Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Moral Lives of Ethicists

[published today in Aeon Magazine]

None of the classic questions of philosophy are beyond a seven-year-old's understanding. If God exists, why do bad things happen? How do you know there's still a world on the other side of that closed door? Are we just made of material stuff that will turn into mud when we die? If you could get away with killing and robbing people just for fun, would you? The questions are natural. It's the answers that are hard.

Eight years ago, I'd just begun a series of empirical studies on the moral behavior of professional ethicists. My son Davy, then seven years old, was in his booster seat in the back of my car. "What do you think, Davy?" I asked. "People who think a lot about what's fair and about being nice – do they behave any better than other people? Are they more likely to be fair? Are they more likely to be nice?"

Davy didn’t respond right away. I caught his eye in the rearview mirror.

"The kids who always talk about being fair and sharing," I recall him saying, "mostly just want you to be fair to them and share with them."

When I meet an ethicist for the first time – by "ethicist", I mean a professor of philosophy who specializes in teaching and researching ethics – it's my habit to ask whether ethicists behave any differently to other types of professor. Most say no.

I'll probe further: Why not? Shouldn't regularly thinking about ethics have some sort of influence on one’s own behavior? Doesn't it seem that it would?

To my surprise, few professional ethicists seem to have given the question much thought. They'll toss out responses that strike me as flip or are easily rebutted, and then they'll have little to add when asked to clarify. They'll say that academic ethics is all about abstract problems and bizarre puzzle cases, with no bearing on day-to-day life – a claim easily shown to be false by a few examples: Aristotle on virtue, Kant on lying, Singer on charitable donation. They'll say: "What, do you expect epistemologists to have more knowledge? Do you expect doctors to be less likely to smoke?" I'll reply that the empirical evidence does suggest that doctors are less likely to smoke than non-doctors of similar social and economic background. Maybe epistemologists don’t have more knowledge, but I'd hope that specialists in feminism would exhibit less sexist behavior – and if they didn't, that would be an interesting finding. I'll suggest that relationships between professional specialization and personal life might play out differently for different cases.

It seems odd to me that our profession has so little to say about this matter. We criticize Martin Heidegger for his Nazism, and we wonder how deeply connected his Nazism was to his other philosophical views. But we don’t feel the need to turn the mirror on ourselves.

The same issues arise with clergy. In 2010, I was presenting some of my work at the Confucius Institute for Scotland. Afterward, I was approached by not one but two bishops. I asked them whether they thought that clergy, on average, behaved better, the same or worse than laypeople.

"About the same," said one.

"Worse!" said the other.

No clergyperson has ever expressed to me the view that clergy behave on average morally better than laypeople, despite all their immersion in religious teaching and ethical conversation. Maybe in part this is modesty on behalf of their profession. But in most of their voices, I also hear something that sounds like genuine disappointment, some remnant of the young adult who had headed off to seminary hoping it would be otherwise.

In a series of empirical studies – mostly in collaboration with the philosopher Joshua Rust of Stetson University – I have empirically explored the moral behavior of ethics professors. As far as I'm aware, Josh and I are the only people ever to have done so in a systematic way.

Here are the measures we looked at: voting in public elections, calling one's mother, eating the meat of mammals, donating to charity, littering, disruptive chatting and door-slamming during philosophy presentations, responding to student emails, attending conferences without paying registration fees, organ donation, blood donation, theft of library books, overall moral evaluation by one's departmental peers based on personal impressions, honesty in responding to survey questions, and joining the Nazi party in 1930s Germany.

[continued in the full article here]


Anonymous said...

I would expect moral philosophers to be moral only if I were to assume that moral philosophers know the correct analysis of what it is to act morally. But why make this assumption? Very few, if any, moral philosophers claim to know that (e.g.) Consequentialism or Deontology is true. Indeed, the mere fact that moral philosophers are still doing moral philosophy seems like evidence that they haven't come upon the correct analysis.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon -- That seems a high bar! What if we modify your claim to "I would expect moral philosophers to be moral only if I were to assume that moral philosophers have a better understanding of moral issues than socially similar comparison groups"? One possible view is that, no, they don't have a better understanding; another possible view is that they do, but [fill in the blank].

