Thursday, August 15, 2013

Do Ethics Classes Influence Students' Moral Behavior?

Do university ethics classes actually have any practical effect on students' moral behavior outside of a university classroom or laboratory? Basically, we have no idea. I don't believe there is a single published empirical study on the issue. (If I'm wrong, let me know!)

We can make an empirically-informed best guess, though. Here's how: Look at the literature that examines the influence of ethics classes on students' self-reported moral attitudes. If there's a large effect of ethics instruction on student attitudes, maybe it's reasonable to conclude that there would be a moderate effect on student behavior. If there's a medium-sized effect on student attitudes, maybe conclude that there's a small effect on student behavior. Ethics classes work directly on students' attitudes and only indirectly on student behavior outside the classroom. Whatever effect business ethics courses have, for example, on students' tendency to verbally endorse mottoes like "it's bad to pad expense accounts", presumably the effect on behavior will be substantially smaller.

So what does the existing literature on ethics instruction suggest?

The research literature suggests that university ethics classes have at most a small, short-term effect on students' verbally espoused attitudes. This is so even when the researchers seem almost to be begging students to confirm their hypotheses -- for example, by giving before-and-after attitude questionnaires close to the topics of the classes the researchers are teaching (see, e.g., these two studies, among the most-cited recent empirical studies on ethics instruction).

Given the small and inconsistent short-term effects of ethics instruction on student attitudes, I suggest that in the absence of direct evidence it is reasonable to tentatively conclude that the long-term effects on students' attitudes are tiny to non-existent, that the short-term effect on students' practical behavior outside the university setting are tiny to non-existent, and that the long-term effects on practical behavior, if any, are smaller still.

Nor do I find it entirely clear that whatever tiny long-term effects the typical ethics class has on student behavior would be overall positive. Maybe for every positive change in one student's long-term conduct, there's a negative change in another student -- through associating intellectual ethical discourse with that horrible class in which she got a D, or through learning that one can always concoct some theory to rationalize attractive misconduct, or through reinforcing a pre-existing tendency to be a sophomoric know-it-all. Ethics professors don't seem to behave any better as a result of their familiarity with the university ethics curriculum; so why should students?

[For more on this topic, see my new full-length paper here.]


Julia Riber Pitt said...

For me, it wasn't too much ethics courses, but rather discussions on the topic with my friends outside of class. Of course, the courses I took in college as a philosophy undergrad did help to some degree, since most of them clarified certain concepts.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Julia, yes, I am inclined to agree that ordinary moral discourse outside of class is far more important than formal instruction.

Anonymous said...

Is this supposed to be an argument that "here is a class about x that does not make students better at x", where x = ethics? If so, could x plausibly represent any other discipline?

If not, then why should we accept that ethics is this special domain -- unlike all other disciplines -- that can't be transmitted by teaching? I think the more reasonable conclusion, in the face of absent evidence that ethics classes are effective, is that much more evidence is needed before we can plausibly assert such an outrageous claim...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I agree that such direct evidence would be nice, Anon! I guess we disagree about what is "outrageous". I've been spending a lot of time examining the not-particularly-moral behavior of ethics professors, so this is a natural way to extend that conclusion, I think.

Most other university classes aren't aimed at changing practical behavior. It would be interesting, though, to see if decision theory actually helped students make better decisions in the kinds of contexts it's good at modeling, if photography classes made students better philosophers, feminism classes made them less sexist. I could see things going differently, case by case.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

*photographers, it was hopefully obvious I meant.

Andrew Sepielli said...

Lately I've come to think that ethics professors would stand a better chance at changing the world if they focused less on arguing that what's generally thought to be okay is in fact impermissible, and more on arguing that what's generally thought to be impermissible is in fact okay. I'd be interested, then, seeing how the answers to the following two questions compare:

How much do arguments that something widely thought to be permissible is in fact impermissible influence students' tendency to refrain from doing that thing?

How much do arguments that something widely thought to be impermissible is in fact permissible influence students' tendency to do that thing?

Anonymous said...

Anonymous Coward here again. Thanks for the reply, Eric.

I'd object also to the characterization that ethics courses are aimed at changing practical behavior. Some may wish for that, but I'm not aware that it's a goal for any university offering in ethics. I take the goal to be more simply about teaching the history of ethics and/or explaining how some ethical reasoning proceeds.

