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.