Nicholas Laskowski said...

Thanks for the reply, Eric, and sorry for the accidental anonymous post.

It is a high bar, indeed. But I think there is good reason to suspect that it has to be. Here's a version of the "moral philosophers have better understanding of moral philosophy, but..." response:

Suppose Bentham, convinced of the correctness of his brand of act utilitarianism, went around prosecuting innocent people, since prosecuting innocent people produces consequences containing the most amount of pleasure. If what it is for an action to be right is for it to be an action that produces consequences containing the most amount of pleasure, then Bentham would have been acting rightly in prosecuting innocent people. That's great! But if act utilitarianism isn't the correct analysis, then Bentham would have been acting wrongly in prosecuting innocent people. That's bad! One way for moral philosophers to avoid being led astray by their own theories is for them to have knowledge of correct moral analyses. Of course, the problem is, as I said in my original comment, that no moral philosopher has such knowledge, or even pretends to have it. Moral philosophers might know a lot about morality, but fail to know which analyses are correct. Since moral philosophers are like us in that they lack knowledge of correct analyses in moral philosophy, we should perhaps expect them to behave much like the rest of us, too.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for clarifying that, Nicholas. I'm inclined to think that antecedently the most promising cases would be cases where it looks like thoughtful reflection leads people mostly in one direction -- cases like reduced incidence of minor sexist and racist behaviors, increases in donation to well-run charities, and adoption of low-cost and low-effort environmentally-friendly behaviors such as recycling. Any list will be contentious, of course. You don't need to resolve debates about act utilitarianism to see the goods of these things, because they show up as good on most mainstream moral theories; and -- I might have guessed -- thoughtful moral reflection would tend to increase the saliency of specific cases of such goods. For example, you might be more frequently reminded of small ways in which we are often thoughtlessly sexist and racist, and thus work harder to avoid such behaviors.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I've only looked at a small sample of such behaviors. I've been disappointed so far, but the question remains empirically open.

Jay said...

Isn't the question ultimately not so much whether ethicists as a whole are more ethical than non-ethicists but rather whether becoming an ethicist makes someone more ethical? If that's right then my point has the sad consequence that these questions are likely unanswerable. But, speculatively, it seems like there might be different sets of reasons why different people go into ethics. Some might tend also to be factors that motivate people toward better behavior while others might have no effect at all or for complicated reasons might even drive down ethical behavior to the point where, once it's all out in the wash, the net effect is nothing at all and ethicists are not distinguishable from regular people.

G. Randolph Mayes said...

Sweet article, Eric. I was thinking in the same epistemological vein as Nicholas, though more in terms of the epistemology of disagreement. When we adopt a more extreme position on theoretical grounds, we recognize intuitively that this counts as a reason to doubt it, as does the fact that others find your position extereme. This wouldn't account for their being no behavioral difference at all when the ethicists hold the more extreme positions, but it would push them back toward the mean. Sometimes it may be less that we are shooting for mediocrity than that, we ultimately do respect the wisdom of the crowd.

Jeremy Veit said...

The question that ethics is attempting to answer can be construed to be "can we act better?", right?

>‘The kids who always talk about being fair and sharing,’ I recall him saying, ‘mostly just want you to be fair to them and share with them.’

So, it seems that for both the ethics professors and children ultimately their actions are a kind of selfish reciprocity. It is decadent when compared to the high minded ideals of the ancient (ascetic?) philosophers. Like you say, it could be that those old philosophers were just as false as ones who claim to be so today. Maybe it is more authentic to be like Jefferson once you know that there might be a better way. To know that we can act better but to roll around in the muck happier than a pig in shit anyway. Like Camus.

Ultimately to be in the former or latter state you have to be of the mind that you've answered the question and have a satisfactory answer. If you've got the answer, the logical consequent is to do. But modern philosophy looks caught up in a feedback loop of meta-analysis. That's where I think this problem is possibly rooted. Maybe this is because it really is the case that the old ethical wisdom holds a sense of truth about human beings: "Do not do to others that which angers you when they do it to you." The answer has been there for thousands of years but our lives are too short and we like pleasure too much to bother actually doing. So we run in circles trying to find an easier alternative.

