Does It Harm Philosophy as a Discipline to Discuss the Apparently Meager Practical Effects of Studying Ethics?

I've done a lot of empirical work on the apparently meager practical effects of studying philosophical ethics. Although most philosophers seem to view my work either neutrally or positively, or have concerns about the empirical details of this or that study, others react quite negatively to the whole project, more or less in principle.

About a month ago on Facebook, Samuel Rickless did such a nice job articulating some general concerns (see his comment on this public post) that I thought I'd quote his comments here and share some of my reactions.

First, My Research:

* In a series of studies published from 2009 to 2014, mostly in collaboration with Joshua Rust (and summarized here), I've empirically explored the moral behavior of ethics professors. As far as I know, no one else had ever systematically examined this question. Across 17 measures of (arguably) moral behavior, ranging from rates of charitable donation to staying in contact with one's mother to vegetarianism to littering to responding to student emails to peer ratings of overall moral behavior, I have found not a single main measure on which ethicists appeared to act morally better than comparison groups of other professors; nor do they appear to behave better overall when the data are merged meta-analytically. (Caveat: on some secondary measures we found ethicists to behave better. However, on other measures we found them to behave worse, with no clearly interpretable overall pattern.)

* In a pair of studies with Fiery Cushman, published in 2012 and 2015, I've found that philosophers, including professional ethicists, seem to be no less susceptible than non-philosophers to apparently irrational order effects and framing effects in their evaluation of moral dilemmas.

* More recently, I've turned my attention to philosophical pedagogy. In an unpublished critical review from 2013, I found little good empirical evidence that business ethics or medical ethics instruction has any practical effect on student behavior. I have been following up with some empirical research of my own with several different collaborators. None of it is complete yet, but preliminary results tend to confirm the lack of practical effect, except perhaps when there's the right kind of narrative or emotional engagement. On grounds of armchair plausibility, I tend to favor multi-causal, canceling explanations over the view that philosophical reflection is simply inert (contra Jon Haidt); thus I'm inclined to explore how backfire effects might on average tend to cancel positive effects. It was a post on the possible backfire effects of teaching ethics that prompted Rickless's comment.

Rickless's Objection:
(shared with permission, adding lineation and emphasis for clarity)

Rickless: And I’ll be honest, Eric, all this stuff about how unethical ethicists are, and how counterproductive their courses might be, really bothers me. It’s not that I think that ethics courses can’t be improved or that all ethicists are wonderful people. But please understand that the takeaway from this kind of research and speculation, as it will likely be processed by journalists and others who may well pick up and run with it, will be that philosophers are shits whose courses turn their students into shits. And this may lead to the defunding of philosophy, the removal of ethics courses from business school, and, to my mind, a host of other consequences that are almost certainly far worse than the ills that you are looking to prevent.

Schwitzgebel: Samuel, I understand that concern. You might be right about the effects. However, I also think that if it is correct that ethics classes as standardly taught have little of the positive effect that some administrators and students hope for from them, we as a society should know that. It should be explored in a rigorous way. On the possibly bright side, a new dimension of my research is starting to examine conditions under which teaching does have a positive measurable effect on real-world behavior. I am hopeful that understanding that better will lead us to teach better.

Rickless: In theory, what you say about knowing that courses have little or no positive effect makes sense. But in practice, I have the following concerns.

First, no set of studies could possibly measure all the positive and negative effects of teaching ethics this way or that way. You just can’t control all the potentially relevant variables, in part because you don’t know what all the potentially relevant variables are, in part because you can’t fix all the parameters with only one parameter allowed to vary.

Second, you need to be thinking very seriously about whether your own motives (particularly motives related to bursting bubbles and countering conventional wisdom) are playing a role in your research, because those motives can have unseen effects on the way that research is conducted, as well as the conclusions drawn from it. I am not imputing bad motives to you. Far from it, and quite the opposite. But I think that all researchers, myself included, want their research to be striking and interesting, sometimes surprising.

Third, the tendency of researchers is to draw conclusions that go beyond the actual evidence.

Fourth, the combination of all these factors leads to conclusions that have a significant likelihood of being mistaken.

