Ethicists' behavior not more moral, study finds

May 22, 2013 by Bettye Miller, University of California - Riverside

(Medical Xpress)—Do ethicists engage in better moral behavior than other professors? The answer is no. Nor are they more likely than nonethicists to act according to values they espouse, according to researchers from the University of California, Riverside and Stetson University in Florida.

In a study published in the journal Metaphilosophy—"' and Nonethicists' to Student E-mails: Relationships among Expressed Normative Attitude, Self-described Behavior, and Empirically Observed Behavior"— Eric Schwitzgebel of UC Riverside and Joshua of Stetson University found that ethics professors were no more likely than other philosophers or scholars in other to respond to student emails, even though a significant majority said that failure to do so is morally bad.

While faculty—particularly ethicists—who placed a high moral value on responding to student emails also typically rated themselves high on their responsiveness, Schwitzgebel and Rust found that assessment to be generally inaccurate.

"If professors have an obligation to respond to emails from students, then arguably they also have a further obligation to track whether or not they are meeting the first obligation, so that if they are not meeting the first obligation they can take corrective measures," the philosophers wrote. "If this is correct, then the present study offers not just one measure of , email responsiveness, but two: email responsiveness and meeting one's not to be deluded about one's level of email responsiveness. Professors remain far short of ideal by either measure, ethicists no less so than others."

Approximately half of American ethicists believe that professional ethicists behave at least a little morally better than nonethicists, Schwitzgebel and Rust said. In 2009 the two began a series of experiments to determine if that is so.

One previous study found that philosophy books dealing with ethics were more likely to be missing from leading academic libraries than similar nonethics books in philosophy. Another found that ethicists and political science professors voted at the same rate as did nonethicist philosophers and professors in departments other than philosophy. Two other studies found that ethicists behaved no more courteously than nonethicists and were as likely to avoid paying registration fees as nonethicists at conferences of the American Philosophical Association.

Does it matter if ethicists behave any better morally or act more consistently with their espoused values than nonethicists?

If professional ethicists do no better at demonstrating moral behavior or greater consistency between attitude and behavior, that creates a challenge for those who advocate ethics instruction for its effects on behavior, Schwitzgebel and Rust wrote.

This "boosterism" view of philosophical moral reflection—articulated by Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Mill and others—contends that moral reflection will improve . Opponents of that view, whom Schwitzgebel and Rust describe as "scoffers," argue that people are going to do what they want anyway and that the role of moral reflection is to excuse their behavior after the fact.

"That is not my own opinion," Schwitzgebel said.

Moral reflection is important to contemplate not simply because it is part of the human condition, he added.

"If we say that moral reflection has only abstract value we lose something huge. Part of the justification of teaching business ethics, medical ethics and personal values is the hope that we can have a positive effect on the behavior of you and me."

Explore further: Medical ethicists working in hospitals need to have standards

Related Stories

Medical ethicists working in hospitals need to have standards

May 31, 2011
A Queen's University professor is helping standardize practices for healthcare ethicists who consult and give guidance on medical ethics issues to doctors, nurses and patients across the country.

Do-gooder or ne'er-do-well? Behavioral science explains patterns of moral behavior

March 7, 2013
Does good behavior lead to more good behavior? Or do we try to balance our good and bad deeds? The answer depends on our ethical mindset, according to new research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association ...

Study says empathy plays a key role in moral judgments

May 22, 2013
Is it permissible to harm one to save many? Those who tend to say "yes" when faced with this classic dilemma are likely to be deficient in a specific kind of empathy, according to a report published in the scientific journal ...

'Moral realism' may lead to better moral behavior

January 29, 2013
Getting people to think about morality as a matter of objective facts rather than subjective preferences may lead to improved moral behavior, Boston College researchers report in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Recommended for you

Intensive behavior therapy no better than conventional support in treating teenagers with antisocial behavior

January 19, 2018
Research led by UCL has found that intensive and costly multisystemic therapy is no better than conventional therapy in treating teenagers with moderate to severe antisocial behaviour.

Babies' babbling betters brains, language

January 18, 2018
Babies are adept at getting what they need - including an education. New research shows that babies organize mothers' verbal responses, which promotes more effective language instruction, and infant babbling is the key.

College branding makes beer more salient to underage students

January 18, 2018
In recent years, major beer companies have tried to capitalize on the salience of students' university affiliations, unveiling marketing campaigns and products—such as "fan cans," store displays, and billboard ads—that ...

Inherited IQ can increase in early childhood

January 18, 2018
When it comes to intelligence, environment and education matter – more than we think.

Baby brains help infants figure it out before they try it out

January 17, 2018
Babies often amaze their parents when they seemingly learn new skills overnight—how to walk, for example. But their brains were probably prepping for those tasks long before their first steps occurred, according to researchers.

Reducing sessions of trauma-focused psychotherapy does not affect effectiveness

January 17, 2018
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) patients treated with as few as five sessions of trauma-focused psychotherapy find it equally effective as receiving 12 sessions.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.