I'm reminded of this biblical section:

>I, the Preacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I set my heart to seek and explore by wisdom concerning all that has been done under heaven. It is an evil grievous task which God has given to the sons of men to be afflicted with. I have seen all the works which have been done under the sun, and behold, all is futile vanity and striving after wind. What is crooked cannot be straightened and what is lacking cannot be counted.

>I spoke with my heart, saying “Behold, I have magnified and increased wisdom more than all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my heart has observed an abundance in wealth of wisdom and knowledge.” And I set my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly; I realized that this also is striving after wind. Because in much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain.

On the greeks, I'm also reminded of another phrase:

>It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and honorably and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and honorably and justly without living pleasantly. Whenever any one of these is lacking, when, for instance, the man is not able to live wisely, though he lives honorably and justly, it is impossible for him to live a pleasant life.

Which I interpret to mean that knowledge of what is ethical is useless if one does not practice it. And more, if one doesn't practice it, it probably isn't knowledge at all.

chinaphil said...

Problem of the comparator.

I've made the distinction between doing good (in a consequentialist sense) and being good (in a character sense) before, and I think it's relevant here. I reckon that, pace child abuse scandals, clergy actually do a lot of good. They're probably not much better in terms of character than the average, but because of the nature of their work, they do good.

Moral ethicists are presumably well-positioned to improve their character. But all the evidence suggests that that's really difficult. For any person, if you want to do more good, the way to do it is to place yourself in structures where you have to do good: become a doctor, that kind of thing. (In my personal case: don't go out with other women, because past experience teaches that when presented with the opportunity to cheat, I cheat. Ahem.)

I really like this as a piece of research, but I don't think you should be disappointed with the negative result. Instead, you should regard this as a(nother) piece of evidence that good outcomes are achieved through good systems, and that whatever it takes to change people's character, it's not reflection.

(Incidentally, if this is correct, it's a bit of a blow for the approach of many educators of getting kids to think about issues. That's a massive, impactful result. Again, if true.)

Nicholas Laskowski said...

Hi Eric,

I was originally thinking that one way of making sense of the expectation that moral philosophers would behave any differently from the rest of us is that moral philosophers tend to have more knowledge of correct moral analyses in virtue of successfully carrying out moral inquiry. Such knowledge would seemingly distinguish moral philosophers from us, in a way where it would be reasonable to expect them to behave differently. But you're thinking, if I'm understanding correctly, that moral philosophers would behave differently merely in virtue of the fact that they have more exposure to cases involving issues of moral concern. I'm curious to hear why we should think such exposure would have this effect, and not just because, at least in my experience, many of the cases that moral philosophers discuss are highly artificial.

G. Randolph Mayes said...

Also, have you explored the connection between your results and your dispositional account of belief? Do ethicists turn out to have less, or at least no better, self knowledge of their moral beliefs as well? In some ways that would be an even a sadder result.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks -- very interesting!

Jay: That does seem plausible, and very difficult to get at empirically. I think there are several different plausible interpretations of Josh's and my results, which makes it a challenge to discuss the ultimate theoretical payoff of this research. I'd say our results constrain the space of plausible psychological stories about the effects of pursuing a career in ethics, but the number of broadly plausible stories is probably five to ten.

Randy: On your first point -- that seems right. Nicely put. Of course, as you note, it would be a moderator only. On your second point: I see a couple of connections. I do think we have poor knowledge of our moral beliefs and that intellectual ethical reflection often leads us away from self-knowledge of our moral beliefs. I'm working on a paper that might contain some reflections on this in the context of what I'm thinking of as standing the Frankfurt/Watson "true self" view more or less on its head -- or maybe even just do it was a whole paper on its own.

Jeremy: I'm reminded too of Wang Yangming, who holds that knowledge and action are the same: If one doesn't live according to a norm one doesn't really know or endorse the norm.

