Ethicists have problems with ethics!

By Ken Perrott 11/10/2011

I picked up this article recently – The Self-Reported Moral Behavior of Ethics Professors. So I couldn’t help laughing when I came across this other one – When Scientists Make Bad Ethicists.

A title like “When Scientists Make Bad Scientists” would be more newsworthy (as the first article is implying the ethicists are not actually very good at personal ethics).

I will get back to Matt Flannaghan’s little rant against a scientific approach to understanding morality in a later post. It’s an important issue and I can appreciate why theologians like him worry about the scientific work in this area. (Their response is rather like the Roman Inquisition telling Galileo he had no right to believe that contrary to the Church’s teaching the earth goes around the sun – or King Canute’s command to the tide not to come in).

But – here I just wish to bring attention to the research in the first article suggesting that professional ethicists perhaps don’t behave too ethically as individuals. These researchers compared the:

 ”self-reported moral attitudes and moral behavior of 198 ethics professors, 208 non-ethicist philosophers, and 167 professors in departments other than philosophy on eight moral issues.”

“Ethicists expressed 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. Our 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.” (Quotes from abstract)

Senior author Eric Schwitzgebel expressed concern about these findings on his blog :

’I do think that our 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.’

I can’t say I am too surprised. I have often noted how specialists in some subjects appear very bad at handling their own particular problems in the specialist area. How often do we find psychologists or counsellors who don’t seem to follow the advice they dish out to their clients? (How often do we find priests . . .  No, let’s not go there).

But, perhaps more importantly, ethics at the individual level is usually not a conscious activity. It is based on ingrained intuitions and emotional responses.

So it’s easy to imagine how professionals may teach and intellectually justify ethical positions in the day job. But in their personal ethical and moral behaviour they will instead be exhibiting their emotional and intuitional behaviour.

See also: Ethicists, Courtesy & Morals.

0 Responses to “Ethicists have problems with ethics!”

  • A vaguely similar comparison would be the number of doctors who continued to smoke even when it became clear how hazardous it was to one’s health (although in this case it is more likely down to addiction rather that ingrained behaviours).
    When it comes down to it human beings are not always rational so as you suggest ethics at the individual level is usually not a conscious activity. It is based on ingrained intuitions and emotional responses

    A fascinating blog, as usual, Ken