Friday, February 15, 2019

Studying Ethics Should Influence Your Behavior (But It Doesn't Seem to)

Some academic disciplines have direct relevance to day-to-day life. Studying these disciplines, you might think, would have an influence on one's practical behavior. Studying nutritional health, it seems plausible to suppose, would have an influence of some sort on your food choices. Studying the stock market would likely have an influence on your investment strategies. Studying parenting styles in developmental psychology would have an influence on your parenting decisions. The effects might not be huge: A scholar of nutrition might not be able to entirely sacrifice Twinkies. A scholar of parenting styles might sometimes lose her temper in ways she knows from her research to be counterproductive. But it would be strange if studying such topics had no effect whatsoever -- if there were a perfect isolation between one's research on nutrition, investment, or parenting and one's personal food choices, investments, and approaches to parenting.

[A doctor doing what doctors in fact don't do very much of.]

Other academic topics have tenuous connections at best to practical matters of day-to-day life: studying the first second of the Big Bang, or mereological approaches to objecthood, or tortoise-shell divination in ancient China. Of course, studying such things could have behavioral effects. Maybe immersion in Big Bang cosmology inspires one to a broader, less parochial worldview. But I don't think we should particularly expect that or think something is strange if it doesn't. It's not strange for a cosmologist to be parochial in the same way it would be for an anti-trans-fat health researcher to not attempt to reduce her own trans-fat intake.

Ethics seems clearly to be in the category of academic disciplines that are directly relevant to scholars' day-to-day lives. Not every sub-issue of every sub-specialization of ethics is so, of course. Some ethical questions are highly abstract or concern matters irrelevant to the immediate choices of the scholars' lives; but few ethicists spend all of their energy on issues of that sort. Issues like our obligations to the poor, the ethics of honesty and kindness, animal rights and environmentalism, prejudice, structural injustices in our society, the proper weighing of selfish concerns against the demands of others, the question of how much to abide by laws or directives with which you disagree -- all seem directly relevant to our lives. It would be odd if devoting a substantial part of one's career to thinking about such issues had no influence of any sort on one's day-to-day behavior.

And yet it's not clear to me that studying ethics does have any influence on day-to-day behavior. Across a wide range of studies, my collaborators and I have found no convincing evidence of systematic behavioral differences between ethicists and non-ethicists of similar social background. Also, impressionistically, in my personal interactions with professional ethicists, my sense is that they behave overall similarly to non-ethicists. Furthermore, there's little evidence that university-level ethics classes influence students' behavior either.

Maybe studying ethics does sometimes have a practical effect. It would, in my mind, be stunning if studying ethics never had any influence of any sort on one's behavioral choices! But the effects, if any, are subtle and difficult to detect empirically.

Why this should be so is an underappreciated puzzle.

The easiest answers -- "academic ethics is all abstract and impractical", "ethics is all post-hoc rationalization of what you were going to do anyway", "our immoral desires are so compelling that no amount of rational thought could lead us to act otherwise" -- don't withstand critical scrutiny as fully adequate answers (although each may have some element of truth).

For several of my imperfect attempts to resolve this puzzle, see:

"The Moral Behavior of Ethicists and the Power of Reason" (with Joshua Rust), Advances in Experimental Moral Psychology (ed. H. Sarkissian and J. Wright, 2014).

"Rationalization in Moral and Philosophical Thought" (with Jon Ellis), Moral Inferences (ed. J.F. Bonnefon and B. Tremoliere, 2017).

"Aiming for Moral Mediocrity" (manuscript in draft).

I'm still banging my head against it.

[image source]


Michael Pershan said...

Do you think there's a relevant historical story here?

I'm just making this up, but it seems that for a long time philosophy ceded the actual improvement of people to religion. "Ceded" is the wrong word -- philosophy's existence as a discipline depended on its ability to not to step on the toes of theologians or the Church.

Philosophy as a discipline learned how to find aspects of the ethical world to study that DO NOT influence your behavior.

Now, though, here we are in a world that is very different. Philosophy is playing by rules that were created long ago, but religion has lost much of its influence over moral behavior. Philosophy is uncomfortable taking lessons from religion, but religion is in some ways the human legacy of attempting to influence behavior.

So it in some ways shouldn't be surprising that philosophy has no influence on behavior, should it?

howard b said...

Maybe ethics is a group thing so you're not going to act ethically on your own. I'd venture to ask whether these findings of yous hold water in group oriented cultures.

howard b said...

Carrying over with my main point, your question should be reframed as why and how do norms change? Do norms really in our country change by taking a class in college or high school? Like for instance safe sex say?
It's not the Socratic can virtue be taught but the social scientific how do norms change?

howard b said...