Nicholas: Your questions put me in the difficult rhetorical position of both partly defending a position and rejecting it -- not unusual for me on this issue, when confronted with the claim that Josh's and my results are unsurprising or obvious. To really respond to that requires defending the view that ethically better behavior is both to be antecedently expected but also that our results show that it isn't actual. So... sigh. Quite a rhetorical trick to do that well! I, and some others, but maybe not you, find some initial plausibility in the view that thinking a lot about feminism, for example, would tend to lead to lower rates of sexist behavior, through increased saliency and increased knowledge of how it plays out in particular examples; but maybe you disagree! I have no empirical evidence in favor of that plausible claim, and in fact the recalcitrant sexism of philosophers creates some problems for it. (On voting, charity, vegetarianism, honesty, etc., my pre-theoretical intuitions aren't as strong.)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Chinaphil: Yes I pretty much agree with all of that, though perhaps with both a bit more hope and a bit more disappointment than you suggest!

You write:

"I really like this as a piece of research, but I don't think you should be disappointed with the negative result. Instead, you should regard this as a(nother) piece of evidence that good outcomes are achieved through good systems, and that whatever it takes to change people's character, it's not reflection.

"(Incidentally, if this is correct, it's a bit of a blow for the approach of many educators of getting kids to think about issues. That's a massive, impactful result. Again, if true.)"

This harks back to the origin of this line of research -- my appreciation of Mengzi's model of moral development as grounded in reflection, coupled with my sense that we can now begin to look the empirical evidence on this in moral education. (I published a paper about this in HPQ in 2007.)

Anonymous said...

I find the measures you looked unconvincing. None of them seem to me to be in any way true measures of someone's ethical character - they seem to me more to do with trivial "nice" behavior as expected in a current society than anything else. So I find them uninformative as measures. That being said, in contemporary society we rarely make significant moral decisions or exercise virtues - since we seldom come across situation in which they are needed (perhaps soldiers when fighting still do). At best, such moral decisions became a matter of the "trolley" problems - complete abstractions in which people who have little to no experience with such situations are supposed to have "intuitions". If there are such decisions - I suggest looking at dissident philosophers in totalitarian regimes (if the interest is philosophers) or perhaps at cases like that of the captain Schettino - people who act in situations in which something life-changing is at stake (Lord Jim by J. Conrad makes this very point). In other words, I believe that what you want to test cannot be in fact tested unless you put the ethicists into situations in which morality is actually tested. Paying registration fees goes, in my view, neither here nor there.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon -- I believe that day-to-day civility is an important dimension of morality. But not all our measures are of that sort. You might be interested in our measure of involvement in Nazism:

Hard to get good, quantifiable data in sufficient quality for statistical analysis for other sorts of "big picture" moral behavior that involve life-changing situations. If you have some thoughts about an empirically tractable approach here, I'm interested in suggestions!

Anonymous said...

The Nazi issue is interesting but hard to parse, as you note too. People live complicated lives - they have children, families, friends... Staying employed is not just a matter of a career vs courageous stand. It is also a matter of what else is involved. Under communism, if one staged a protest, it was not only one's own life in danger - of many others too who came under surveillance, could be jailed and so on. Children who could be left parent-less or without ability to have any career because of their parents. What now is the ethical thing to do - protest, stay silent, or join the party? And in what way? How would one ever measure - unless by detailed biography and thinking about a particular life whether or not one acted ethically? Sure, it's easy on a certain level of generalization - Nazi party is bad, so joining is bad, not joining good. But that covers up so much. One can easily say Himmler was evil, but that's because the atrocities he perpetrated were such that nobody should ever do them - no matter what.

Btw. why do you think that day-to-civility is an important measure of morality as opposed to ethiquette? Not picking one's nose in public or not pooping on a street in the open (practiced in some places in the world) is civil and important for us to get along, but is it a matter of morality?

Empirically traceable approach - I do not know - I think it's difficult if not impossible. But I think literature and history do that quite well though - since it is the details and stories and contexts that matter.

Carl said...


I know you have previously raised the possibility that ethicists start out less ethical and are made moreso by their studies and work.

Two possibly relevant data points I was thinking about:

1) Philosophers of religion start off much more religious than other philosophers, but become less religious over the course of their studies and careers without converging with the mainstream.
2) Psychiatrists have elevated risk of mental illness prior to going into the field and overall, but also tend to more reliably get treatment.

