What is the relationship between philosophical moral reflection and real-world moral behavior? Does reflecting philosophically on moral questions lead us to act better? Though the question is central to both moral psychology and moral education, it has never been systematically explored. In this and related articles we plan to make a start.
Certain practices and institutions seem to operate on the assumption that philosophical moral reflection tends to have a positive impact on moral behavior. Philosophical courses in medical, legal, and business ethics are required, presumably, in part on the assumption that philosophical reflection on those applied moral issues will, down the road, help improve the behavior of budding doctors, lawyers, and tycoons. Philosophers interested in doing what’s right—for example, in deciding whether to become vegetarian or whether to go through the trouble of voting on election day—sometimes reflect philosophically, considering consequences, virtues, or the universalizability of maxims, apparently under the assumption that such reflection will help guide them toward the good. Although the value of such reflective practices doesn’t strictly require that philosophical moral reflection tends to improve moral behavior—for example, there might be better and worse ways of reflecting, producing a net neutral result—the general acceptance of such practices at least invites that supposition (a supposition apparently shared by Aristotle, Kant, and Mill, among others: Aristotle 4th c. BCE/1962
, 1103b; Kant 1785/1998
, 4:404–5; Mill 1859/2003
, ch. 2). If philosophical moral reflection has no tendency to further the aim of acting well, that problematizes the role of such reflection in everyday life.
Both real-world moral behavior and genuine philosophical moral reflection are recondite, difficult to control, and (as targets of study) fraught with methodological peril. Their relationship, therefore, is difficult to examine. Psychologists have put forward models according to which explicit moral reasoning of the sort encouraged by philosophers either stands near the center of morality (e.g., Kohlberg 1984
) or serves mainly to rationalize moral intuitions arrived at prior to reflection (e.g., Haidt 2001
), but direct empirical evidence is thin and the question remains wide open. One potential line of evidence that remains untapped is the moral behavior of ethics professors. If philosophical reflection does promote moral behavior, either generally speaking or in a broad range of cases, one might expect that philosophers, especially moral philosophers, would tend to behave better than other people, since presumably they are both prone to such reflection and skilled at it.
The best way to determine the moral impact of a lifetime’s philosophical reflection on ethics would be to randomly assign children either to careers in ethics or to other academic careers, then measure their virtue in adulthood using a moralometer. However, since the moralometer has yet to be invented, and since random assignment to careers would require an authoritarian dystopia, we’ll have to settle for more modest questions and more limited measures—which we believe can collectively illuminate the broader issues. The present study begins with the assumption that forms of political engagement such as voting have moral worth, and examines the voting frequency of four groups of professors: ethicists (including political philosophers as a subgroup), philosophers not specializing in ethics, political science professors, and a comparison group of professors from other departments. The key question is, do ethicists and political philosophers execute this civic duty more reliably than other professors?
We assume that most ethical theories imply that participation in a representative democracy, including voting in public elections, is in general morally preferable to non-participation. John Stuart Mill writes glowingly of the moral benefits that flow from political participation (1861/2006
). Aristotle envisions political involvement as an important part of the virtuous life (4th c. BCE/1962
, 4th c. BCE/1998
). Although Kant himself is not entirely clear on the value of representative democracy (1795/1996
), more recent deontologists endorse the value of participation and voting. Rawls, for example, writes that citizens are “expected to vote” and that even independently of its direct contribution to justice, voting “leads to a larger conception of society and to the development of... intellectual and moral faculties” on which the “stability of just institutions depends” (1971
, p. 234). We recognize, of course, that some people have excellent reason not to vote either in general or on particular occasions and that the question of whether voting is a duty, or whether it is contrary to rational choice theory, or both, is a topic of debate among political scientists and political philosophers (e.g., Downs 1957
; Ferejohn and Fiorina 1974
; Parfit 1984
; Lomasky and Brennan 2000
). However, we suspect that most cases of non-participation represent a choice of individual goods over societal ones—a small moral failure in conscientious citizenship, a failure perfectly compatible with moral excellence in many other respects but a failure nonetheless. If philosophical moral reflection has a positive impact on moral behavior, then, one might predict that ethicists, perhaps especially political philosophers (who in the U.S. tend to reflect on and prize democratic institutions), would vote more often than non-ethicists of similar social background.
Of course morality and immorality are too diverse, multi-faceted, covert, situationally malleable, and contentious to be captured by a single measure or even a small group of measures. So this study, considered alone, can illuminate only a small corner of the larger question motivating this research. We do not pretend that conscientiousness in voting is by itself an accurate index of overall moral behavior (especially given the concerns of “situationists” in social psychology such as Ross and Nisbett 1991
; Doris 2002
). We do hope, however, that a diverse range of studies, viewed jointly, may reveal an overall pattern. Voting is therefore just one measure among several we are exploring to assess the relationship between the professional study of ethics and everyday moral behavior—others include looking at the rates at which ethics books are missing from academic libraries (Schwitzgebel 2009
), rates of donation to charity (Schwitzgebel and Rust in preparation
), peer assessments of overall moral behavior (Schwitzgebel and Rust forthcoming
), and responsiveness to email queries from undergraduate students (Rust and Schwitzgebel in preparation
Among moral behaviors, voting is particularly amenable to study for two reasons: First, it’s a matter of public record whether a person has voted, so we needn’t rely on self-report or direct observation. The latter are methodologically problematic, especially regarding the moral behavior of as sophisticated and sparsely distributed a group as professional ethicists. And second, for the U.S. professors who are the target of this study, the opportunity to vote is presumably equally distributed among the comparison groups, eliminating a variety of potential confounds.
In casual conversation, most of the people we’ve spoken to—although interestingly few political scientists—predicted that political scientists would vote more often than other professors. People were more divided about what to expect from ethics professors. A majority, perhaps, expressed the view that ethicists would be no more conscientious in this matter than other professors. This skepticism mirrors the more general skepticism about the behavior of ethicists we’ve found in other research (Schwitzgebel and Rust forthcoming
). We aim to see if this skepticism is justified, at least with respect to voting.
Existing studies of professors’ voting rates are old and either very limited or based on self-report, and none look at ethicists or political philosophers specifically (Joyner 1963
; Yee 1963
; Turner and Spaulding 1969
; Turner and Hetrick 1972
; Creason 1978
; Roettger and Winebrenner 1983
). Although both psychologists and philosophers sometimes discuss the relationship between moral reflection and moral behavior (in psychology, see Kohlberg 1984
; Haidt 2001
; and the reactions to them; in philosophy, see Plato’s Apology
, and Meno
in 4th c. BCE/1997
; Aristotle 4th c. BCE/1962
; Kant 1785
/1998; Mill 1859/2003
; Moody-Adams 1997
; Nussbaum 1997
; Posner 1999
), we are aware of no published empirical studies of the moral behavior of ethicists.