Ethicists, Courtesy & Morals

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…

Leave a comment ?


  1. s. wallerstein (ex amos)


    I think it’s fairly common that professionals in any field are skeptical about it.

    Professional politicians are much more skeptical or even cynical about politics than your average informed citizen.

    Most of the doctors whom I’ve talked to off the record are fairly skeptical about the merits of medical care.

    Those who specialize in giving investment “advice” will generally admit that they have no idea about the future of markets with the inevitable comment: “if I really knew how the market will react, I’d be on my yacht, not advising you”.

  2. +1 to Jim’s comment on cynicism.

    In addition to that, I think there are some serious methodological problems with these studies. Their data is their data; but, it appears to me that the researchers have cherry picked their “moral behavior” points without trying to control for the salience of those issues to their interviewees. Hints of this as a problem appear in the point about environmental ethicists being more likely to clean up after themselves than otherwise. Two other points:
    1) Compared to what control group? Could it be that most philosophers are “more moral” on this scale than the general populace?
    2) Another thought entirely: two of the three major streams in contemporary moral theory focus exclusively on theory while ignoring practice. The third is mostly theory with a handful interested in practice and/or praxis. Put concretely: One does not evaluate the tenis commentator on HIS game – one evaluates the tenis player.

  3. Setting aside the validity of the study, I wondered why it should surprise us that ethicists aren’t particularly good at living ethically. I think it’s fair to say that ethics boils down to one of two things:

    — (1) the philosophy of the good (i.e. what makes an action contribute to some intrinsic good, either for humans or more generally)
    — (2) the philosophy of custom (i.e. what makes an action societally approved and why that matters if it matters)

    But in other areas of philosophy, we don’t expect philosophers of [x] to actually be good at [x]. Often they are, and that can be useful, but it’s not required. Philosophers of science are not always good scientists, nor are philosophers of language good linguists in the traditional sense. So why should philosophers of the good actually excel at living the good life, or philosophers of custom actually meet societally-approved norms? It might be helpful for them to live ethically but that certainly isn’t an insurmountable defect…

  4. I’ve long suspected that metaphysicians are actually a bit larger on average than other philosophers. This work on ethicists gives me pause.

  5. Come on, let’s all admit it. This is silly stuff. I assume being a goody-two-shoes, or even a likable person, is not a requirement for being a scholar in morals.
    There is something in the subject of the above, in spite of its abject shallowness, that gave me pause. I was going to use the analogy that one doesn’t have to be schizophrenic to be an authority on the disease, but that kind of reasoning doesn’t carry over to ethics and such, does it?

  6. Do epistemologists know a lot? Are people who study aesthetics great artists? Are successful lawyers law-abiding citizens? Are theatre critics great playwrights?

  7. Jeremy,
    I think it’s not what the person is but what’s expected of him/her. So, for your four examples, using expectations, I’d say, respectively, yes (in epistemology only), no, definitely not, and no.

  8. James, the metaphysicians are just close by and the other philosophers faraway…

  9. Thanks to all of you who took the time to comment. I did wonder what folk would make of this. There does seem to be more surprise at the hypothesis (and the fact some thought to test it) than there is at the apparent results. And I can’t say I’m surprised.

    Adam may well be right enough to wonder about the methodology. But then the results seem in no way surprising: they just seem to provide a weak confirmation of what we would expect. If the surveys had suggested that ethicists *were* significantly more (or less) polite and ‘moral’ (on these scales) than other philosophers, academics or persons of a similar social class – then that would cause me to be much more sceptical about the results. But the claim that ethicists are no more or less courteous or ‘moral’ about ‘day-to-day’ things – how often they phone their mothers or how well they respond to student emails – than other philosophers or academics (except perhaps when it comes to not returning library books) just doesn’t seem surprising at all.