In both cases the effects don't perfectly cancel out to zero (and it would be quite a coincidence), so if you get a large enough sample size you can heavily discount the story. Also, comparison of undergraduates, grad students, and faculty as well as retrospective questions about change in attitudes can help to tease out causal impacts of a field. Have you tried to follow changes over the ethicist life-course?

Peter Murphy said...

Here is a suggestion. Belief has very different causal roles. Maybe we can helpfully divide them into practical ones that influence behavior, especially non-linguistic behavior; and more intellectualist ones that influence inference, developing explanations, and linguistic behavior like avowals. Maybe ethicists are mostly (and in some cases exclusively) focused on getting their beliefs as these intellectualist-style states right, or at least as highly epistemically justified as they can. And they just don't value getting the right practical-style states right. So if I think, and argue, like someone who knows that it is wrong to eat factory-farmed meat, I've achieved my goal. If I then go eat a fastfood burger, well admittedly that is a failure, but it isn't one I attach much badness to. Think of selection effects and rewards in philosophy: as long as you are good at the intellectualist stuff, you are more likely to be selected for and you are in good shape in the profession. You are not going to be selected for, and there is no reward in the profession for, if you refrain from eating the burger.

Callan S. said...

Shouldn't regularly thinking about ethics have some sort of influence on one’s own behavior?

Should that mean those studying nazis or neo-nazis should have some sort of influence from that on their own behaviour?

Or is that different somehow?

Russ said...

Hi Eric,
I just discovered your blog, referenced in your op-ed in this morning's Los Angeles Times ("Research-oriented departments need to expand their thinking"). I see a connection between the op-ed and blog topic. If philosophers did more popular writing, instead of just academic writing, ethical philosophers might be more ethical. They would be more interested in influencing current society, and would lead by example.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

Anon Jul 15: Every individual case is going to be complicated, so I rest my hope in averages. That's the only way, I think, to make it empirically tractable, which is something I care about. On day-to-day politeness: This is hard to make the case for if you're not already inclined. I think being kind rather than rude to the people around you, refraining from leaving trash around in public places, not chattering loudly in the audience when a speaker is delivering a presentation -- these are important aspects of moral character. It's hard to know exactly how to weigh these things against, say, political activism or major charitable works. I'm not saying they are *more* important in total (clearly they are mostly trivial case-by-case), just that they *are* important, in sum.

Carl: Yes, that's interesting and has some plausibility. I haven't done much time-course research -- even harder to do than the at-a-moment research! I do have a wee bit of data here:

Peter: That's plausible, but it would be a bit odd to think the intellectual and the practical are *totally* disconnected. That sense of oddness is part of why I reach for some explanation of Josh's and my data that preserves a certain amount of connection, despite our generally null result findings.

Callan: Sure! Maybe more aversion to political approaches with some of the features of Nazism.

Russ: Yes, I could see how that might work. Peter Singer is perhaps an example of this.

Anonymous said...

But - isn't philosophically grounded morality often something that goes against precisely such civility conventions? In other words, shouldn't you be quite explicitly clear what and why you are testing and if what you are testing is in fact moral behavior, at least on some plausible theory, of what morality is? Otherwise, it seems you are testing ethiquette of people in one cultural context (since most of the things you name, would be quite irrelevant in a number of other cultures - unless you think those cultures are just not nice). Lastly, shouldn't there be a distinction between studying ethics and trying to become ethical, in a way similar to, say studying ice-hockey (to a be a coach) and trying to become ice-hockey player? Coaches are often not the best players, if players at all and nobody expects them to be so.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon Jul 23: I think that thoughtfulness to other people around you is an important dimension of moral life -- including not stealing library books that others might need and not leaving rubbish behind at your seat. Individually, such actions are minor, but the sum total of courteous and discourteous behavior is, in my view, an important part of one's moral footprint in the world. I acknowledge that others might not agree with this, so Josh and I use a wide diversity of measures including charitable donation, vegetarianism, membership in the Nazi party, and others, which are less about courtesy. The results are pretty consistent across the variety of measures.

On the point about ice-hockey. I agree that they are not identical. But it seems that they would be related. Although ice hockey coaches are not ice hockey stars, I would still expect them to be on average better at ice hockey than other non-coaches of similar age and social background, yes?

Callan S. said...

