Do Ethicists Behave Any Better Than the Rest of Us?: Here’s What the Research Shows

We’ve heard about the lawyer­ing fool who has him- or her­self for a client. The old proverb does not mean to say that lawyers are espe­cial­ly scrupu­lous, only that the intri­ca­cies of the law are best left to the pro­fes­sion­als, and that a per­son­al inter­est in a case mud­dies the waters. That may go dou­ble or triple for doc­tor­ing, though doc­tors don’t have to bear the lawyer’s social stig­ma.

But can we rea­son­ably expect doc­tors to live health­i­er lives than the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion? What about oth­er pro­fes­sions that seem to entail a rig­or­ous code of con­duct? Many peo­ple have late­ly been dis­abused of the idea that cler­gy or police have any spe­cial claim to moral upstand­ing­ness (on the con­trary)….

What about ethi­cists? Should we have high expec­ta­tions of schol­ars in this sub­set of phi­los­o­phy? There are no clever say­ings, no genre of jokes at their expense, but there are a few aca­d­e­m­ic stud­ies ask­ing some ver­sion of the ques­tion: does study­ing ethics make a per­son more eth­i­cal?

You might sus­pect that it does not, if you’re a cynic—or the answer might sur­prise you!.… Put more pre­cise­ly, in a recent study—“The Moral Behav­ior of Ethics Pro­fes­sors,” pub­lished in Philo­soph­i­cal Psy­chol­o­gy this year—the “open but high­ly rel­e­vant ques­tion” under con­sid­er­a­tion is “the rela­tion between eth­i­cal reflec­tion and moral action.”

The paper’s authors, pro­fes­sor Johannes Wanger of Austria’s Uni­ver­si­ty of Graz and grad­u­ate stu­dent Philipp Schöneg­ger from the Uni­ver­si­ty of St. Andrews in Scot­land, sur­veyed 417 pro­fes­sors in three cat­e­gories, reports Olivia Gold­hill at Quartz: “ethi­cists (philoso­phers focused on ethics), philoso­phers focused on non-eth­i­cal sub­jects, and oth­er pro­fes­sors.” The paper sur­veyed only Ger­man-speak­ing schol­ars, repli­cat­ing the meth­ods of a 2013 study focused on Eng­lish-speak­ing pro­fes­sors.

The ques­tions asked touched on “a range of moral top­ics, includ­ing organ dona­tion, char­i­ta­ble giv­ing, and even how often they called their moth­er.” After assess­ing gen­er­al views on the sub­jects, the authors “then asked the pro­fes­sors about their own behav­ior in each cat­e­go­ry.” We must assume a base lev­el of hon­esty among the respon­dents in their self-report­ed answers.

The results: “the researchers found no sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence in moral behav­ior” between those who make it their busi­ness to study ethics and those who study oth­er things. For exam­ple, the major­i­ty of the aca­d­e­mics sur­veyed agreed that you should call your moth­er: at 75% of non-philoso­phers, 70% of non-ethi­cists, and 65% of ethi­cists (whose num­bers might be low­er here because oth­er issues could seem weight­i­er to them by com­par­i­son).

When it comes to pick­ing up the phone to call mom at least twice a month, the num­bers were con­sis­tent­ly high, but ethi­cists did not rate par­tic­u­lar­ly high­er at 87% ver­sus 81% of non-ethi­cist philoso­phers and 89% of oth­ers. The sub­ject of char­i­ta­ble giv­ing may war­rant more scruti­ny. Ethi­cists rec­om­mend­ed donat­ing an aver­age of 6.9% of one’s annu­al salary, where non-ethi­cists said 4.6%  was enough and oth­ers said 5.1%. The num­bers for all three groups, how­ev­er, hov­er around four and half per­cent.

One notable excep­tion to this trend: veg­e­tar­i­an­ism: “Ethi­cists were both more like­ly to say that it was immoral to eat meat, and more like­ly to be veg­e­tar­i­ans them­selves.” But on aver­age, schol­ars of eth­i­cal behav­ior do not seem to behave bet­ter than their peers. Should we be sur­prised at this? Eric Schwitzgebel, a phi­los­o­phy pro­fes­sor at Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, River­side, and one of the authors of orig­i­nal, 2013 study, finds the results upset­ting.

Using the exam­ple of a hypo­thet­i­cal pro­fes­sor who makes the case for veg­e­tar­i­an­ism, then heads to the cafe­te­ria for a burg­er, Schwitzgebel refers to mod­ern-day philo­soph­i­cal ethics as “cheese­burg­er ethics.” Of his work on the behav­ior of ethi­cists with Stet­son University’s Joshua Rust, he writes, “nev­er once have we found ethi­cists as a whole behav­ing bet­ter than our com­par­i­son groups of oth­er pro­fes­sors…. Nonethe­less, ethi­cists do embrace more strin­gent moral norms on some issues.”

Should philoso­phers who hold such views aspire to be bet­ter? Can they be? Schöneg­ger and Wag­n­er frame the issue upfront in their recent ver­sion of the study (which you can read in full here), with a quote from the Ger­man philoso­pher Max Schel­er: “sign­posts do not walk in the direc­tion they point to.” Ethi­cists draw con­clu­sions about ideals of human behav­ior using the tools of phi­los­o­phy. They show the way but should not per­son­al­ly set them­selves up as exem­plars or role-mod­els. As one high-pro­file case of a very bad­ly-behaved ethi­cist sug­gests, this might not do the pro­fes­sion any favors.

Schwitzgebel is not con­tent with this answer. The prob­lem, he writes at Aeon, may be pro­fes­sion­al­iza­tion itself, impos­ing an unnat­ur­al dis­tance between word and deed. “I’d be sus­pi­cious of any 21st-cen­tu­ry philoso­pher who offered up her- or him­self as a mod­el of wise liv­ing,” he writes, “This is no longer what it is to be a philosopher—and those who regard them­selves as wise are in any case almost always mis­tak­en. Still, I think, the ancient philoso­phers got some­thing right that the cheese­burg­er ethi­cist gets wrong.”

The “some­thing wrong” is a lais­sez-faire com­fort with things as they are. Leav­ing ethics to the realm of the­o­ry takes away a sense of moral urgency. “A full-bod­ied under­stand­ing of ethics requires some liv­ing,” Schwitzgebel writes. It might be eas­i­er for philoso­phers to avoid aim­ing for bet­ter behav­ior, he implies, when they are only required, and pro­fes­sion­al­ly reward­ed, just to think about it.

via Quartz

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Can I Know Right From Wrong? Watch Phi­los­o­phy Ani­ma­tions on Ethics Nar­rat­ed by Har­ry Shear­er

Oxford’s Free Course A Romp Through Ethics for Com­plete Begin­ners Will Teach You Right from Wrong

The Hobo Eth­i­cal Code of 1889: 15 Rules for Liv­ing a Self-Reliant, Hon­est & Com­pas­sion­ate Life

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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