Maybe the teaching of ethics should be coupled with some kind of training in persuasion or debate or assertiveness training of some kind. The skill might not be what to do but how to go about doing it

Rolf Degen said...

The idea, hinted at in a comment, that philosophy is just an "impotent" successor of religion has a serious drawback: If you look at carefully conducted studies, focussing on a broad, representative selection of situations, religiosity doesn't promote moral behavior either. I think there is a wider, more fundamental issue here, which I can only sketch superficially here: Almost all influencing techniques don't work. Their effects are absent or vanishingly small. I can demonstrate that for psychotherapy, the mother of influencing techniques. Other, banal influencing techniques (one comment mentions persuasion or debate or assertiveness training) don't hold water either.Psychology is just learning this in a painful process. The effects of mass media are in the negligible range, too, as was the painful lesson of communication research. Parenting has practically no effects on personality and other psychological traits It is mostly about genes AND idiosyncratic experiences, which are practically impossible to manipulate systematically. People may change, but there is no systematical way to MAKE them change. said...

If one considers all aspects of existence with total objectivity and open mind, he won't find any inherent element of morals in life. Philosophy need to free herself from all classical ideas on mind, morals, self and consciousness:

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks!

Michael: I'm not so sure about that history. Ancient Greek and Chinese philosophy certainly focused on behavior; in medieval Europe philosophy and the Church were mostly allied; by the time of Hobbes and Descartes and Hume, a substantial proportion of philosophers were hoping to take over territory traditionally occupied by the Church.

Howard: Maybe so -- if the aim is to change norms! Working to change society's norms without first working on oneself, though....

Rolf: I agree with your analysis of the literature on religiosity. Interesting general point about influencing techniques. My student Chris McVey thinks that emotionally engaging narratives might be an exception (based for example on the literature on health compliance, esp in developing economies).

Abraham: Suppose that's true. Would discovering that fact influence one's behavior, do you think?

Howie said...

Eric, to hammer my point home
Once life was more public in the sense that one's ethical life was out in the open and people lived in the eye of authority.
That might mean that norms and ethics were pretty intertwined.
Nowadays, I think even still with our lives being online, life is a private affair, and ethical questions and directives are your own business so all the pressures to change your behavior are up to you and are at most situational, involving a few people, and the only pressures come from within
My analyst from my youth once told me that all change is coerced.
By that measure, just knowing something is ethical is not enough there must be pressure, not just to speak in psychoanalytic jargon from the id but from the superego or from direct pressure from society

Toby said...

The economics professor is better at investing her money than I am because her field of expertise gives her a deeper or broader or somehow more useful knowledge of how to invest money than I have. The nutritionist is better at eating healthily because his field of expertise informs him better about how to do that or gives him a more stark understanding of the consequences of not doing so.

Supposedly the puzzle is 'Why is ethics different from these other areas?'. But I'm not sure the analogy between ethics and other disciplines is entirely straightforward.

It seems to me that few areas of day-to-day moral decision-making are controversial or puzzling either to laypeople or to ethics 'experts'. The layperson knows as well as the ethics professor that we ought to keep promises, return library books, be quiet when others are talking, participate in democracy, and clean up after ourselves. If this is right, then what do we expect being an 'expert' to add? What special knowledge or perspective could make a difference to behaviour? So why should we expect better ethical behaviour from ethics professors than laypeople? Do we expect professors to feel more guilty about acting wrongly? Or perhaps to feel a stronger obligation to do the right thing? Neither of these seems analogous to our expectation that economists investing their money better or nutritionists eat more healthy food.

Perhaps there are some areas of ethical inquiry where experts do have extra facts at their disposal, or a deeper understanding of the issues at hand. We might reasonably expect an ethicist to have a particularly well-thought-through position on genuinely controversial issues like abortion or conscientious objection. But since the question is about personal behaviour, not simply defensible opinions, we would have to know whether ethics professors have more or fewer abortions, for instance. That is not only impractical to measure, but since the question is controversial, it's hard to know what the results would tell us anyway.

Toby said...

To put the same point more succinctly: Is there a disanology between what you expect from 'expertise' in other subjects vs 'expertise' in ethics? The expertise of the economist or the nutritionist consists only of improved knowledge or skills, compared to laypeople. But the expertise of the ethicist is supposed to consist not only of improved knowledge or skills, compared to laypeople, but also an increased personal inclination to act morally. That seems to ask more of ethicists than of other experts.

Michael Pershan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael Pershan said...

I appreciate the pushback, especially since I'm just some fellow on the internet leaving comments. In particular, I apologize for my limited understanding of the history here!