Eric, why should someone studying the ethics of nazi's withdraw from them more for doing so, but someone studing ethics perse (or more exactly, something like general population notions of ethics) be drawn closer to them?

Ryan Ogilvie said...

One can be more moral than another by acting more morally. This is the sense of morality that Eric is attempting to measure. But there's another related sense in which one can be more moral, namely, by being more receptive to morally relevant features in the world. (This seems to be an "old-fashioned" sense of the word, used to describe, for example, the local religious figure in small communities.) I have a friend who says he's pretty much totally ignorant of philosophy. He hasn't been trained in philosophy, and knows little about the history of the discipline or the main views, as such. But I had the occasion recently to tell him that many of the things he thinks about are philosophical in nature, such as what is a good life?, what should one do to be good?, etc. He's someone who I see as being particularly sensitive to the various morally relevant aspects of his life and environment. He sees himself as embedded within a family, a community, and a broader society, and takes these facts seriously when deliberating about what to do and think.

I have no idea if this friend of mine acts more morally than the average person. But I do tend to think of him as being a morally better person, all things considered, by virtue of the fact that he's highly sensitive to his moral environment. I'd be interested to know if ethicists are more moral in this secondary sense.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Callan: I'm not quite getting your question. Who is the second "them"? The "booster" idea is that studying ethics improves one's moral knowledge (on average) with moral behavior improving (on average) as a result.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Ryan: It would be odd if such sensitivity weren't somehow also reflected in action -- e.g., increased compassion. If it weren't that would be kind of a funny case, or maybe even only sham sensitivity. So I'm not inclined to draw a sharp line between being sensitive to moral considerations and acting morally. (Some of my other work, on living one's beliefs, is relevant to this.) Also, it sounds like your friend does a lot of what I would call philosophical moral reflection. I emphatically *don't* think that philosophical moral reflection is solely the province of professional philosophers -- though philosophers, presumably, do more of it on *average* than do not philosophers. (I have a recent piece relevant to this in the LA Times, BTW.)

Ryan Ogilvie said...

Eric: I didn't mean to suggest that moral sensitivity won't be reflected in action. (I don't actually know.) I just drew a conceptual distinction between acting morally and being morally sensitive. I then suggested that being morally sensitive might itself be a mark of acting morally (or being a moral person, all things considered). At any rate, it seems to me to be an empirical question whether sensitivity is reflected in action, as opposed to a conceptual (?) question, which you seem to think: "If it weren't that would be kind of a funny case, or maybe even only sham sensitivity." The causal/deliberative path between sensitivity and action can be quit long and complex, especially when a person is sensitive to a LOT of considerations, moral or otherwise.

At any rate, if philosophical moral reflection is the same thing as moral sensitivity, AND philosophers do more of it on average, AND moral sensitivity is always reflected in action, then there's something wrong with how you've measured morally good action. (I'll let you decide which of the conjuncts to reject:)



Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for following up, Ryan!

I do think there is a conceptual connection between sensitivity and action. (This is a distinctive feature of my account of attitudes.) The first of your final three conjuncts is the one I would be inclined to reject, on empirical grounds.

TJ said...


I'm wondering what kind of analyses you applied to your data?

If I go with the last argument, then I would expect that you could find clear differences between the ethicists and the rest - either increased variance in the scores, or different multi-variate patterns.

Also, did you do non-professor subjects? one could make the case that professors are more ethical than the average person due to the superior education and the luxury of being able to dabble in abstract thought. Thus perhaps you didn't find differences because of a ceiling effect (assuming e.g. that the measures used are of limited sensitivity)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Hi, TJ --

Josh and I have done quite a few different analysis. Here are a couple.

A multi-variable survey study:

A meta-analysis of several studies:

We have only limited evidence on variance, but what we do have suggests similar variance. Nor have we found any multi-variate patterns, though given the medium-sized N and the variety of measurement approaches, we haven't done much with multivariate analysis. If something strikes you as particularly promising, I'd be interested to hear.

I agree that there might well be differences between professors and non-professors. For example, in our voting rates study, we found professors much more likely to vote than non-professors. For the 2008 Presidential general election in the U.S., it was amazingly close to ceiling, but I don't think there are general ceiling problems in most of the voting data. Some of the other data are near ceiling (self-reported response rate to student emails), other data near floor (blood donation within the past year), most of it closer to the middle.

