Friday, May 22, 2009

Do Ethicists Eat Less Meat?

At philosophy functions there seems to be an abundance of vegetarians or semi-vegetarians, especially among ethicists. In my quest for some measure by which ethicists behave morally better than non-ethicists, this has seemed to me, along with charitable donation, among the most likely places to look. (On my history of failure to find evidence in previous research that professional ethicists behave better than anyone else, see here.)

Earlier this year, Joshua Rust and I sent out a survey to three groups of professors: Ethicists in philosophy, philosophers not specializing in ethics, and a comparison group of professors in other departments. After a number of prods (verging, I fear, on harrassment), we achieved a response rate in the ballpark of 60%, which is pretty good for a survey study given the wide variety of reasons people don't respond. Among our questions were three about vegetarianism.

First we asked a normative question. The prompt was "Please indicate the degree to which the action described is morally good or morally bad by checking one circle on each scale". Nine actions were described, among them "Regularly eating the meat of mammals such as beef or pork". Responses were on the following nine-point scale (laid out horizontally, not vertically as here)

O very morally bad
O somewhat morally bad
O morally neutral
O somewhat morally good
O very morally good
We coded the responses from "1" (very morally bad) to "9" (very morally good).

It seems that ethicists are substantially more condemnatory of eating meat (at least beef and pork) than are non-ethicists. Among the 196 ethicsts who responded to this question 59.7% espoused the view that regularly eating the meat of mammals was somewhere on the morally bad end of the scale (that is, 4 or less in our coding scheme). Among the 206 non-ethicist philosophers, 44.7% said eating the meat of mammals is morally bad. Among the 168 comparison professors only 19.6% said it is morally bad. (All differences are statistically significant.)

We posed two questions about respondents' own behavior. One question was this: "During about how many meals or snacks per week to you eat the meat of mammals such as beef or pork"? On this question, 50 ethicists (25.5%), 40 non-ethicist philosophers (19.4%), and 23 other professors (13.7%) claimed complete abstinence (zero meals per week). (The difference between the ethicists and comparison professors was statistically significant, the other differences within the range of chance variation.) Ethicists reported a median rate of 3 meals per week, the other groups median rates of 4 meals per week (a marginal statistical difference vs. the non-ethicist philosophers, a significant difference vs. the comparison profs).

Now by design that question was a bit difficult and easy to fudge. We also asked a much more specific question that we thought would be harder to fudge: "Think back on your last evening meal (not including snacks). Did you eat the meat of a mammal during that meal?" We figured that if there was a tendency to fudge or misrepresent on the survey, it would show up as a difference in patterns of response to these two questions; and if there was such a difference in patterns of response, we thought the latter question would probably yield the more accurate picture of actual behavior.

So here are the proportions of respondents who reported eating the meat of a mammal at their last evening meal:
Ethicists: 70/187 (37.4%)
Non-ethicist philosophers: 65/197 (33.0%)
Professors in other departments: 75/165 (45.4%).
There is no statistically detectable difference between the ethicists and either group of non-ethicists. (The difference between non-ethicists philosophers and the comparison professors was significant to marginal, depending on the test.)

Conclusion? Ethicists condemn meat-eating more than the other groups, but actually eat meat at about the same rate. Perhaps also, they're more likely to misrepresent their meat-eating practices (on the meals-per-week question and at philosophy functions) than the other groups.

I don't have anything against ethicists. Really I don't. In fact, my working theory of moral psychology predicted that ethicists would eat less meat, so I'm surprised. But this how the data are turning out.


Eddy Nahmias said...

Interesting survey Eric. One problem is that many people (like me) see nothing ethically problematic about eating mammals; rather the problem is with the way we raise them to eat them. The pain and suffering and environmental damage caused by factory farming is what I find problematic. Hence, I'm not sure how I would have answered your question (though I probably would have interpreted it to mean factory-farmed mammals).

