Monday, June 14, 2010

Do Metaethicists Really Behave Worse Than Other Ethicists?

On Friday, I presented data suggesting -- contrary to common opinion -- that deontologists behave no worse than virtue ethicists and consequentialists. Another opinion I've often heard from philosophers is that metaethicists -- that is, philosophers who focus on the most abstract general questions about ethics (such as whether there are moral truths at all and if so what their metaphysical grounding is) -- behave, on average, less well than do other ethicists, perhaps especially applied ethicists. The same data set provides evidence on this question too.

At the center of the dataset is a survey Josh Rust and I sent to hundreds of professional philosophers. Near the end of the survey we asked respondents, "If an ethics-related area is among your specializations, which of the following best reflects the level of abstraction at which you tend to consider ethical issues? (check all that apply)". Response options were "metaethics", "normative ethics" [i.e., theoretical debates about deontology vs. consequentialism, etc., an intermediate level of abstraction], "applied ethics", and "no ethics-related area among my specializations". 28% of philosophers claimed a specialization in metaethics, 45% in normative ethics, 32% in applied ethics (these three groups overlapping, of course), and 36% claimed no such specialization. Although there was a trend for the non-ethicists to be more male (78% vs. 72%) this was not statistically significant given our sample size (361 respondents). Non-ethicist respondents did tend to be a little younger (mean birthyear 1958 vs. 1954). We saw no gender or age differences by level of abstraction within ethics.

Looking at our various questions about respondents' opinions on various applied ethical issues, applied ethicists seemed to think it morally better to vote regularly than did the other groups; ethicists in general thought it morally worse than did non-ethicists not to keep in at least monthly telephone or face-to-face contact with one's mother; and ethicists asserted more of a duty to give to charity (13% of ethicists said it was not the case that the typical professor should donate to charity vs. 24% of non-ethicists). We saw no detectable differences among the groups on the morality of belonging to one's main disciplinary society (for philosophers, the APA), eating the meat of mammals, being an organ or blood donor, or responding to student emails.

The groups did not differ in their self-reported rates of dues-paying membership in the APA, but looking directly at APA membership lists, applied ethicists were less likely than were other groups actually to be members of the APA (61% vs. 75%). Metaethicists tended to report voting in fewer public elections than did applied ethicists, and actual voting data obtained from public records appeared to bear out that trend (an estimated 1.26 votes/year for applied ethicists, vs. 1.05 for metaethicists; I should clarify here that Josh and I "de-identified" the survey data so that we cannot make inferences about particular individuals' survey responses). Metaethicists also reported eating more mammal meat than did applied ethicists (mean 5.2 vs. 3.2 meals/week, and 50% vs. 31% reporting having eaten the meat of a mammal at the last evening meal). Meta-ethicists self-reported giving less to charity (mean 3.9% of income vs 5.2%, excluding one applied ethicist who claimed to have given 500% of his income to charity) and metaethicists appeared to be less motivated by the survey's charity incentive (half of survey recipients received a charity incentive, that is a promise by us (which we did fulfill) to give $10 to a charity of the respondent's choice among six major charities in return for the completed survey; 45% of returned metaethicists' surveys had the charity incentive vs. 57% of applied ethicists'). We found no differences in self-reported organ or blood donation, self-reported or actual responsiveness to undergraduate emails, overall rate of suspicious responding to the survey, or frequency of contact with one's mother (if living).

Obviously, there's room for difference of opinion about these measures, but my interpretation of the data is that they tend to weakly confirm the hypothesis that metaethicists behave not quite as morally well as do applied ethicists.

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