The Effect of Theoretical Ethics on Actual Behavior: Implications for Neuroethics

Neil Levy
By Neil Levy, PhD

Neil Levy is the Deputy Director of the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics, Head of Neuroethics at Florey Neuroscience Institutes, University of Melbourne, and a member of the AJOB Neuroscience Editorial Board. His research examines moral responsibility and free will.

Might doing ethics be harmful to your moral health? One would expect just the opposite: the deeper you think about ethics, the more you read and the larger the number of cases you consider, the more expertise you acquire. Bioethicists and neuroethicists are moral experts, one might think. That’s why it is appropriate for media organizations to ask us for our opinion, or for hospitals and research institutions to ask us to serve on institutional review boards.

In this post, I leave aside the question whether ethicists like me deserve to have their opinions about controversial issues given special weight when we offer them. It is really hard to know what could serve as evidence for or against that view (the issues are controversial, so there is no way of measuring how often we get it right that’s not going to beg all sorts of questions). There is some evidence, however, that ethicists behave no better than anyone else, which places some pressure on the idea that all our reflection, writing and reading makes us moral experts.

Eric Schwitzgebel
The evidence comes mainly from the work of Eric Schwitzgebel and his colleagues (especially Joshua Rust). Schwitzgebel measured the behavior of philosophy professors and advanced students in a variety of ways. They measured the rate at which relatively obscure books on ethics – those likely only to be of interest to specialists – were stolen from academic libraries; they discovered that these books were somewhat more likely to be stolen than other books. They examined the rates at which specialists in ethics voted in public elections (in the US) and found that they were no more likely to vote than specialists in other topics within philosophy (and less likely to vote than political scientists). They examined the rate at which ethicists avoided paying the registration fees at a large philosophical conference in the US, and found they were no less likely to free ride than non-ethicists. They sent emails to philosophy professors specializing in ethics and other professors within and outside philosophy, purporting to be from students seeking information about courses and office hours, and measured the rate at which each group responded. Ethicists were not significantly more likely to respond than other professors (though ethicists did respond slightly more, statistical analysis indicated that the small effect could be the result of chance). They even asked for self-reports and discovered that ethicists were not more likely to report they behaved better than non-ethicists. For instance, they were not more likely to report that they donated blood more frequently or abstained from eating meat more frequently, though they were more likely to report that they thought people had a duty to do these things.

In many ways, these findings are rather depressing. Of course most of the behaviors involved are relatively trivial, but some are quite important, and in any case much of the moral life consists of small courtesies to one another. We might have expected long and hard training in ethics to lead to better behavior, but it seems not to. But why not?

Schwitzgebel and colleagues suggest several different explanations.  Perhaps, for instance, people go into ethics precisely because they find it puzzling or difficult. If that’s right, then perhaps ethicists are actually improved by their reading and reflection, but improved relative to their starting position, which wasn’t all that great. But the explanation I want to focus on is different: perhaps studying ethics leads to moral self-licensing.

Moral self-licensing occurs when people think that they have an excuse for behaving less well because of the morally good way they have acted in the past. Moral self-licensing has been demonstrated experimentally and empirically a number of times. It has been found, for instance, that people who have bought an environmentally friendly product – say energy-conserving light bulbs – might then give themselves permission to consume more of something less environmentally friendly, and that people who are prompted to think of some good action they have performed in the past are less likely to donate to charity. Might this kind of effect be at work in canceling out the effects of all that ethics self-education in which professionals engage?

Perhaps, that is, that reflecting on the ethical faults and foibles of others, or thinking through moral dilemmas and coming to a conclusion with which we are satisfied, has the same kind of effects on subsequent behavior as actually doing morally good things. The suggestion is plausible: just as buying an ethical product may lead us to (unconsciously) think of ourselves as more moral people than average (who might therefore deserve to be cut some slack) so reasoning to a conclusion we think of as moral may lead us (again, unconsciously) to think of ourselves as morally better than average. Alternatively, if moral licensing is instead explained by expenditure of effort or time or money in the service of a moral end, the effects of moral deliberation may work via the fact that it is also effortful and time-consuming. In either case, we might behave no better precisely because we reason more.

If that is the explanation, it would be heartening in one way. It would not show that all our efforts at moral deliberation and reflection don’t pay off, in the sense that the explanation is fully compatible with our actually reasoning our way to better conclusions than others. It would just suggest that we pay a price for our hard work: we fail to live up to the high standards we actually set. In another way, however, it might be extremely disheartening. Perhaps our conclusions are worthwhile but if others make the effort of engaging with them, following our reasoning and perhaps being convinced by it, we can expect that very effort to have ill effects on their behavior. We would get a paradox of moral reasoning: it is worthwhile just so long as you don’t engage in it.

These kinds of results should give ethicists some pause. We think that ethics is extremely important, but it may be that our efforts at teaching it and reflecting on it don’t lead to better behavior in ourselves and in our students. Properly assessing these findings requires further research, empirical and also philosophical (is hypocrisy compatible with providing ethical guidance)? At the very least, they ought to shake us out of complacency. Perhaps in doing so, they will help us to overcome the very moral self-licensing that ethics may otherwise produce.

Want to cite this post?

Levy, N. (2013). The Effect of Theoretical Ethics on Actual Behavior: Implications for Neuroethics. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from

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