Do as I Say, Not as I Do

College professorship in ethics may not translate into ethical conduct.

June 16, 2009

So much for trusting your local ethicist.

According to a paper written by two philosophy professors, Eric Schwitzgebel of the University of California at Riverside and Joshua Rust of Stetson University, a college professorship in ethics does not necessary translate into moral behavior. At least, that’s what the people who work with ethicists say.

“One might suppose,” Schwitzgebel writes in the paper, which has been accepted for publication by the journal Mind, “that ethicists would behave with particular moral scruple. After all, they devote their careers to studying and teaching about morality. Presumably, many of them care deeply about it. And if they care deeply about it, it is not unreasonable to expect them to act on it.”

Maybe not. Equipped with free Ghirardelli chocolate to entice potential survey-takers, Schwitzgebel set out to test that assumption at a 2007 meeting of the American Philosophical Association by distributing questionnaires asking how well philosophers presumed their peers in ethics behave. Not any better than the next guy, they said.

Most of the 277 survey respondents reported no positive correlation between a professional focus on ethics and actual moral behavior. Respondents who were ethicists themselves shied away from saying that ethicists behave worse than those outside the discipline – generally reporting that ethicists behave either the same or better – but non-ethicists were mostly split between reporting that ethicists behave the same as or worse than others.

Even those ethicists who did rank their peers’ behavior as better than average said their moral behavior is just barely better than average – hardly a ringing endorsement.

Of course, Schwitzgebel said, the usual caveats apply here: small-ish sample size, possible in-group bias, the chance that respondents are more likely to remember their vicious ethicist colleagues than the well-behaved ones. But if the majority is right – that studying ethics does not translate to more ethical behavior – Schwitzgebel said he’d be a little disheartened.

“If actually thinking about ethics philosophically does not help you behave any better, if that is the right conclusion to draw, I do find that disappointing,” Schwitzgebel said. “I would have to hope that philosophical moral reflection is morally improving … that it pushes you toward the good.”

If being pushed toward the good means not stealing, ethicists might not be feeling the push. In another of Schwitzgebel’s papers forthcoming in a peer review journal, he looks at whether ethics books are more likely to be missing from libraries than non-ethics books. Focusing on the especially obscure ethics texts that only specialized professors or graduate students would go looking for, Schwitzgebel found the ethics books to be slightly more likely to be unaccounted for. It’s hardly proof of theft, Schwitzgebel admits, but it is an attempt at gathering convergent evidence of a certain – possibly morally unethical – behavior trend among those who study ethical behavior.

What does it all mean for ethics department come evaluation time? It’s no reason to cast it from the curriculum, Schwitzgebel says.

There is, at the very least, an intrinsic interest in studying ethics, he continued – much like, say, metaphysics, where there is not much of practical import. Ethicists contribute to public discourse, and they might inspire others to behave more morally, even if they don’t themselves. Plus many who teach ethics resist – perhaps out of modesty – saying their aim is to change the moral character of a student, Schwitzgebel said.

But with humanities apologists regularly having to defend their significance against the tightening of college purse strings, an ethics class that does not promote ethics could eat away at that philosophy course’s justification.

“People do sometimes justify ethics courses on the assumption that taking ethics courses will improve students’ behavior down the road,” Schwitzgebel said, noting legal and business ethics as examples, although they are separate from ethics courses in the philosophy department. “I think there is a potential this line of research could undercut the justification for those classes.”

But, as Schwitzgebel was quick to point out, his study does not imply that. The jump from ethics professors’ immoral behavior to students’ benefiting (or not) from ethics courses is a long one to make, he said. What Schwitzgebel – who has been teaching a college ethics course for seven years – hopes might come out of his work is a better understanding of the nuances in studying and teaching ethics.

“There are certain ways of teaching ethics and thinking about ethics philosophically that can lead to moral improvement,” Schwitzgebel said. He wants to find them.


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