Even professional ethics in science and engineering are not much more than a thin attempt to push an industry code of conduct onto students. If the actual goal were to make them more ethical, there would be follow-up to measure progress (and I think those studies would be disappointing). Same with mandatory ethics training for some university employees; it's a joke if truly intended to change behavior, rather than more modestly to raise awareness and reflection about the issues (with perhaps the hope it makes some difference to someone).

If the goal were to change practical behavior with university-level ethics courses, there would need to be broad consensus as to what changes are desirable; and that opens up a huge political can of worms. Consider the biggest ethical issues facing us, e.g., abortion, gay rights, etc. God help most universities that take a public stance on that, and even more so if they fall on the "wrong" side of the debate.

As for the alleged bad behavior of ethicists, I'd agree that it exists and might surprise many. But it shouldn't. Ethicists are human and prone to akrasia, etc., just like in any other profession. I'm further not clear why there's an expectation that ethicists should be a model of virtue. We don't expect, say, great football coaches to be able to win Superbowls or NCAA championships: they simply know the game and how to play it; they're not necessarily great football players themselves (save Peter Singer and some others who've ruined it for the rest of us!).

Anyway, I enjoy your blog as always. Keep it up!

UserGoogol said...

In principle, one way that ethics classes could promote better behavior without influencing vocalized beliefs would be if it promotes a general attitude of conscientiousness. Of course considering the data you've shown, it seems likely that it doesn't do that. But still, it's a theoretical possibility.

Anonymous said...

Are ethics classes intended to teach ethics, or teach *about* ethics? It seems to me that they really classes in the philosophy of ethics, which stands to ethics pretty much as philosophy of science stands to science - classes in philosophy of science won't make you much better at any kind of science, but they will teach you a lot about it.

After all, ethics lecturers don't even pretend to try to teach any kind of ethical skill, like phronesis or ethical imagination. So why should you expect their students to pick such skills up in their classes?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the interesting comments, folks!

Andrew: I agree that would be a good thing to look at. I'm inclined to think that one main function of moral reasoning in practical life is to help convince yourself that what you know is less than ideal (e.g. Not helping with the dishes) is in fact permissible.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon: I agree that informing students about history of ethics etc. is an important function of ethics classes, and maybe for most classes the primary function. However, I think the hope to influence behavior for the better is also one important purpose of many classes, esp. applied classes like medical ethics. This is especially true of specific modules required of people in industry I think. You're right that the institutions requiring them ought to do more to confirm that they serve their intended purpose.

As for the expectation that ethicists behave better: I don't think many expect ethicists to be saints. But I do think that a substantial proportion of people think ethics might tend to behave a little better than average. In 2007, Josh Rust and I polled US philosophers about this and about half did express that opinion.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

UserGoogol: I agree that's a possibility, but it seems unlikely give the evidence I've seen. More likely, maybe: the rare ethicist who inspires students through the way she lives, but not through her explicit philosophy.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon 2:56: I think a better analogy is sports writers vs the general public. Although sports writers aren't going to compete with the pros and ethicists won't be saints, one *might* expect the interest in the area and abstract knowledge to have some modest positive influence on performance compared to the average run of folks. At least, that's the view on which my results on the behavior of ethicists might be at least mildly surprising.

nathan said...

It might be worth considering this problem from a different perspective and, first, through the lens of what we are not talking about i.e. the broader ethical (or moral) education thought to result from, say, the study of literature or the humanities. This is an increasing aspect of the moral education of medical students (both in the UK and the USA). As this thought indicates the concern is with the kind of ethics education delivered by a philosophy seminar, whether this is in moral philosophy, applied ethics or some point in between. We are also largely, if implicitly, restricting this to the big three of Anglo-American (or ‘modern’) moral philosophy and, therefore, to the kind of ethico-legal ‘intellectualism’ of ‘applied ethics.’

Such ethics seminars have as their aim the development of the philosophical skills as currently conceived by the Anglo-American tradition. The moral development of the individual is not necessarily a formal aim of such education (although, as seems to motivate your work in this area, we might hope it is a correlate). We might contrast this with the aim, objectives and pedagogy of the kind of (applied) ethics education delivered to medical students which is not only aimed at making a normative contribution to their professional development but at normatively contributing to the (formally) normative (ethical or moral) dimension of their (future) professional practice.

