Ethicists like to think of themselves as morally good people. But a recent article in the journal Metaphilosophy questions this.
The article, by Joshua Rust and Eric Schwitzgebel of the University of California Riverside, compares the responsiveness of ethicists and non-ethicists to student emails. Though the vast majority of ethicists said failing to respond to emails was morally bad, few were above average in their response rate. The survey found the response rates of ethicists to be 62%, not significantly different from the response rate of 58% among non-philosophers. The researchers also found that many of the ethicists were deluded about their rates of responsiveness: "professors who claimed to reply to at least 98 percent of student e-mails replied to an average of 64.3 percent of the e-mails we sent," they reported.
This undermines the notion of 'moral intellectualism' - the view that an education in morality is sufficient to ensure morally good behaviour. If ethicists are no more likely to act in a moral way the connection between ethical education and moral behavior is weaker than many philosophers have thought. Nevertheless, Schwitzgebel and Rust were circumspect: "It is far too soon, we think, to say that such a starkly negative view of philosophical ethics is compelled by the psychological data".
Approximately half of American ethicists believe that professional ethicists behave at least a little morally better than non-ethicists, Schwitzgebel and Rust said.
The researchers have produced similar studies before. One previous study found that philosophy books dealing with ethics were more likely to be missing from leading academic libraries than similar non-ethics books in philosophy. Two other studies found that ethicists behaved no more courteously than non-ethicists and were as likely to avoid paying registration fees as non-ethicists at conferences of the American Philosophical Association.
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