Why Aren’t Ethicists More Ethical?

As the host of Talking Ethics, I’m sometimes asked whether I feel a greater need to live a strictly ethical life. People are probably also wondering whether I really do.

To me the answer to the first question is a resounding yes. If you’re going to talk the talk, you ought to walk the walk. There’s no question that I try harder to do the right thing. But that’s not to say I succeed.

In fact, I’ve become more aware of my shortcomings, both past and present, and I don’t claim to be any more ethical than the average person (although it’s not a contest). In fact, when we ran a survey recently asking people when it was okay to lie, an inherently unethical act, many respondents were less willing to lie in certain circumstances than I was.

What I will say, though, is that hosting this website has made me think a lot more about my behavior than before, and I certainly try harder than I used to.

It turns out this a very interesting and controversial issue. Professors Eric Schwitzgebel of the University of California and Joshua Rust of Stetson University have been looking into the behavior of those who study and talk about ethics over many years, examining in particular those who teach ethics at the college level. Call them professional ethicists.

What Schwitzgebel and Rust found is that ethicists don’t necessarily practice what they preach, or even what they say they believe. Consider a few of their findings in studies comparing professors who teach professors who teach ethics to other philosophy professors and to those who teach other subjects:

• U.S.-based ethicist professors are more likely than other philosophy professors (60% vs. 45%) to say it’s morally wrong to eat the meat of mammals, yet the ethicists are no less likely than the others to eat mammal meat.
• Ethics professors are also no more likely than other groups of professors to donate money to charity, donate blood to hospitals or the Red Cross, pay professional conference fees on the honor system, or respond regularly to student e-mails, though they tend to believe that these behaviors are more ethical.
• And in one of the most quoted findings of Schwitzgebel and Rust, ethicists seem more likely to steal library books. They found that relatively obscure ethics books of the sort likely to be borrowed mainly by professors and advanced students are about 50% more likely to be missing, presumably stolen, than non-ethics philosophy books.

In an interesting interview with Philosophy Bytes, Schwitzgebel said more research is needed into the reasons for the disparity between what ethics professors teach and how they behave, but at one point he suggested it might be a good thing. He noted that there’s a kind of conflict of interest that might lead to biased conclusions if ethicists knew they had to adhere to the conclusions they reach. In an unconstrained world, for example, an ethicist might conclude that everyone with a decent income ought to give 10% of it to charity. But if he knows he’ll have to adhere to that conclusion, he might unconsciously shy away from reaching it.

In his blog Schwitzgebel quotes the column Randy Cohen wrote at the conclusion of twelve years as the Ethicist for The New York Times, Cohen said doing the column had no effect on his behavior and suggested that was not a problem. He wrote:

“Writing the column has not made me even slightly more virtuous. And I didn’t have to be…. I wasn’t hired to personify virtue, to be a role model for kids, but to write about virtue in a way readers might find engaging. Consider sports writers: not 2 in 20 can hit the curveball, and why should they? They’re meant to report on athletes, not be athletes. And that’s the self-serving rationalization I’d have clung to had the cops hauled me off in handcuffs.”

That is, indeed, a self-serving rationalization and a pretty weak analogy. Most sports writers would love to hit a curveball; they just don’t have the talent. That’s not true of ethicists who have far more control over their behavior.

I have felt a greater need to act ethically since starting this website. More important, I feel a greater desire to do so. Ethics can’t be separated from context, and some ethical requirements are more important than others (there’s my rationalization), and I know I’ll never hit the high standard I espouse. But I owe it to myself, my readers, and the rest of society to try as hard as I can and to hold myself to account when I fail.


10 thoughts on “Why Aren’t Ethicists More Ethical?

  1. I don’t think ethics professors teach people how to behave. Rather, they present how different philosophers have addressed the topic through history. It’s an academic issue to the professor, to expose students to a variety of viewpoints, rather than to promote a specific moral code.

    This is very different from the role of the priest, who has a specific moral viewpoint that everyone expects him to exemplify as well as promote.

    • Marvin, the ethics courses I’ve taken (and those in journalism ethics that I taught) certainly included heavy doses of what philosophers have said and written over the ages, but the theories were accompanied by a look at practical problems and attempts to apply the theories to specific cases. At least some of those cases lead to pretty definite opinions. Plus college professors who teach ethics invariably publish and espouse opinions of their own.

  2. You personally may be more aware of your behavior since writing on ethics, but I’m betting that your actual behavior has not changed significantly, i.e. that you have been consistently ethical throughout your adult life. An ethical action is not predicated on self awareness. How many library books did you steal before writing the column??

  3. Your stats come from academia, not those out advising organizations on creating and maintaining an ethical corporate culture. Like those in your study, ethics practitioners are also more aware of ethical choices without necessarily making them at all times for themselves. Bad publicity for unethical behaviour would have a more negative affect on their credibility than other advisors, I would think. In over twenty years of consulting in ethics, I’ve met a couple of bad apples, quite a few I disagree with on some ethics issues, and a mix of competency levels. However, most do have a genuine passion for ethics and know they are a role model to some extent. So they try, most of the time, to live an ethical life.

    BTW, the first ethics book I ever bought was stolen by a co-worker!

    • The stats are limited to academia — I looked for others but didn’t find any. I would also point out that in most cases, it wasn’t that ethicists behaved any worse than anyone else; they — just that they didn’t always live up to the higher standards they espoused. I do think those who write and speak professionally about ethics have an obligation to live to a high standard.

  4. A philosopher who surveys other philosophers (or a driver who waves at oncoming traffic to make left turns in front of her)…is there anyone more unscrupulous? No. But there’s a difference between ‘ethics’ and ‘scruples’ to wit: Scruples are rules for behavior in ordinary life–or, “stringent normative attitudes” ala Schwitzgebel & Rust. Ethics are principles of right action to be argued and then tested–or, reported on ala Randy Cohen. But then there’s ‘virtue’ which in my opinion defies surveys (and barefaced bears). Socrates has a discussion about virtue in the “Meno” where he asks 1) whether a politician’s children should have virtue on par with the politician’s subjects; 2) whether a teacher who can’t demonstrate virtue by acting virtuously in real life really appreciates virtue; 3) if students who aren’t virtuous yet claim to know about virtuous actions show that virtue can’t be taught. For example, it’s hard enough to teach someone how to drive properly let alone how to behave while driving. If two race car drivers crash on the highway, did either really appreciate how to drive? If a train engineer goes off the rails by driving too fast for a curve, did he really know how to run an engine? Saying you know the right action means you must then perform that action; otherwise, you are like the driver who claims to know how to drive but can’t demonstrate that expertise. Likewise for someone who claims to be a bibliophile yet neglects to steal books from his Philosophy Department’s library…

    • Customs, manners, principles, ethics, laws, and rights are all made of the same semantic “rule stuff”. Each implies rules of behavior, so each serves the same purpose of improving good and/or reducing harm. They vary mostly in how they are enforced.

      I’m still trying to figure out virtue. For example, bibliophilia might be considered a virtue, because it improves one’s knowledge and understanding. If we say that “one ought to love books” then we’ve created a rule. But if one simply loves books, it is considered a virtue.

      The moral sense itself might be considered a virtue. Caring about doing good and being good would be moral intent. Its opposite would be sociopathy.

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  6. The AVERAGE may not be different, but I’ve been part of a professional ethics community for decades, and I don’t think averages mean much. In many aspects of their lives, I’ve found ethics practitioners to be either considerably more or considerably less ethical than average, and rarely in the mushy middle where you might expect most people dwell.

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