In this context we might reconsider what the consequences of an education in ethics might be. Let us suppose that assisted suicide is, ‘in fact’, permissible and, as a result of their education in ethics, a particular medical professional has reasoned to this conclusion. If they were to act on this conclusion would that count as their ethics education having a positive influence? Broadly speaking, the social sciences need to adopt a relativist position thus the idea of positive influence is going to be a culturally specific one. However, instead of thinking in terms of individuals we might take a broader focus and think in terms of history and culture. We might ask, has ethics education had a positive influence on the history and culture of medicine? It is tempting to see the invention and promotion of such education as itself as a major success of ‘bioethics,’ which then created further opportunities for bioethics.

When this broader view is adopted we might then reconsider the positive influence of medical ethics education at the level of the individual. We might suppose that one positive result of ethics education is not that individuals reason to their own conclusion(s) and adopt formal and rigid ethical perspectives but that ethics education results in them being willing, able and disposed to engage in open and honest dialogue and debate about ethical issues. It might be that the positive effect of formal ethics education is to alter the broader moral culture of medicine such that it is more open about the ethico-moral problems that must be faced in practice and the (professional and cultural) values that contribute to their resolution.

nathan said...

This view returns us to what ethics education is not, it is not the broader idea of a moral education or, at least, on its own it is not the broader idea of a moral education. In the context of medicine this fact has led to calls to integrate ethics education into the clinical environment, to ensure it is more embedded in and, therefore, more relevant to actual practice. It has also led to calls for an increase in the ‘medical’ humanities (and, indeed, humanities graduates) in medical education. Thus creating doctors who are humanists as well as ‘scientists’.

In my view the problem also requires us to rethink the relationship between what is called the moral socialization of medical students, something which occurs as part of their medical apprenticeship, and their formal ethical education. In the context of a theoretical perspective that collapses the dichotomy between formal (schooling) and informal (apprenticeship) education (and between metaphors of acquisition and participation) I have used the term enculturation to try and forge a more satisfying connection. I hope it will prove useful to those who conduct empirical studies of medical education.

However, to return to the problem of ethics education outside of a particular professional context, we might now locate the difficulty in whether and how this formal education is or, rather, is not connected to ‘everyday life.’ It is often the case that the problems of meta-ethics, moral philosophy and applied ethics are constructed in such a way as to be disembodied from any social or cultural reality. Think of the various trolley problems, or Jarvis-Thompson’s violinist, or even Tooley’s murderous uncle. The way in which ethics is done in the light of modern moral philosophy virtually guarantees the problem of conatus or strength of the will, precisely because ethics is set up to be an objective intellectual exercise that fails to connect with the individual as an embodied and affective socio-cultural being by design. We know that intellectualism is not a good way to conceive of the way in which we go about our daily lives, better conceptions are dispositionalist and rooted in ideas of (social and cultural) practice(s). Thus, if it is to be practical (both in terms of having utility in practice and in having a long term effect) ethics education needs to be reconceived out with ‘applied ethics.’

If we think ethics education is important and that it should have some sort of positive long-term effects then we should look for consequences in the right place - at the level of history and culture – and construct such education so that it has a chance at success. We need to forge a greater connection between ethics education and the broader idea of a moral education. Ethics needs to connect to our everyday (embodied, dispositional) morality without assuming that it can be turned into an intellectualist exercise.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Nathan, for that thoughtful comment! I entirely agree that a sophisticated look at what the aims of ethics instruction are is needed, including some way of assessing the extent to which it achieves those aims. I agree that disseminating values into the culture (e.g., regarding physician-assisted suicide) is as much an aim as is attempting to ensure personal conduct of a certain sort. And I agree that the less formal methods of peer mentorship are at least as important as -- indeed, probably much more important than -- formal instruction.

Howard Berman said...

Would all the students in an introductory physics course be able to apply their knowledge to novel situations in the real world? How much does ethics require advanced logic and problem solving? Witness blogs like the philosopher's beard and ethicists in the New York Times.
Or is that a further question?
Also, since Mischel haven't social psychologists focused on situational factors?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Physics students might, to some limited extent, I think, Howard -- especially the best ones.

Situationism has a lot of truth in it, but no one thinks that situational pressures are the only influence on behavior.

But you are right that such considerations support the thought that the effects might be small.

Chris MacDonald said...

It may also be a mistake to focus on the ethical behaviour of the student.