I don't doubt that religiosity is more-or-less impotent at impacting individual moral behavior for most people. (Though I wonder about certain extreme religious sects. What about intense practitioners who obsessively worry about moral behavior?)

But I think it's undeniable that religion *does* manage to impact at scale peoples' beliefs and behavior, even if that's not particularly moral behavior.

So the rough picture I'm trying to articulate is this. One way or another, religion is influential on beliefs and behavior. Whether those are the CORRECT beliefs/behavior...well, most moral philosophers I'd imagine don't think they are. But would it be possible for the tools of religion -- whatever they would turn out to be -- to be co-opted for "correct" moral behavior?

To put it like this: if we consider ethical philosophers to be in the business of improving moral behavior, they are collectively only using the classroom to go about this business. It is a mystery why this doesn't work better than it does, I agree, and I am a huge fan or your attempts to grapple with this. I find it all very enlightening.

But for example a sociologist wouldn't see moral education as purely happening in the classroom, would they? They'd see it happening far more comprehensively with a strong communal component, I gather. So if moral philosophers are in the behavior-improving business, why use such a limited approach to moral improvement?

Ademgloed said...

Because we're hypocritical in nature and lie dayly to ourselves about the harsh truth we live. Maybe we even know this like the ethicist but we soften it
for ourselves in our daily interactions when it comes about. To lie is as easy, maybe more inert to our nature, as the flow of water from a mountain to the sea. We live in fantasy and unreal. We have to awaken.

David Duffy said...

Re religion and ethical behaviour, I think it is clear there are some effects eg suicide rates, and more generally the literature on business ethics by culture (for some reason, the US stills scores quite highly).

Anonymous said...

Ethics, or the lack thereof, is symptomatic of leadership: or to correct that error of nomenclature, those who are in positions of power. Homo sapiens are really creative, intelligent animals, animals whose natural propensity is to be a part of something bigger than self. That phenomenal self is explicitly modeled after those in positions of power, and the reward that is garnered by that power. Instinctively, just like any other dumb animal, human beings respond to leadership, and that response will mirror the behavior of those in positions of power.

Hypocrisy and the infamous double-standard is the prevailing paradigm of American institutions with regard to power. The only thing that distinguishes American ethics from our cold war adversary Russia is this thing called hypocrisy. At least Russian power mongers are candidly open about what they are doing and do not make an attempt to hide behind the facade of ethics. I do not have to agree, but frankly, I admire and respect honesty any day over hypocrisy.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

Toby: Yes, I think that might be part of the answer. However, I also think there's reason to think that ethics professors' opinions change too -- esp on vegetarianism and charitable giving, and perhaps on seeing our choices in general as more morally permeated.

Michael: To some extent, I prefer to keep the focus on the person who is studying ethics (whether as a professional or as a student), rather than on the question of whether ethics professors should be imbuing ethical views in their students. They're related, of course. But I don't think it's very close to the job description of an ethics professor to transform their students' moral behavior. However, in reading and thinking about ethics for oneself, especially practical, applied ethics, thinking about the connections to your own behavior and what you might do differently does seem pretty close to the heart of it.

Adem and Lee: Yes, it seems there's some truth in what you say -- and yet I guess it seems too cynical to me to think that's the whole truth.

David: I'd be curious for a citation on the positive effects of business ethics instruction, if that's what you have in mind!

David Bourget said...

Eric, one simple explanation is that acting in a good/altruistic manner requires *consciously grasping* others' plight, because your moral sense works on consciously grasped content. When you're theorizing about morality, you don't really grasp what you're talking about because you're just kinda juggling words. A theorist of morality might in fact do worse if they develop a habit of juggling words instead of consciously grasping what they are talking about. If that sounds plausible, see my "the role of consciousness in grasping and understanding" (PPR, 2017) for an elaboration (and also "the rational role of experience" in a special issue of Inquiry on consciousness and rationality).

howard b said...

So if ethics can't force people into acting ethically, what can? Comedy? Morality plays, giving people financial incentives, shipping people to North Korea, creating an app, standing on one leg when reading them Parfit, holding them at gunpoint?

David Duffy said...

I was thinking of the effects of religiosity on business ethics, but there is a sizeable literature on training for the "usually ethically naive business student". One paper

where we read it ethics courses improve men's attitudes, but have a corrupting effect on women...

Unknown said...

