed a measureable thing. I don't mean to commit myself to strong or unusual opinions on metaethics or politics -- but maybe it can't be avoided!

Absolutely, it would be interesting if it were the case that ethicists were less likely than others to think of voting as morally good. But polling philosophers is a tricky business!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Badda: As I just mentioned in my reply to adhr, my agenda is to look for measurable moral behaviors on which to compare ethicists or non-ethicists, to test the hypothesis that ethicists behave morally better (or not) than otherwise similar non-ethicists. I would prefer not to get entangled too much in metaethical disputes of the sort you mention!

I agree with you, though, that if the effect is real, it's interesting to consider explanations regardless of what your background agenda or metaethical stance is.

Anonymous said...

So, to clarify, the supposed morality of some behaviors is just an arbitrary criterion for determining which measurable behaviors are to be looked at -- because otherwise we could just as well look for differences in the frequencies with which ethicists and non-ethicists brush their teeth -- which is not to say that it's any less interesting to consider explanations for different teeth-brushing behaviors....

Anonymous said...

I can see how your project might be of interest in normative education policy discourse. Maybe that's why I feel slightly uneasy about it.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I wouldn't say "arbitrary", but yes. And I would hope that this project would have implications for moral education.

My inclination is to favor moral education with a light touch and pluralistic tolerance -- and education that encourages people to reflect for themselves on morality, and trusts that such reflection is morally improving. But if that view is correct, shouldn't we expect ethicists to behave better, on average? Thus, this research project was born. (See my essay, available on my website, "Human nature and moral education in Mencius, Xunzi, Hobbes, and Rousseau".)

Anonymous said...

But are they really behaving worse? Assuming that they are will inflect your contribution to education policy discourse in a way that will cause you possibly to neglect or override the actual work that ethicists do. Whatever the reason for their lower voting frequency, you may want to modify their education -- to indoctrinate them, in effect -- to bring that frequency up to comply with what you believe is morally right, yes no?

So, you see, I only mention the meta-ethical disputes for their ethical interest in relation to your project.

Anonymous said...

"...and trusts that such reflection is morally improving."

And I just worry that maybe you're not showing much trust yourself if (1) ethicists do spend all their time calculating our duties and (2) they behave, presumably as a result of such calculations, as if voting is not necessarily one of them.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I see your point! There's always a risk of moral education becoming indoctrination (in the pejorative sense of that word). That's one of the reasons I myself lean toward a more pluralistic sort of moral education that invites people to reflect for themselves. But I'm worried that my evidence on the moral behavior of ethicists may cast doubt on the value of that sort of moral education. (If it were just voting, that would be one thing, but it seems to run across several very different studies.)

You're also right that I don't trust ethicists to be finding/inventing a better morality and to be doing what's right at higher rates. I want empirical evidence!

Anonymous said...

I know a political philosopher who claimed to be so paralysed by a theoretical paradox that he couldn't figure out how to go about deciding between bush and kerry. And the fucker lived in a swing state.

Genius said...

re the update:

Does that also imply simple clustering of voting behavior?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yeah, that's a bit strange, Jender -- but I've been there too, I'm sad to say!

Genius: Yeah, now what it looks like is political scientists voting more than everyone else, and all the others voting at basically the same rate. Ethicists and political philosophers still trend toward voting less, but within the margin of sampling error.