I taught ethics in a philosophy department for a decade before switching to a business school. One of the advantages of teaching business students is that they all consciously aim at being managers someday. So I get to tell them that they need to understand ethics (including what a bad ethical argument looks like, and the sources of unethical behaviour) so that they can help others behave well. In other words, my students will one day have to manage institutional environments that will either promote or frustrate ethical behaviour. They need skills to do that.

(Of course, that goes for my philosophy students, too -- but they typically didn't yet know that they were going to be managers one day.)

Anonymous said...

It may also be a mistake to focus on the ethical behaviour of the student.

I taught ethics in a philosophy department for a decade before switching to a business school. One of the advantages of teaching business students is that they all consciously aim at being managers someday. So I get to tell them that they need to understand ethics (including what a bad ethical argument looks like, and the sources of unethical behaviour) so that they can help others behave well. In other words, my students will one day have to manage institutional environments that will either promote or frustrate ethical behaviour. They need skills to do that.

(Of course, that goes for my philosophy students, too -- but they typically didn't yet know that they were going to be managers one day.)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Chris/ethicsblogger: Yes, I think that is a very interesting approach to business ethics! It might involve teaching different sorts of things than a class targeted at one's own ethics might teach, e.g., how to effectively get others to comply with norms....

Matthew Pianalto said...

As others have suggested or implied, I find your suggested methodology here incredibly problematic. It seems to make assumptions about the goals of a philosophical ethics course that are incongruent with the actual aims of such courses. The methodology is also painfully superficial.

For example, at my school, Beginning Ethics (PHI 130) is offered as a general education course in the Arts and Humanities block, which is supposed to pursue the following general education goals:

"1.Use appropriate methods of critical thinking and quantitative reasoning to examine issues and to identify solutions. (Goal two)

"2. Analyze the values, cultural context, and aesthetic qualities of artistic, literary, philosophic, and/or religious works. (Goal six)

"3. Distinguish the methods that underlie the search for knowledge in the arts, humanities, natural sciences, history, and social and behavioral sciences. (Goal seven)

"4. Integrate knowledge that will deepen their understanding of, and will inform their own choices about, issues of personal and public importance. (Goal eight)"

The course itself has several more specific stated goals. MAKING THE STUDENTS MORE ETHICAL is simply not an explicit goal. Should it be? Leave that aside for now.

The point is that the course is offered as a way for students to deepen their ability to think critically (in this case about ethical issues), learn some ideas and intellectual history, and integrate this into their own thinking.

It's far from clear that you can glean very much from sampling before and after attitudes. What kind of thinking brought about changes? Were non-changes in attitude the result of deepened ability to reflect critically on one's own attitudes? Etc. Etc.

To be honest, I have a love/hate relationship with your work on this stuff! (I hate the way you frame things at times; I want to call you Gradgrind! But I think that you are also motivating reflection on what we are doing, and that's good!) But as others have pointed out, it might be a good idea to distinguish between theoretical and historical ethics classes, and those that focus on professional and applied ethics. But even then, the problems above will remain for those applied courses that seek mainly to promote deeper and clearer thinking on complex and controversial issues (where reasonable people might disagree), rather than focusing on "ethics and compliance" issues and the drilling in of mottos, as it were.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Matthew: I appreciate your frank criticism. I have two main reactions:

First, the empirical question about influence on behavior is interesting independently of the normative question about what ethics classes *should* be aiming at. I certainly share your dissatisfaction with the literature on the effects of ethics instruction, but assuming that we want to try to reach a judgment about what sorts of effects ethics classes have on behavior, it seems to me that relying simply on unsystematic impressionistic judgments, while ignoring the existing literature, isn't the best approach. Since the problems in the existing literature seem likely to tend to overestimate rather than underestimate the influence of ethics instruction on attitudes, I think it's reasonable to reach a tentative conclusion that takes those results as a maximum. This also accords with my unsystematic subjective impression.

Second, on the question of what ethics classes should be aiming for, well, that's a pretty complicated normative question and not my focus here -- though I do think that part of the administrative justification for requiring business ethics and medical ethics tends to be the hope for a positive influence on the future behavior of managers and doctors. I am also inclined to think that some of the "first-person" point in thinking about ethics is, or should be, with the goal of shaping one's behavior to conform better to appropriate ethical norms, so prima facie there's something amiss if there is not even a weak tendency on average for philosophical moral reflection to improve moral behavior.

Matthew Pianalto said...