    Being a deeply moral person seems no advantage if you want to do a Phd in Applied Ethics and get tenure and some great moral philosophers have been utter shits in their private moral lives. Being immersed in ethical theories or meta-ethics seems unlikely to make you a better person. And even if your studies in applied ethics cause you to be become a passionate activist for the environment or the third world, I rather suspect that your (American) peers may only judge you to be more ‘political’ not more ‘moral’ on account of it.

    Schwitzgebel suggests, on account of his results, that “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 … 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.”

    I have to say I find it very hard to imagine anybody electing to study moral philosophy on the basis that they think it will make them a more moral person (or that anybody’s parents would push them to study it for that reason either). And I know I don’t want universities offering courses in moral philosophy for philosophers with the hope that they will have this result.

    What I can imagine is that specialised applied ethics courses are ‘sold’ on the basis that they might make those who take them more ‘ethical’ or ‘ethically deliberative’. Presumably this is how they ‘sell’ business or corporate ethics courses and the like (and I imagine these may be lucrative). And I can imagine the administration of an American college being sold on the idea of having a general ‘critical thinking’ course that encompasses baby logic and a little applied ethics, partly by the idea that there is some place for ‘moral education’ that is not obvious indoctrination (though it may well have an agenda) as part of college education. If one were to find results that suggest such courses do not make students any more moral – or ‘ethically deliberative’ – then this might indeed raise questions about what function they serve (beyond providing work for philosophy graduates and money for philosophy departments). But does proving that ethicists are no better or worse than other philosophers (or other academics or persons of a similar social class) on everyday matters morality, manners and courtesy cast any doubt on the ability of a business ethics course to spark some ‘ethical deliberation’ amongst students that might have some lasting effect? I don’t know that it does.

    That said, I rather doubt the lasting impact of short compulsory courses such as these. And given the way ‘free market’ Big Business in the US are buying control of Business Ethics courses in the States to promote the drivel of Ayn Rand one might hope they don’t have any.

  10. What benefit the study of phillosphy may offer when it comes to being a moral agent seems to be related to the skill of critical thinking – not knowledge of or commitment to moral theories.

  11. Talking Philosophy | Utilitarians are not nice people - pingback on October 1, 2011 at 8:15 pm
  12. It does make one pause and question what the point of moral philosophy is: if having a deeply educated viewpoint on it is independent of behavior, then does it really matter at all what that viewpoint is?

  13. Ethics gives us theories (tools) to allow practical action guidance and conflict resolution in moral dilemmas, it definitely does not give us the motivation to act morally (to use those tools). These are two related but separate areas of concern and I’m surprised the authors didn’t recognize that.

  14. Thank you to Dr Ethics & John S for taking the time to comment.

    As you say Dr E, ethics gives us theory-tools that are intended “to allow practical action guidance and conflict resolution in moral dilemmas.” The first principles of moral theories purport to offer us the means to make a moral verdict in difficult cases. On a day-to-day basis, I don’t imagine moral philosophers consciously employ these tools when they make many of the ‘common-place’ decisions that the surveys are mostly concerned with. The behaviour of ethicists in such circumstances will likely reflect what they learned (or failed to learn) in the courtyard of habit, rather than their philosophical commitments and knowledge. If Ethics can play a role in motivating people to act morally (or at least as a result of moral deliberation) at that level I think what is needed is critical thinking about ethical questions from any early age rather than exposure to theories in early adulthood. Others might argue that children just need to be taught good manners.

    John S,

    ‘If having a deeply educated viewpoint on [moral philosophy] is independent of behavior, then does it really matter at all what that viewpoint is?’

    I doubt the Categorical Imperative or felcific calculus are referred to when ethicists decide whether to answer a student e-mail, phone their mother or pick up their trash at conferences. The extent to which ethicists live their day-to-day lives according to secular moral theories seems open to question. Perhaps moral theories only make a difference when it comes to Big questions, then again, perhaps for the most ethicists the only real impact moral theories have remains confined to the world of academia?

  15. Eticists have problems with ethics! | Open Parachute - pingback on October 10, 2011 at 5:27 pm

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