Fifth, those conclusions will likely be taken much more seriously by the powers-that-be than by the researchers themselves. All the qualifiers inserted by researchers are usually removed by journalists and administrators.

Sixth, the consequences on the profession if negative results are taken seriously by persons in positions of power will be dire.

Under the circumstances, it seems to me that research that is designed to reveal negative facts about the way things are taught had better be airtight before being publicized. The problem is that there is no such research. This doesn’t mean that there is no answer to problems of ineffective teaching. But that is an issue for another day.

My Reply:

On the issue of motives: Of course it is fun to have striking research! Given my general skepticism about self-knowledge, including of motives, I won't attempt self-diagnosis. However, I will say that except for recent studies that are not yet complete, I have published every empirical study I've done on this topic, with no file-drawered results. I am not selecting only the striking material for publication. Also, in my recent pedagogy research I am collaborating with other researchers who very much hope for positive results.

On the likelihood of being mistaken: I acknowledge that any one study is likely to be mistaken. However, my results are pretty consistent across a wide variety of methods and behavior types, including some issues specifically chosen with the thought that they might show ethicists in a good light (the charity and vegetarianism measures in Schwitzgebel and Rust 2014). I think this adds to credibility, though it would be better if other researchers with different methods and theoretical perspectives attempted to confirm or disconfirm our findings. There is currently one replication attempt ongoing among German-language philosophers, so we will see how that plays out!

On whether the powers-that-be will take the conclusions more seriously than the researchers: I interpret Rickless here as meaning that they will tend to remove the caveats and go for the sexy headline. I do think that is possible. One potentially alarming fact from this point of view is that my most-cited and seemingly best-known study is the only study where I found ethicists seeming to behave worse than the comparison groups: the study of missing library books. However, it was also my first published study on the topic, so I don't know to what extent the extra attention is a primacy effect.

On possibly dire consequences: The most likely path for dire consequences seems to me to be this: Part of the administrative justification for requiring ethics classes might be the implicit expectation that university-level ethics instruction positively influences moral behavior. If this expectation is removed, so too is part of the administrative justification for ethics instruction.

Rickless's conclusion appears to be that no empirical research on this topic, with negative or null results, should be published unless it is "airtight", and that it is practically impossible for such research to be airtight. From this I infer that Rickless thinks either that (a.) only positive results should be published, while negative or null results remain unpublished because inevitably not airtight, or that (b.) no studies of this sort should be published at all, whether positive, negative, or null.

Rickless's argument has merit, and I see the path to this conclusion. Certainly there is a risk to the discipline in publishing negative or null results, and one ought to be careful.

However, both (a) and (b) seem to be bad policy.

On (a): To think that only positive results should be published (or more moderately that we should have a much higher bar for negative or null results than for positive ones) runs contrary to the standards of open science that have recently received so much attention in the social psychology replication crisis. In the long run it is probably contrary to the interests of science, philosophy, and society as a whole for us to pursue a policy that will create an illusory disproportion of positive research.

That said, there is a much more moderate strand of (a) that I could endorse: Being cautious and sober about one's research, rather than yielding to the temptation to inflate dubious, sexy results for the sake of publicity. I hope that in my own work I generally meet this standard, and I would recommend that same standard for both positive and negative or null research.

On (b): It seems at least as undesirable to discourage all empirical research on these topics. Don't we want to know the relationship between philosophical moral reflection and real-world moral behavior? Even if you think that studying the behavior of professional ethicists in particular is unilluminating, surely studying the effects of philosophical pedagogy is worthwhile. We should want to know what sorts of effects our courses have on the students who take them and under what conditions -- especially if part of the administrative justification for requiring ethics courses is the assumption that they do have a practical effect. To reject the whole enterprise of empirically researching the effects of studying philosophy because there's a risk that some studies will show that studying philosophy has little practical impact on real-world choices -- that seems radically antiscientific.

Rickless raises legitimate worries. I think the best practical response is more research, by more research groups, with open sharing of results, and open discussions of the issue by people working from a wide variety of perspectives. In the long run, I hope that some of my null results can lay the groundwork for a fuller understanding of the moral psychology of philosophy. Understanding the range of conditions under which philosophical moral reflection does and does not have practical effects on real-world behavior should ultimately empower rather than disempower philosophy as a discipline.

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