Saturday, June 20, 2009

The ethics of ethicists

A new paper out asks the question "are ethicists more ethical?" (HT to MR)

The results are a little surprising. When philosophers were asked to evaluate others ethical behavior, ethicists didn't do any better, and some were considered worse, than the average person. For instance, Kantians, for some reason, were seen to behave much worse than other ethicists.

It looks like training and thinking about ethics may not increase ethical actions. "Only a few (mostly ethicists) stood by the idea that the serious study of philosophical ethics is, on average, morally edifying".

Perhaps my favorite line of the paper:
Virtually everyone who received a questionnaire completed it. One respondent objected to the questionnaire on moral grounds...A number of people stole candy without completing a questionnaire or took more than their share without permission. One eminent Kantian ethicist grabbed a single Ghirardelli square in passing and announced, ‘I’m being evil!’ Unfortunately, we were unable to study this behaviour systematically.
Then there is the finding from one study mentioned in the paper that ethics books were more likely to be missing in libraries that non-ethics books. Is this like stealing a bible from a church?

I have some doubts about generalizing the findings too much though. As the authors note, "we are of course aware that responses are likely to be biased by a number of factors and at best represent beliefs based largely on behaviour as observed in professional contexts".

So, is the finding in fact that ethicists think other ethicists are in fact wrong? The authors make a comparison to economists who do not make optimal investment decisions. Economists though tend to disagree a lot with each other. One person's brilliant economist is another persons dolt. Is there also a lot of disagreement among ethicists? Perhaps this is simply measuring how much they disagree with each other.

Then there is the problem of judging ethical behavior. Knowing that someone is supposed to be trained as an ethicist, others might judge their one or two quirks harshly, or even too quickly. So, we may be looking at a very narrow definition of unethical.

I consider myself to be an especially ethical person. I have dedicate my life to fighting poverty and inequality. I do not (generally) steal, and I have not told a lie (even white) in about 10 years. Yes, this has been, as one friend once remarked, a "career limiting move", but I'm ok with that. I try to make it up in other ways.

While working on a semi-philosophical question of different forms of utilitarianism while an undergrad at ASU (check out rule versus act utilitarianism), I used to steal coffee. To be precise, I would buy a soda, drink some of the soda, then use the cup to get coffee. In the strict definition, this is stealing, and to some, it is unethical. Despite being a Kantian, I am not a fan of using hard set rules to live my life. My coffee stealing was a form of price descrimination. Einstein's Bagels couldn't do it efficiently (or legally), so I did it for them. I wouldn't have eaten there if I couldn't do it.

Now, I actually have an income, so I don't do this. But I don't apologize for my previous evil ways. If everyone were to do what I did, I think the economy, and larger society, would survive.

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