Why don’t ethics professors behave better?

If you spent your whole life trying to work out how to be ethical, you would think you’d be more moral in everyday life. Philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel has found that this isn’t the case, and asks the question “Why don’t ethics professors behave better than they do?”.

Initially, this was based on a hunch, but Schwitzgebel, with colleague Joshua Rust, has begun to do research into the question. They’ve found some surprising results.

At a recent philosophy conference, he offered chocolate to anyone who filled in a questionnaire asking whether ethicists behaved better than other philosophers.

It wasn’t long before an ethics professor stole a chocolate without filling in a questionnaire. (This reminds me of a famous psychology study that found that trainee priests on their way to give a talk on ‘The Good Samaritan’ mostly ignored someone in need if they were in a hurry!).

When the results came in, ethicists rated other ethicists as behaving better, but other philosophers rated them as no more moral than everyone else.

In another study, Schwitzgebel investigated whether people interested in moral issues are more likely to steal books. By looking at library records, he’s found that books on ethics are more likely to be stolen than other philosophy books.

So why aren’t ethics professors more ethical than the rest of us? Schwitzgebel wonders whether it is because there is a difference between emotional engagement with moral issues and a more detached reasoning style that is necessary for careful analysis, but which may not make someone feel compelled to act more ethically.

Ominously, he notes that “More and more, I’m finding myself inclined to think that philosophical reflection about ethical issues is, on average, morally useless”.

It is interesting that there are similar problems in other professions. For example, doctors don’t follow health advice adequately and are much more likely to suffer from mental illness.

As an aside, Schwitzgebel has made all his papers and publications available online and has a fantastic blog that is well worth keeping tabs on.

Link to Schwitzgebel’s articles on ‘The problem with ethics professors’.
Link to Schwitzgebel’s homepage with publications and blog links.

2 Comments

  1. Posted June 26, 2007 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    Brilliant! This reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell, one of my favorite authors. I have seen similar disconnects among mental health professionals. People with mental problems seem to major in psychology, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they deal with their issues.
    – Michael from The US Desk at TheNewsRoom.com

  2. Tiberiu
    Posted June 27, 2007 at 2:15 am | Permalink

    So Ethics professors should be “ethical” — in the common acceptation of the term?
    It might be that, after all the time put into thinking about it, these professors do not simply accept the common sense that stealing is “unethical” but rather have developed their own value system in which stealing chocolate is perfectly acceptable.


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