Friday, December 11, 2009

Do Ethicists Steal More Books?

... is now in print at Philosophical Psychology.


If explicit cognition about morality promotes moral behavior then one might expect ethics professors to behave particularly well. However, professional ethicists’ behavior has never been empirically studied. The present research examined the rates at which ethics books are missing from leading academic libraries, compared to other philosophy books similar in age and popularity. Study 1 found that relatively obscure, contemporary ethics books of the sort likely to be borrowed mainly by professors and advanced students of philosophy were actually about 50% more likely to be missing than non-ethics books. Study 2 found that classic (pre-1900) ethics books were about twice as likely to be missing.

My favorite table (click to enlarge):


Unknown said...

I am baffled by the Locke-Frege-Mill ranking at the bottom of the table! Who knew that logicists were so perfidious!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Frege is in brackets because there were fewer than 25 total off shelf, suggesting that the percentage may be unstable. Note the other Frege book at 0%

Unknown said...

Two things:

1) People who *need* ethics training could realize that they are ethically deficient and decide to study ethics to fix their shortcoming. They might steal books in the process, in keeping with old habits.

2) Stealing ethics texts could be seen by the perpetrator to be a clever prank. "Haha! I'm stealing an ethics textbook! How ironic!" There could easily be a spike in theft of these books for that reason.

Badda Being said...

3) Ethicists may have determined that stealing books is permissible.

Kevin said...

As a former book thief and academic philosopher, I'm bemused by your conclusions, Eric.

I've stolen all kinds of books, from SF and fantasy, to philosophy, to novels, the most ironic being Crime and Punishment, which I routinely gaze upon with a clear, innocent conscience.

As a youth, I stole books because I wanted them and was a very good tactician, that is, a very good thinker about means to achieve this or that end. (There is a best way to steal a book!)

As I matured, so did my ability to think about the morality of the ends in which I was in hot pursuit.

For instance, a library book that gets a lot of traffic, that's routinely checked out and returned in a timely fashion, is absolutely off limits. After all, library books are communal property, and the library is instituted to regulate and protect their public use.

On the other hand, a book slated for pulping is entirely fair game.

In my last year as an undergraduate, the library administration and collection department, in an effort to "recover" money, decided to pulp a number of books that met certain criteria, which fortunately for us young idealistic, bohemian types (philosophy and English students unite!) were leaked to the student body.

We decided to "recover" as many books as possible.

The result?

The Uses of Argument, for example, is safely in my library where others can enjoy it.

Toulmin (Good night, sweet Philosopher) would be proud, I think.

Anyhow, philosophy attracts unconventional thinkers, and if good reasons for stealing books exist — as they certainly do — unconventional thinkers are more likely than others to discover them and act accordingly.


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, Remedios, Badda, and Kevin! I agree that there may be unconventional justifications for stealing books, and one things ethics might do is weaken the grip of normative convention and habit. Yet I worry that much of the time when it does so, and when the weakening is in the direction of permitting greater pursuit of self-interest, what one sees is not so much excellent moral insight but rather self-serving rationalization. Not in all cases, of course!