Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Are Ethicists Any More Likely to be Blood or Organ Donors Than Are Other Professors?

Short answer: no.  Not according to self-report, at least.

These results come from Josh Rust's and my survey of several hundred ethicists, non-ethicist philosophers, and professors in other departments. (Other survey results, and more about the methods, are here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

Before asking for any self-reports of behavior, we asked survey respondents to rate various behaviors on a nine-point scale from "very morally bad" through "morally neutral" to "very morally good". Among the behaviors were:

Not having on one’s driver’s license a statement or symbol indicating willingness to be an organ donor in the event of death,
Regularly donating blood.
In both cases, ethicists were the group most likely to praise or condemn the behavior (though the differences between ethicists and other philosophers were within statistical chance).  60% of ethicists rated not being an organ donor on the "morally bad" side of the scale, compared to 56% of non-ethicist philosophers and 42% of non-philosophers (chi-square, p = .001).  And 84% of ethicists rated regularly donating blood on the "morally good" side of the scale, compared to 80% of non-ethicist philosophers and 72% of non-philosophers (chi-square, p = .01).

In the second part of the questionnaire, we asked for self-report of various behaviors, including:
Please look at your driver’s license and indicate whether there is a statement or symbol indicating your willingness to be an organ donor in the event of death,
When was the last time you donated blood?
The groups' responses to these two questions were not statistically significantly different: 67% of ethicists, 64% of non-ethicist philosophers, and 69% of philosophers reported having an organ donor symbol or statement on their driver's license (chi-square, p = .75); and 13% of ethicists, 14% of non-ethicist philosophers, and 10% of non-philosophers reported donating blood in 2008 or 2009 (the survey was conducted in spring 2009; chi-square, p = .67).  A related question asking how frequently respondents donate blood also found no detectable difference among the groups.

These results fit into an overall pattern that Josh Rust and I have found: Professional ethicists appear to behave no better than do other professors.  Among our findings so far:
  • Arbitrarily selected ethicists are rated as overall no morally better behaved by members of their own departments than are arbitrarily selected specialists in metaphysics and epistemology (Schwitzgebel and Rust, 2009).
  • Ethicists, including specialists in political philosophy, are no more likely to vote than are other professors (though Political Science professors are more likely to vote than are other professors; Schwitzgebel and Rust, 2010).
  • Ethics books, including relatively obscure books likely to be borrowed mostly by professors and advanced students in philosophy, are more likely to be missing from academic libraries than are other philosophy books (Schwitzgebel, 2009).
  • Although ethics professors are much more likely than are other professors to say that eating the meat of mammals is morally bad, they are just about as likely to report having eaten the meat of a mammal at their previous evening meal (Splintered Mind post, May 22, 2009).
  • Ethics professors appear to be no more likely to respond to undergraduate emails than are other professors (Splintered Mind post, June 16, 2009).
  • Ethics professors were statistically marginally less likely to report staying in regular contact with their mothers (Splintered Mind post, August 31, 2010).
  • Ethics professors did not appear to be any more honest, overall, in their questionnaire responses, to the extent that we were able to determine patterns of inaccurate or suspicious responding (Splintered Mind post, June 4, 2010).
Nor is it the case, for the normative questions we tested, that ethicists tend to have more permissive moral views.  If anything (as with organ donation), they tend to express more demanding moral views.

All this evidence, considered together, creates, I think, a substantial explanatory challenge for the approximately one-third of non-ethicist philosophers and approximately one-half of professional ethicists who -- in another of Josh's and my surveys -- expressed the view that on average ethicists behave a little morally better than do others from socially comparable groups.

We do have preliminary evidence, however, that environmental ethicists litter less.  Hopefully we can present that evidence soon.  (First, we have to be sure that we are done with data collection.)


G. Randolph Mayes said...

I have occasionally entertained the ugly thought that some ethics professors are attracted to the study of ethics because it allows them to become expert at justifying prima facie bad behavior. If that were actually true, then the explanation of some of this data might be that most ethics professors do behave somewhat better than non ethics professors but it does not show because a larger minority of ethics professors than non ethics professors behaves badly.

dioscuri said...

One question - what percentage of tenured American ethics professors have now been polled on some kind of 'talk the talk, walk the walk' question? I think xPhi is dealing with a dangerously small sample here, which could easily kibosh the methodology.
- Henry

dioscuri said...

...which makes me think that this line of approach will have one definite consequence, namely improving the ethical behaviour of ethics professors (because they know they're going to get asked about it sooner or later), or else harm it (because they start lying in answer to these surveys).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Randolf: Yes, that's definitely a possibility!

Dioscuri: I see your concern about the sample size -- or, really, the sample-independence of different studies. However, I don't think it's a problem yet. As far as I know, no one else is polling ethicists about whether they "walk the walk". (If I'm missing something, though, *please* let me know!)

And, yes, it is possible that this sort of scrutiny will affect ethicists' behavior. (My guess that the effect would be modest at best, though.)

L. A. Paul said...

So... the moral is that ethicists just like to tell other people what they should do?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Well, maybe, Laurie! When my son was about seven and I was discussing my research with him, he said something like this: "The kids who talk a lot about being fair and being nice and sharing are the ones who want you to be fair and nice and share with THEM." I'm inclined to think there's something in that observation -- but I also think it's a bit too cynical to regard that as the whole story. Most ethicists, I suspect, are sincerely interested in abiding by the moral norms they espouse, and not just in foisting them upon others.