RIVERSIDE (CBSLA.com) — Professors who study moral philosophy and its application in the real world may not be all that ethical themselves when it comes to responding to students, according to a new study.

Researchers from the University of California, Riverside and Stetson University in Florida found that ethics professors were no more likely than professors or scholars in other areas of study to respond to student email, even though a significant majority said that failure to do so is morally bad.

The “Ethicists’ and Nonethicists’ Responsiveness to Student E-mails: Relationships among Expressed Normative Attitude, Self-described Behavior, and Empirically Observed Behavior” study was conducted by philosophers Eric Schwitzgebel of UC Riverside and Joshua Rust of Stetson University.

The pair began the study after the duo found approximately half of American ethicists believe that professional ethicists behave at least a little morally better than non-ethicists.

Their findings, however, determined exactly the opposite.

“If professors have an obligation to respond to emails from students, then arguably they also have a further obligation to track whether or not they are meeting the first obligation, so that if they are not meeting the first obligation they can take corrective measures,” Schwitzgebel and Rust wrote. “If this is correct, then the present study offers not just one measure of morality, email responsiveness, but two: email responsiveness and meeting one’s moral obligation not to be deluded about one’s level of email responsiveness.

“Professors remain far short of ideal by either measure, ethicists no less so than others.”

In 2009, Schwitzgebel and Rust began a series of experiments that they say found the following to be true:

  • philosophy books dealing with ethics were more likely to be missing from leading academic libraries than similar nonethics books in philosophy;
  • ethicists and political science professors voted at the same rate as did nonethicist philosophers and professors in departments other than philosophy; and
  • ethicists behaved no more courteously than nonethicists and were as likely to avoid paying registration fees as nonethicists at conferences of the American Philosophical Association.

Which leads to the inevitable question: why does this matter?

If professional ethicists do no better at demonstrating moral behavior or greater consistency between attitude and behavior, that creates a challenge for those who advocate ethics instruction for its effects on behavior, according to Schwitzgebel and Rust.

“Expertise in ethics might be, to a substantial extent, expertise in post-hoc rationalization of opinions arrived at by largely unwelcome psychological mechanisms,” Schwitzgebel and Rust wrote.

Click here (PDF) to read the entire study.


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