Thanks for your response (and bearing with me!). I do get your point about certain professional ethics classes (And sadly, perhaps, it turns out that the business ethics course offered at my school is taught "in house" in the business college and not by someone, as far as I know, with philosophical background. This could be good or bad, depending perhaps on course goals. I don't know what the stated goals in that class are, but I bet they are different from my dept's PHI 130!) And I think there are important empirical questions here that might have some bearing on normative questions.

I reflected a little more on your project at my own blog, and one further thought I had was that if one agrees with Aristotle that character is shaped by practice and experience, then it should be pretty unsurprising that classes have a weak--at best--effect. Empirical work certainly might(if imperfectly, given methodological constraints) lend data-driven support to that. And it would present a challenge to those who do think (or justify) their ethics courses (say, to administrators) on the grounds that these courses are essential for conforming future business leaders (or whatever) to decent ethical standards.

And this dovetails with another thought I discuss, which is that I would be interesting to compare brick and mortar (or online) ethics classes with service-learning courses that have the same content but with an experiential element. Of course, my intuitive hypothesis is that there will be great differences between the two.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Matthew: Interesting posts at your blog, and thanks for the tip on Hertzberg.

I read Aristotle as thinking that practice and good upbringing are more important causal factors in moral behavior than is philosophical reflection, but I don't think he is committed to the view that philosophical reflection has no positive effect on moral behavior. Note that near the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics he states that the aim of ethical inquiry is not primarily to achieve theoretical knowledge but rather to become good.

I will have to look at the Hertzberg more carefully, but I think one possible source of negative reaction to the claim that ethics classes ought to improve student behavior is the seeming suggestion that ethicists are morally superior to university students, know what's morally best, and thus should aim, in paternalistic fashion, to bring students into line. I don't think one has to be committed to that dubious belief set to have the moral improvement of students among one's aims. Among the alternative possibilities is that one can accept something like what Josh Rust and I have recently been calling the "booster view" of philosophical moral reflection, combined with the thought that university-level ethics instruction can slightly improve students' skills at philosophical moral reflection. According to the booster view, philosophical moral reflection tends, on average, to move one in the direction of the moral truth (this can be somewhat weakened if one isn't a hard-core moral realist), and that to some extent one's behavior then falls in line. For example, one might reflect on whether it is morally good to vote, to eat vegetarian, to donate to famine relief, etc., discover that it in fact is good (or alternatively isn't, but then we can shift to different examples) and then shape one's behavior accordingly. Thus philosophical moral reflection should on average and ceteris paribus lead one to behave a bit morally better than one otherwise would have.

Matthew Pianalto said...

Right about Aristotle. (Sorry for my overstatement.)

Something like the "booster view" would seem to make sense, and it would fit ethics class in with other things, insofar as what we do in lots of college classes is start thinking about things that we haven't thought about before. So, the booster view would tie in with the idea that perhaps an ethics class can nudge one into thinking about ethical issues that one hadn't considered before. But then I can see how your initial questions can be directed at the booster view: how much of a boost and how long? (And how could one get at somewhat more vague things like "conscientiousness" or "deepened reflection" about ethical issues?)

It seems to me that another issue worth considering is time--the time certain changes in ethical outlooks tend to take, the time one spends on particular issues in an ethics class, and so forth. Anecdote to illustrate: I started eating mostly vegetarian long (years) after reading Singer, and it wasn't really Singer who changed my mind (although there was a single footnote that I always found more compelling than his main argument, about energy loss in the grain to animal flesh conversion), but that work set me on a path of thought. It took a long time for that to lead to any declarable change in attitude and behavior.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting thoughts about the time course of change, Matthew. On vegetarianism in particular, Josh Rust and I have some pretty interesting data: There are huge differences between philosophers and non-philosophers on the question of vegetarianism, but apparently only minor differences, if any, in actual rates of eating meat. I've been thinking about trying some follow-up work on this with undergrads exposed to philosophical arguments for vegetarianism.

Anonymous said...

Yes there are many empirical studies on the impact of ethics courses on moral reasoning

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon July 8: I've spent some substantial time reviewing the literature, some of which is cited in the paper. What I'd really love to see, but cannot yet find, is a good ecologically valid non-self-report study of real-world moral behavior that involves random assignment (or a natural experiment) into ethics exposure vs. not. Recommendations welcome! (Even if the recommendation doesn't quite fit that description.)