Sunday, July 26, 2020

Does Studying Philosophy Change Your Real-World Behavior: Schwitzgebel vs. Schwitzgebel?

In a coincidence of timing, two seemingly contradictory pieces of work by me are both being released today.

One is an interview of me by Ray Briggs and Josh Landy at Philosophy Talk on "the ethical jerk". The interview focuses on my work on the moral behavior of ethics professors, in which (mostly in collaboration with Josh Rust), I find over and over again that professional ethicists do not behave much differently from socially similar comparison groups (such as other professors of philosophy and professors in departments other than philosophy). In particular, Josh and I found that despite ethicists being much more likely than other professors to say that it's bad to each the meat of mammals such as beef and pork, ethicists did not detectably differ from other professors in their self-reports about whether they ate the meat of a mammal at their previous evening meal. (However, see Schoenegger and Wagner's different results here, and my discussion here.)

The second is an empirical paper, collaborative with Brad Cokelet and Peter Singer. From the abstract:

We assigned 1332 students in four large philosophy classes to either an experimental group on the ethics of eating meat or a control group on the ethics of charitable giving. Students in each group read a philosophy article on their assigned topic and optionally viewed a related video, then met with teaching assistants for 50-minute group discussion sections. They expressed their opinions about meat ethics and charitable giving in a follow-up questionnaire (1032 respondents after exclusions). We obtained 13,642 food purchase receipts from campus restaurants for 495 of the students, before and after the intervention. Purchase of meat products declined in the experimental group (52% of purchases of at least $4.99 contained meat before the intervention, compared to 45% after) but remained the same in the control group (52% both before and after). Ethical opinion also differed, with 43% of students in the experimental group agreeing that eating the meat of factory farmed animals is unethical compared to 29% in the control group.

If you feel some tension between these two perspectives, I do too. Does studying philosophical arguments for vegetarianism change people's behavior or not? No, you might think, based on the ethics professors results. Yes, you might think, based on the students' results.

Cokelet, Singer, and I address this apparent conflict near the end of the article:

These data can be reconciled with Schwitzgebel and Rust's (2014) noneffects in at least two ways. As Schwitzgebel (2019a) notes, to the extent ethicists' moral behavior is guided by social conformity with non-ethicist peers, ethicists would not be expected to behave differently than their non-ethicists peers, even as their philosophical expertise grows and their opinions change. In contrast, students' opinions about peer behavior might change considerably as a result of ethics instruction, with behavior following suit. Alternatively but not incompatibly, Nahmias (2012) has suggested that Schwitzgebel's null results for ethicists may be compatible with moral behavioral change among philosophy students if professors tend to be settled in their ways, having already undergone, as undergraduates, all the moral change that exposure to philosophy is likely to inspire.

Even these explanations might be too simple, though. I am increasingly convinced that the philosophical ethical reflection changes behavior mainly when the reflection includes a personal, emotional, or narrative dimension -- as suggested by Lori Gruen on the issue of vegetarianism here and as suggested by my student Chris McVey's recent PhD dissertation (some preliminary results here, publishable writeup pending).

(P.S. I'm on vacation, so responses might be slower than usual.)


Arnold said...

{{The New Yorker}}, magazine, 07/29/20 By Richard Brody
“The Last Days of Immanuel Kant,” a Physical Comedy of the Philosophical Life

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the suggestion, Arnold. I'll check it out!