Anibal Monasterio Astobiza said...

My comment is a little bit influenced by the reading of Haidt´s book "The Happiness hypothesis"

We have a divided self: modules of information processing that sometimes run in different directions (emotion Vs reason)

Haidt mentioned something about this issue.

He read Singer´s book Practical Ethics and he recalls that Singer gave him the reasons about not to eat meat but his elephant (the emotional part of his mind) don´t feel convinced and after several weeks of abstinence he returned to his normal diet.

In reasonable terms ethicists would be the people more armed to see the moral wrongeness in eating meat (animals are sentient animals, they suffer and their conditions of living are sometimes bad)

But nobody escape the moral Hypocresy of our deepest tendencies: reason say something but our "gutts" (perfect word) says other things.

We usually adhere to this rule: do what i say bot not what i do.

Mike J. said...

The results of the second question are statistically significant and the results of the the third one aren't (they don't allow you to reject the null hypothesis). Shouldn't you tentatively conclude that ethicists are less likely to eat meat from the second question and nothing from the third?

Tucker Lentz said...

This seems a bit misleading to me. As I understand it, the claim is supposed to be that while ethicists are more likely to assert that it is wrong to eat meat, they are actually no less likely to eat meat. That may be true, but it seems to me that this is interesting insomuch as it suggests some sort of disconnect between what people say and what they do, and it is not clear to me that the data supports that claim. About 60% of the ethicists say that it is wrong to eat meat, and about 40% of ethicists ate meat at their last meal. One possibility is that these numbers are exactly what one would expect. The 40% of ethicists who do not think it is wrong to eat meat, ate meat at their last meal. I would think that to draw a stronger conclusion, you would need to look at the subset of ethicists who claimed that eating meat was wrong. How likely are those people to eat meat?

Dan said...

That's interesting. It looks like the main difference is between philosophers and non-philosophers, though: philosophers (ethicist or not) are much more likely to say that meat-eating is wrong, and they seem to eat somewhat less meat. The differences between ethicists and non-ethicist philosophers are smaller and less consistent.

If you want to test whether ethicists are significantly more likely to misrepresent their meat-eating (on the meals-per-week question), you'd need to do an analysis that looks at the relationship between the meals-per-week question and the last-evening-meal question across the 3 groups (such as a logistic regression where you test whether the probability of having meat during the last evening meal is significant higher for ethicists after controlling for the reported number of meals per week).

I'd be interested in seeing more about the relationship between the three questions. For instance, what if you split each group of professors into those who said that meat-eating is bad (below a 5 on the first question) and those who didn't - how do each of those 6 groups look on the last 2 questions?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks!

Eddy: There's always the temptation -- especially for us philosophers -- to build all the qualifications and nuances we can into our questions. But then the problem with that is that the questions get incomprehensible, and not everyone thinks about the qualifications the same way. Better, I thought, to just keep it simple. I hope most of the people for whom "factory farmed" is the relevant issue would interpret the question as you did.

Anibal: Yeah, I like the rider on the elephant metaphor, too! It seems pretty true. Dieting is I think a wonderful example of that.

Mike J: I'll want to look at the confidence intervals, but I do think that if there's an apparent difference between the questions, we should take the third one and not the second one as the more valid measure.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Tucker and Dan: Yes, I need to look at the relationships between the questions. To justify Tucker's interpretation we'd need to have the 40% who say eating meat is okay to be the same 40% who ate meat at the previous meal, and since there's no reason to think the previous meal was atypical of the weekly meal, they'd also have to report eating meat 7 times a week or more. With a median meals/week of 3 for the ethicists, I think this last is unlikely.

Dan, I like the idea of a split group analysis and a logistic regression.

Anonymous said...

i thought if i can't eat meat then i can't eat anything, therefore it is ok to eat meat. they should think out of the box and not think of themselves as cave men and with recent canines in full.they see no imformation or gift. to know is to know