For all their pondering on matters moral, ethicists are no better mannered than other philosophers, and they behave no better morally than other philosophers or other academics either. Or such, at least, are the conclusions suggested by the research of philosophers Eric Schwitzgebel (at the University of California, at Riverside) and Joshua Rust (of Stetson University, Florida).
On Ethicists’ courtesy at philosophy conferences as recently published in Philosophical Psychology‘, Schwitzgebel & Rust report on a study that suggests that audiences in ethics sessions do not behave any better than those attending seminars on other areas of philosophy. Not when it comes to talking audibly whilst a speaker is addressing the room and not when it comes to ‘allowing the door to slam shut while entering or exiting mid-session’. And though, appropriately enough “audiences in environmental ethics sessions … appear to leave behind less trash” generally speaking, the ethicists are just as likely to leave a mess as the epistemologists and metaphysicians.
The two previously co-authored ‘The Moral Behaviour of Ethicists: Peer Opinion’ (Mind, 2009), a paper that was widely reported and blogged upon. In the same the pair reported that a survey conducted at a philosophical conference suggested that most philosophers believed ethicists behaved no better than other philosophers or non-academics of a similar social background. Non-ethicists were also just about as likely to say that ethicists behaved worse than other philosophers, as they were to say that the experts on moral philosophy behaved any better.
A separate paper by Schwitzgebe published in Philosophical Psychology reported that within academic libraries, “compared to other philosophy books similar in age and popularity … relatively obscure, contemporary ethics books of the sort likely to be borrowed mainly by professors and advanced students of philosophy were actually about 50% more likely to be missing than non-ethics books” and “that classic (pre-1900) ethics books were about twice as likely to be missing.” This paper was titled “Do ethicists steal more books?” and the answer it seems is “Yes”.
Schwitzgebel & Rust now have a new (and “monstrously long”) paper in preparation titled the “The Self-Reported Moral Behavior of Ethics Professors.”. In the same they report on their survey of ethics professors, non-ethicist philosophers, and professors in other departments on eight ‘moral’ issues. These being “academic society membership, voting, staying in touch with one’s mother, vegetarianism, organ and blood donation, responsiveness to student emails, charitable giving, and honesty in responding to survey questionnaires” (some aspects of which the two were able to compare with behavioural results). Ethicists, it seems, express “somewhat more stringent normative attitudes on some issues, such as vegetarianism and charitable donation”. However, “on no issue did ethicists show significantly better behavior than the two comparison groups” The pair’s findings “on attitude-behavior consistency were mixed: Ethicists showed the strongest relationship between behavior and expressed moral attitude regarding voting but the weakest regarding charitable donation”.
Schwitzgebel says on his blog that this
“research raises questions about the extent to which studying ethics improves moral behavior. To the extent that practical effect is among one’s aims in studying (or as an administrator, in requiring) philosophy, I think there is reason for concern. I’m inclined to think that either philosophy should be justified differently, or we should work harder to try to figure out whether there is a *way* of studying philosophy that is more effective in changing moral behavior than the ordinary (21st century, Anglophone) way of studying philosophy is.”
It might, at least, give some pause for thought, possibly even comment…