Moral philosophers most of spend their time studying and discussing what it means for a person or an act to qualify as moral. One might assume that all this reflection on matters of good and bad, and right and wrong, would make professional ethicists behave morally better than socially comparable non-ethicists. Yet that’s not what some research suggests:

On Ethicists’ courtesy at philosophy conferences, as recently published in Philosophical Psychology, philosophers Eric Schwitzgebel and Joshua Rust report on a study that suggests that audiences in ethics sessions do not behave any better than those attending seminars on other areas of philosophy. Not when it comes to talking audibly whilst a speaker is addressing the room and not when it comes to “allowing the door to slam shut while entering or exiting mid-session.” And though, appropriately enough “audiences in environmental ethics sessions … appear to leave behind less trash” generally speaking, the ethicists are just as likely to leave a mess as the epistemologists and metaphysicians.

A separate paper by Schwitzgebe published in Philosophical Psychology reported that within academic libraries, “compared to other philosophy books similar in age and popularity … relatively obscure, contemporary ethics books of the sort likely to be borrowed mainly by professors and advanced students of philosophy were actually about 50% more likely to be missing than non-ethics books” and “that classic (pre-1900) ethics books were about twice as likely to be missing.” This paper was titled Do ethicists steal more books?” and the answer it seems is “Yes.”

Schwitzgebel & Rust now have a new (and “monstrously long”) paper in preparation titled the The Self-Reported Moral Behavior of Ethics Professors.” They report on their survey of ethics professors, non-ethicist philosophers, and professors in other departments on eight ‘moral’ issues. These being “academic society membership, voting, staying in touch with one’s mother, vegetarianism, organ and blood donation, responsiveness to student emails, charitable giving, and honesty in responding to survey questionnaires” (some aspects of which the two were able to compare with behavioural results). Ethicists, it seems, express “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.” The pair’s 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.”

Of course, a couple studies on conference etiquette and library books cannot fully debunk the traditionally accepted idea that philosophical reflection on morality (even slightly) improves moral behavior. But even if that idea is eventually disproved, moral philosophers still play an important role in helping non-moral philosophers to wade through complex moral questions and dilemmas — which helps non-moral philosophers to act morally better. Or at least I’d like to think.