Tuesday, August 11, 2009

In Recruiting Members, the APA Doesn't Appeal As Effectively to Self-Interest As Do Other Academic Disciplinary Societies

Or so it seems, from the data I'm looking at here.

As discussed on this blog several times previously, last spring Josh Rust and I conducted a survey of the moral attitudes and moral behavior of philosophers (including ethicists) and other professors. Part I of the survey solicited attitudes about the morality or immorality of various actions -- eating meat, donating to charity, etc. -- using a nine-point scale from "very morally bad" to "very morally good", with "morally neutral" in the middle. Part II asked respondents to report their own behavior in such matters.

We asked two questions about membership in academic societies. In Part I, we asked about the morality or immorality of "regularly paying membership dues to support one's main academic disciplinary society (the APA, the MLA, etc., as appropriate)". In Part II, we asked "Are you currently a dues-paying member of your discipline's main academic society?

Philosophers' attitudes toward the American Philosophical Association seemed about the same as other professors' attitudes. Philosophers were just as likely as non-philosophers to say it was good to pay membership dues to support their main academic disciplinary society, with 67.7% rating that action somewhere on the "morally good" side of the scale, compared to 64.7% of non-philosophers, a difference well within the range of the survey's sampling error (chi-squared, p = .48).

(I should mention, as a caveat, that among respondents who rated membership as morally good, philosophers rated it, on average, less good than did non-philosophers -- 6.89 vs. 7.53 on the 9-point scale [t-test, p < .001]. However, I believe this simply reflects philosophers' greater tendency to avoid the extreme ends of the scale. For every single one of the nine rated actions, philosophers' responses, when they were not neutral, were closer to neutral than were non-philosophers' responses -- an occupational hazard, perhaps, of philosophers' frequent reflection on unusual and extreme cases.)

However, philosophers were less likely than were other professors to report being members of their disciplinary societies: 78.0% of philosopher respondents were members, vs. 86.7% of the respondents from other disciplines (chi-square, p = .02). The difference is almost entirely driven by respondents who expressed the view that membership is morally neutral. Among those who said that membership was morally good, philosophers and non-philosophers differed little in their membership rates (82.6% vs. 87.9%, within chance, chi-square p = .21). But among professors who said they saw membership in their discipline's main society as morally neutral -- professors presumably motivated mainly by self-interest in their decision whether or not to be members -- philosophers' membership rates were considerably lower (68.0% vs. 84.5%, p = .02).

Put a bit differently, non-philosophers' membership rates hardly differed between those who saw membership as morally good and those who did not, suggesting that there are excellent prudential reasons for most professors in other disciplines to be members, while this was is not as true for philosophers.

Perhaps the APA should take note.

(Incidentally, ethicists and non-ethicist philosophers didn't appear to differ in any of these respects, which is why I've combined them in the analyses here.)

Now I should say that all this concerns self-reported membership only. For the philosophers, I happen to have data about the actual membership rates of our survey respondents -- which, as you might expect, are somewhat lower than self-reported membership rates. I'll get to this in the next post. Unfortunately, for the comparison to non-philosophers, self-report is all we have to go on.


Joshua Rust said...

"among professors who said they saw membership in their discipline's main society as morally neutral -- professors presumably motivated mainly by self-interest in their decision whether or not to be members -- philosophers' membership rates were considerably lower (68.0% vs. 84.5%, p = .02)."

When our actions (e.g. professional membership) are not explained by moral considerations, must that action be explained by appeal to self-interest?

Margaret Gilbert and especially John Searle entertain the possibility of non-desire and non-moral based reasons for action. While there are moral and prudential reasons for why I grade my students' papers, it may just be that I grade these papers because that is part of what it is to be a professor. Otherwise put, there are certain institutional statuses (professor, husband, citizen, etc.) which entail clusters of non-moral rights and obligations. If I attend a staff meeting, perhaps I do so less from moral reasons and more from a recognition that this is among the institutional obligations entailed by having the particular status that I do. Along these lines, perhaps it's the case that professional membership is less central to what it is to be a philosophy professor, as compared to other kinds of professors (at least among those who don't think that professional membership is also a moral obligation).

Indeed many of the questions we asked in the survey walk the line between moral obligations and institutional obligations: do I vote in virtue of a moral obligation or in virtue of the institutional obligations entailed by my status as a US citizen? Perhaps an increased sensitivity to this distinction might also explain why philosophers, in general, tend to rank actions closer to neutral than do other professors. On this reading, philosophers who act but rank the act as morally neutral can't be assumed to act merely from prudential considerations.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I'm not sure about non-moral rights and obligations in the sense you seem to intend, Josh; it could be that you're using the term "moral" more narrowly than I. But I agree with your larger point that not all actions are motivated either by morality or by self-interest.

So maybe the conclusion should be that it's some combination of self-interest and/or other sources of dues-paying behavior that the APA appears not to effectively induce.