Wednesday, July 15, 2015

There is no commutative property which touches us with fairy dust and magically makes us better people

From Cheeseburger ethics by Eric Schwitzgebel. An entertaining philosophical meditation and empirical effort to answer the question "Are professional ethicists good people?" The empirical answer is no, they are not better or worse than everyone else in the degree to which they exhibit "ethical" behaviors.
It seems odd to me that our profession has so little to say about this matter. We criticise Martin Heidegger for his Nazism, and we wonder how deeply connected his Nazism was to his other philosophical views. But we don’t feel the need to turn the mirror on ourselves.


Ethicists do not appear to behave better. Never once have we found ethicists as a whole behaving better than our comparison groups of other professors, by any of our main planned measures. But neither, overall, do they seem to behave worse. (There are some mixed results for secondary measures.) For the most part, ethicists behave no differently from professors of any other sort – logicians, chemists, historians, foreign-language instructors.

Nonetheless, ethicists do embrace more stringent moral norms on some issues, especially vegetarianism and charitable donation. Our results on vegetarianism were particularly striking. In a survey of professors from five US states, we found that 60 per cent of ethicist respondents rated ‘regularly eating the meat of mammals, such as beef or pork’ somewhere on the ‘morally bad’ side of a nine-point scale ranging from ‘very morally bad’ to ‘very morally good’. By contrast, only 19 per cent of non-philosophy professors rated it as bad. That’s a pretty big difference of opinion! Non-ethicist philosophers were intermediate, at 45 per cent. But when asked later in the survey whether they had eaten the meat of a mammal at their last evening meal, we found no statistically significant difference in the groups’ responses – about 38 per cent of professors from all groups reported having done so (including 37 per cent of ethicists).

Similarly for charitable donation. In the same survey, we asked respondents what percentage of income, if any, the typical professor should donate to charity, and then later we asked what percentage of income they personally had given in the previous calendar year. Ethicists espoused the most stringent norms: their average recommendation was 7 per cent, compared with 5 per cent for the other two groups. However, ethicists did not report having given a greater percentage of income to charity than the non-philosophers (4 per cent for both groups). Nor did adding a charitable incentive to half of our surveys (a promise of a $10 donation to their selected charity from a list) increase ethicists’ likelihood of completing the survey. Interestingly, the non-ethicist philosophers, though they reported having given the least to charity (3 per cent), were the only group that responded to our survey at detectably higher rates when given the charitable incentive.

Should we expect ethicists to behave especially morally well as a result of their training – or at least more in accord with the moral norms that they themselves espouse?
Some people instinctively view this as an exhibition of hypocrisy; You say you believe X but you do its opposite Y - Outrageous! In economics, there is a less judgmental term "revealed preference." The economist understands that everyone engages in complex trade-off decisions to arrive at an answer. Whatever that considered answer might be in advance, the actual answer at the real moment of decision might be different. Regardless what people say, we have to be more interested in what they do, in what their revealed preference might be. One politician claims to be concerned about the circumstances of the impoverished but has never contributed any time or money to any related causes. Are they in fact just not concerned about the poor at all, in which case they are indeed hypocrites. Or perhaps they simply have limited time and money and spend those limited resources on some other cause which they believe in to a greater extent. Perhaps they make no contributions to poverty programs but they do contribute to literacy programs.

What about the alternative? The crusty old curmudgeonly conservative who decries and seeks to defund welfare programs as overly generous but none-the-less works a soup kitchen on the weekends and tithes to his church's poverty programs. Is he a hypocrite or a saint?

All interesting questions. However, I read the article from a different perspective.

There is a recent emerging view in some circles that in order for children from non-majority groups to engage with reading, they have to see themselves in the books that they read. That black children won't be interested in reading unless there are black characters, girls won't be interested unless there are female protagonists, LGBT unless LGBT, etc. This is a subset of an even more widely held and long established belief in reading circles that reading literary fiction makes you more empathetic, that reading fantasy makes you more creative, that reading porn makes you more of a predator. But that's not all. This belief is a subset of an even wider belief that enthusiastic reading makes you a better person with better life outcomes.

The only problem is that there is zero robust empirical evidence to support any of these assumptions. This is cargo cult thinking from people who consider themselves smart and intellectual. A belief that books have some sort of magical commutative property that endows a person with the substance of what they are reading.

Tetlock has already uncovered that experts in an area generally perform worse in terms of making accurate forecasts in their subject than do groups of informed non-experts. Seeing Schwitzgebel's article, I was interested in whether there might be evidence that professional affiliation might have some form of commutative property; whether ethicists are more ethical, doctors more healthy, bankers more financially responsible, lawyers more law abiding, diversity officers more diverse, etc. The answer from this article is that there is no commutative property for ethicists. The other type of examples are not addressed but my recollection is that in this list there is only one exception to the general rule that professional affiliation has no commutative property. The exception is that on average doctors are somewhat healthier than the average population. Otherwise, lawyers are equally prone to law breaking, bankers equally prone to financial mismanagement, etc.

I'll continue probing, but so far there seems to be a pretty universal absence of the commutative properties of affiliation.

Schwitzgebel's article does raise an interesting alternative question. Perhaps we are mistaking the map for the territory, mistaking credentials for expertise. A professional ethicist, in this view, is simply an average person who happens to be credentialed as an ethicist. Of course we should not expect more from them than from the average population. Same with lawyers, bankers, etc. Perhaps what we ought instead to be examining is not those with credentials but those who practice the desired attribute. Not ethicists, lawyers and bankers, but rather people who seek to live ethically, people who seek to live fairly, people who seek to live prudently. Perhaps the credential occasionally overlaps with the attribute but, per Schwitzgebel, not noticeably often.

Does the person who seeks to live more ethically actually demonstrate more ethical living? Does the person who seeks to practice financial prudence actually demonstrate superior prudence? Does the person who seeks to live more fairly actually achieve greater fairness in their living? I think the answer is more likely to be yes than simply those who are more credentialed but I would also not be surprised if the answer was no, there is little difference.

Why do I think that? From analogous examples. We know that people who support more recycling and conservation tend to consume more than the average population. Those that advocate higher taxes for better welfare are on average much less charitable than the average population. Those that advocate for greater tolerance tend to demonstrate a greater intolerance towards those with contra views. The list goes on.

Where does this meditation bring us? I think the only thing we can be sure about is that there is almost always a gulf between actions and words and that there is no commutative property which touches us with fairy dust and magically makes us better people. We are fallible creatures born to fail but also born to persevere in trying to reach higher.

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