Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Moral Behavior of Ethicists and the Rationalist Delusion

A new essay with Joshua Rust.

In the first part, we summarize our empirical research on the moral behavior of ethics professors.

In the second part, we consider five possible explanations of our finding that ethics professors behave, on average, no better than do other professors.

Explanation 1: Philosophical moral reflection has no material impact on real-world moral behavior. Jonathan Haidt has called the view that explicit moral reflection does have a substantial effect on one's behavior "the rationalist delusion".

Explanation 2: Philosophical moral reflection influences real world moral behavior, but only in very limited domains of professional focus. Those domains are sufficiently narrow and limited that existing behavioral measures can't unequivocally detect them. Also, possibly, any improvement in such narrow domains might be cancelled out, in terms of overall moral behavior, by psychological factors like moral licensing or ego depletion.

Explanation 3: Philosophical moral reflection might lead one to behave more morally permissibly but no morally better. The idea here is that philosophical moral reflection might lead one to avoid morally impermissible behavior while also reducing the likelihood of doing any more than is strictly morally required. Contrast the sometimes-sinner sometimes-saint with the person who never goes beyond the call of duty but also never does anything really wrong.

Explanation 4: Philosophical moral reflection might compensate for deficient moral intuitions. Maybe, from early childhood or adolescence, some people tend to lack strongly motivating moral emotions. And maybe some of those people are also drawn to intellectual styles of moral reflection. Without that moral reflection, they would behave morally worse than the average person, but moral reflection helps them behave better than they otherwise would. If enough ethicists are like this, then philosophical moral reflection might have an important positive effect on the moral behavior of those who engage in it, but looking at ethicists as a group, that effect might be masked if it's compensating for lower rates of moral behavior arising from emotional gut intuitions.

Explanation 5: Philosophical moral reflection might have powerful effects on moral behavior, but in both moral and countermoral directions, approximately cancelling out on average. It might have positive effects, for example, if it leads us to discover moral truths on which we then act. But perhaps equally often it becomes toxic rationalization, licensing morally bad behavior that we would otherwise have avoided.

Josh and I decline to choose among these possibilties. There might be some truth in all or most of them. And there are still other possibilities, too. Ethicists might in fact engage in moral reflection relevant to their personal lives no more often than do other professors. Ethicists might find themselves increasingly disillusioned about the value of morality at the same time they improve their knowledge of what morality in fact requires. Ethicists might learn to shield their personal behavior from the influence of their professional reflections, as a kind of self-defense against the apparent unfairness of being held to higher standards because of their choice of profession....

Full essay here. As always thoughts and comments welcome, either by email or attached to this post.


D said...

It seems to me that all the measures of morality used in the paper were very minor "sins." Perhaps if you considered things like physical violence, cheating on a spouse, etc... you would find a positive effect from all that moral reasoning? What about donations to charities?

D said...

Ah, I see charity was in the self-reported section.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ D: I agree that that is a problem with most of the measures. It's hard to find empirical evidence are serious wrongdoing or heroism at high enough rates, among ethics professors, to allow for useful statistical comparisons. One arguable exception is charity. Another possible exception is rates of involvement with Nazism, which I have analyzed in a blog post but which I haven't looked at very rigorously yet.

(Search "Nazi" within my site, and you should find the post.)

Jonathan said...

Explanation 1. Moral reflection and analysis are simply skills or types of expertise, not a disposition. One can possess expertise in "ethics skills" but choose not to utilize those skills outside of one's professional life. One could even choose to use those skills for evil (I may be very good at analyzing issues and producing convincing arguments for what is right, but then choose to do the opposite). It is analogous to physicians who are overweight or who smoke. Just because they have health-related expertise doesn't imply that they all live healthy.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Jonathan: I agree that having expertise on X doesn't imply that one utilizes that expertise in practical day-to-day life. But it would still be surprising if there was no group benefit on average.

Consider weightroom performance and performance on the football field. Having a good bench press doesn't imply that one will be a good football player, but on average one would expect people with better bench presses to be better football players unless there is some countervailing factor.

(BTW the evidence does seem to suggest that doctors smoke less than other professional groups on average.)

Joshua Rust said...

@ Jonathan:

Aren't there some cases in which the preoccupations of one's professional life can be assumed to have some bearing on one's personal life? For example, I would be very surprised if many avowed, published scientific naturalists nevertheless regarded their naturalism as simply a matter of professional identity, frequently attending church, praying, etc. when not in the academy.

Perhaps ethicists' professional identities might be more cleanly severed from their personal life, but I'd like to be able to tell a story about why this might be so.

Michael Caton said...

I think we should examine the assumption that thinking ABOUT morality is the same activity as trying to apply it to one's own life. Professional moral philosophers are not trying to maximize their moral behavior, they're trying to maximize their careers as moral philosophers (some combination of status, pay, mobility, achieved by publication). I don't think we should expect spill-over into moral behavior just because their subject is moral behavior.

By analogy, moral philosophers are like automotive engineers, and everyone (including the philosophers) are auto mechanics. Do we expect that an electrical engineer who works for Toyota is that much better at fixing his car than the rest of us? Maybe a little.

Look for the people who practice moral decision-making (action taking) and there I think we're more likely to see an impact on behavior.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Michael: Interesting analogy. I'm not sure it works entirely, but what analogy does? Let me latch onto your phrase "Maybe a little". A moderate but detectable effect, on average, given sample sizes in the hundreds, is what I would expect in the automotive case. The question is then why we shouldn't or don't see a similar moderate but detectable effect in professional ethicists.

Another analogy I have used in this connection: sports writers. We don't expect them to be star athletes themselves. But I'd bet on a baseball team composed of sports writers over a baseball team composed of a random selection of age- and gender-matched general members of the the population.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read the paper yet, so perhaps you answered this already: is there any evidence that ethicists and non-ethicists have substantically different moral beliefs? If so, where do they differ, and is there a difference in behavior on *those* matters? (For example, if ethicists are more likely to believe that eating meat is wrong, do we also find that more ethicists are vegetarians?)

I'd be surprised if there's much difference between ethicists and non-ethicists in behavior where there are few differences in the relevant ethical beliefs.