Do professional ethicists behave any morally better than do non-ethicists of similar social background? If not, do they at least show greater consistency between their normative attitudes and their outward behavior? Despite a long philosophical tradition associating philosophical reflection with improved moral behavior, these questions have never been empirically examined. I describe four possible models of the relationship between philosophical moral reflection and real-world moral behavior (boosterism, epiphenomenalism, rationalization, and inert discovery). I then present convergent evidence from studies of about a dozen different types of moral behavior. The results suggest that ethicists behave no morally better on average or any more consistently with their espoused values, compared to other groups of professors. Using a combination of direct observation and self-report measures, I examine: the misappropriation of library books, voting in public elections, courtesy at professional meetings, responsiveness to student emails, charitable donation, organ and blood donation, staying in touch with one’s mother, vegetarianism, honesty in responses to surveys, nonpayment of conference registration fees, Nazi party membership in the 1930s, and peer evaluation of overall moral behavior. The overall results will be compared with the predictions of the four models.
Eric Schwitzgebel is a Professor of Philosophy at UC Riverside. He has written extensively on consciousness, self-knowledge, attitudes, and moral psychology. His most recent book is Perplexities of Consciousness. He blogs at The Splintered Mind.