A study of ethicists finds they’re no more ethical than the rest of us (and no better at calling their mothers)

Call your mother.
Call your mother.
Image: Reuters/ Toby Melville
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For all their pontificating and complex moral theories, ethicists are just as disappointingly flawed as the rest of humanity. A study of 417 professors published last week in Philosophical Psychology found that, though the 151 ethics professors expressed stricter moral views, they were no better at behaving ethically.

The paper, by philosophy graduate student Philipp Schönegger from the University of St Andrews in Scotland and philosophy professor Johannes Wanger from the University of Graz in Austria, surveyed professors’ views on a range of moral topics, including organ donation, charitable giving, and even how often they called their mother. They then asked the professors about their own behavior in each category.

The researchers focused on professors so as to avoid discrepancies in salary and status that might influence the results, and asked professors to evaluate actions on a scale from 1 (very immoral) to 9 (very moral.) They surveyed three categories of academics: ethicists (philosophers focused on ethics), philosophers focused on non-ethical subjects, and other professors.

There were some differences in views—ethicists had more stringent expectations than other professors on donating to charity, but were more lenient on the immorality of theft, and staying in touch with their mothers. But the researchers found no significant difference in moral behavior. For example, ethicists on average said a professor should donate 6.9% of their annual income to charity per year, versus non-philosophers’ recommendation of 4.6%, and other philosophers’ suggestion of 5.1%. But when it came to following through on this moral guidance, there was no gap: Ethicists reported donating 4.6% of their annual salary to charity in the past year, compared to non-ethicist philosophers’ 4.6% and non-philosophers’ 4.4%.

Most people agreed that not calling one’s mother was poor form: 75% of non-philosophers, 70% of non-ethicists and 65% of ethicists thought that not doing so was immoral. And, when it came to following through, the majority did manage to contact their mothers at least twice a month: 87% of ethicists did so, alongside 81% of non-ethicist philosophers, and 89% of non-philosophers. As with most moral acts, the researchers found no clear link between ethical expertise and ethical behavior.

The one exception was vegetarianism: Ethicists were both more likely to say that it was immoral to eat meat, and more likely to be vegetarians themselves.

The paper replicated a 2013 study by Eric Schwitzgebel, philosophy professor at University of California, Riverside, and Joshu Rust, philosophy professor at Stetson University, which found that ethicists were similarly unlikely to behave more morally than others. Whereas Schwitzgebel’s paper focused on English-speaking professors, the more recent study was of German-speaking academics in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, showing that the original finding replicates in a different culture. Schwitzgebel has done several studies on the subject of ethicists’ ethics, and wrote for aeon that, to his surprise, few ethicists seem to have considered their own behavior. After all, he notes, doctors smoke less than the general population, and we’d expect that feminist scholars behave in an egalitarian manner. And yet being an expert on ethics is no guarantee of improved ethical behavior—as evidenced by one of the most famous living ethicists, Thomas Pogge, who has been repeatedly accused of sexual harassment.

Schwitzgebel believes ethicists, as they have more knowledge about moral behavior, should act more ethically than the average person. Shall I redouble my efforts to be kinder and more generous, coupling them with reminders of humility about my likelihood of success? Yes, I will – today!” he writes in aeon. “But I already feel my resentment building, and I haven’t done anything yet.” Ultimately, behaving morally is difficult, and it’s comforting to know that even ethical experts struggle.