Hi Eric,

Might I offer the possibility that there is an aesthetic element to personal ethical decisions that don't necessarily reflect the more systemic moral systems (whatever their basis: religion, Rawls, Nietzsche, etc.). Changes in personal ethical behavior stem not from being steeped in one or another system, but in discrete experiences that resonate personally, either positively or negatively, but generally to a memorable degree. Granted, being steeped in a system may leave the person more or less likely to resonate with some particular experience, but not necessarily preclude it. The stories of how, for instance, people have moved from being neo-nazi skinheads to advocates for multi-culturalism almost always start with some precipitating experience. Sans the precipitating experience, there's no need to reevaluate one's own behavior in ethical terms.


a factory farmed hen said...

I will zero in on one ethical issue: eating animals. AFAICT you only have the 2014 survey study of ethics professors to go on there.

First, I'd like to see a replication of that in the US in 2019, to see if anything has changed.

Second, you did in 2014 detect a difference in reported opinion: "60% of ethicist respondents rated meat-eating somewhere on the bad side of the scale, compared to 45% of non-ethicist philosophers and only 19% of professors from other departments". As for behaviour you did detect a difference in meals-per-week question replies, but not in previous-evening-meal replies. It isn't obvious to me why the latter behaviour report should be assumed truth-tracking and the former not, yet you seem to make that assumption.

Third, has any study separated responses by professors based on ethics subfield? For example meat eating among animal ethics researchers?

Fourth, it would be interesting to see a study on a wider set of behaviours related to the issue. For example, will ethics professors who report the view that meat eating is bad behave more in these kinds of ways: 1 support nudges for plant based foods in on campus food courts, 2 support political initiatives for stronger animal rights laws, 3 support prevention of ag-gag laws, and so on. That is, even if their individual behaviour has not (yet?) changed do they behave differently in their contribution to political/group level initiatives for animals?

Fifth, if it turns out there is no difference in meat eating among ethics professors and non-ethics phil professor and non-phil professors then here is another possible cause: ethics, and philosophy, systematically appoints and promotes people with a broad spectrum of viewpoints. If there already are 10 excellent papers on the immorality of eating meat then journals and peers will find a paper arguing the contrary view to be interesting and it will be easier for a person with that position to make a memorable impression on peers.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

David: Merely juggling words without grasping their contents -- I'd hope that philosophy is usually more than this, though I fear that at its worst it does become that. :-(

Howard: I'm not sure about "forcing", but I think narratives might be a valuable tool.


* Philipp Schoenegger has recently completed a replication in Germany, you'll be glad to hear! There he did find ethicists less likely to eat meat. It's not clear whether it's due to a cultural difference, a difference that ten years makes (our original survey was 2009), or something else.

* We do address the reasons to be suspicious of the meals-per-week measure in the paper. In fact, it was designed in advance to be paired with the previous-meal question as a way of capturing "socially desirable responding". People who reported 1-3 meals per week often also reported previous evening meal, in a way that doesn't make mathematical sense. We also found two people at zero per week who answered yes to the previous evening meal.

* No one has done that as far as I'm aware. That would be interesting to look at! Some of us found less littering in environmental ethics sessions at APA meetings, so it's possible that there are good subfield effects.

* Yes, that would be interesting too.

* That seems possible, but maybe doesn't fit too well with the evidence of political conformity among philosophy professors. (One colorful way of putting it, drawing from one of my studies and comparing it with the Bourget and Chalmers: Philosophers are about as likely to be members of the Republican party as they are to deny that the external world exists.)

a factory farmed hen said...

Thank you Eric for replying, I will check out the German replication study when available.

One more thought: Were there any age related patterns in the responses to your study or the replication study?

I'm asking since in vegan/animal rights grass root activism there is a pretty widespread idea that it is best to focus on younger people since, the assumption goes, breaking the habit of meat eating is harder with age. (Separate additional advantage: helping one young person go vegan has the potential to prevent more animal eating instances than helping one older person, simply because the older person has fewer years left to life.) See for example for that kind of approach.

So my thought is this: Perhaps work in ethics causes reduction in animal eating *if* combined with not having already had many years of adult life in a culture where animal eating is still the dominant social norm.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Hen: Yes, there were pretty big age effects in the vegetarianism data. It would be interesting to do a follow-up on a similar population to see whether it's a cohort effect (people born after 1960 more likely veg) or an age effect (people under 50 more likely veg)!

Peter Singer, Brad Cokelet, and I have a study going right now where we're looking at whether teaching students arguments against factory-farmed meat actually influences their choices later in the campus restaurants. I'm hoping for some preliminary results to report in March!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Bernie -- Yes, it seems likely that precipitating experiences would be important. I would hope that more abstract styles of thinking would interact with them, as you suggest, in which case at least some people should change as a result of studying ethics, even if not everyone does.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the link, David! I'll check it out. (However, a lot of these business-ethics effectiveness studies are pretty methodologically weak, I found in a 2013 review of the literature.)