TJ said...

Specifically - did you go after the immediate suspects: e.g. clustering, MDS, PCA and such?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

None of those, TJ. The only study where we have multiple datapoints from the same participants is the survey study (Schwitzgebel & Rust 2014). The main hypotheses concerned behavior and attitude on the various individual measures, overall better or worse behavior, overall higher or lower attitude-behavior correlations, and higher or lower variances in attitude or behavior -- so that's what we tested. It could be interesting to look at some of the less obvious multivariate patterns post-hoc, though. Might want to think in advance about what sorts of patterns would be interesting to find. Hm....

Callan S. said...


Callan: I'm not quite getting your question. Who is the second "them"? The "booster" idea is that studying ethics improves one's moral knowledge (on average) with moral behavior improving (on average) as a result.

Who is the 'them' in your 'improving'?

Are we talking A: 'improving' simply being a certain demographics notion of improving - and if so, like I said, if someone studies nazi ethics, shouldn't they be as drawn to improve in nazi ethics if we expect another person who is studying that certain demographics ethics to be draw to improve in that demographics ethics? Why is one set of ethics studied one we should improve in, while another set of ethics studied is the one to shy away from? What is the distinction?

Or are we talking B: A global or cosmic definition of what is improvement?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Callan: I meant B. I'm a moderate moral realist, so I think I can get away with that!

Callan S. said...

Well that was an answer I didn't expect, Eric! Atleast you can say it - too often the 'do you mean a global definition?' question just ends in obsfucation and subject changing as a responce.

I dunno what I'd name my side of the bargain, but essentially any gravitation to modern western ethics or nazi ethics is simply one of personal commitments. Neither somehow comes first. I don't say that for a laugh or anything, but simply out of the practicality that you can't rely on some kind of morality to come first just by itself, in practical terms. There's no cosmic force that's tipping the odds (towards my prefered morality) that I can rely on/coast on/rest on the laurels of. Sorry to drag on...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

"Cosmic force" makes it sound too magical, Callan -- but something like that general idea attracts me. One could go totally global and suggest/hope/argue that from an ideal reasoner perspective, Nazi ethics looks worse than mainstream ethics in the 21st century US (even if the latter is far from perfect) and that what is irrational has some pressure against it in the long term. Or one could go more species relative and suggest/hope/argue that there's a set of human reactions that define the ethical, like our reactions to wavelengths define color (on some accounts of color), and that things too far outside of normal reactions in contexts favorable to correct responding are in some sense mistaken or illusory or off target.

Callan S. said...

I think one could say there are practices which are more aligned and compatable with human psychology.

I think maybe we're picking and choosing which psychologies we want to be most compatable with. Possibly compassion is one that is picked out and put ahead of a bunch of other...nasty stuff. Then compassion helps pick out some other practices.

Then again you have stuff like vox day and the late 'requires only hate' as those picking out different psychologies to indulge. The nasty stuff, as I'd put it.

But with plague, death in childbirth, all sorts of really quite PTSD stuff for millions of years in the past, it's no wonder to survive through that we developed quite savage psychologies.

I guess the final question is whether we will appreciate them as a brutal survivalism we had to go through (and should things f' up badly enough, go through again) or picking out the savage psychologoes as some kind of thing to evangelise (perhaps as vox and requiresonlyhate do?)?

Callan S. said...

Oh, a extra - something I've found is if people have some absolutely screwed up value - then they should be able to admit it to themselves. To say 'this is what I do. I think it is good'. I mean, if you like icecream, you can say it. But some things - people will so dodge talking about it.

I think I've found people will dodge any such commitment to a lot of f'd up things.

Possibly there's some hope there, in terms of human reactions...well, not defining the ethical, but getting all nervous and hiding from themselves when it gets to f'd up things.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yeah -- there's a bit of counterpressure revealed by that type of reaction, but people probably vary a lot in how much weight they're inclined to give it!

Callan S. said...

Not sure. The more they can't admit they want to do X (but are indeed doing it), it seems the more weight they are giving it.