Moral Philosophy Courses Can Change Students’ Behavior


The share of meal plan expenditures on meat by students who took part in a philosophy class on the ethics of eating animals declined from 52% to 45%, with “no evidence that meat-eating rates went back up during the two months data was monitored,” according to a recent study whose authors believe it provides evidence for the claim that “ethics classes can influence student behavior.”

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, “Vertumnus”

The study, by  Eric Schwitzgebel (UC Riverside), Brad Cokelet (University of Kansas), and Peter Singer (Princeton), was presented at the 2019 Meeting of the Society for Philosophy and Psychology.

“In the current environment where people are not reasoning so well, it is heartening to learn that rational thinking changes behavior,” said Cokelet, according to a press release from the University of Kansas. “A lot of psychologists have produced results saying most of us—most of the time—make our decisions based on emotion or gut instinct. Then after the fact, we rationalize what we’ve done. So reason is not in the driver’s seat. This is evidence reason can be in the driver’s seat for some people.”

The study design and methods are posted at Professor Schwitzgebel’s blog. It involved over 1100 UC Riverside students in four lower-level philosophy courses. Half the students prepared for and took part in a class session on the ethics of meat-eating, while the other half (the control group) did the same for a session on charitable giving.

The investigators then examined available campus dining card purchases data and saw the average decline in non-vegetarian purchases only among the students who took part in the session on eating meat. Further details here.

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Caligula's Goat
Caligula's Goat
2 years ago

Some questions:

1. Do UC Riverside undergraduates make a good population to generalize from?

2. If Ethics Class is responsible for changing behavior, why wasn’t charitable giving affected?

3. There are roughly 20+million college students, in the US alone. Assuming a great proportion of them take an ethics class…why don’t we see this effect in the wider population?

4. Or do we? I’d like some evidence here.

5. Students read one article defending vegetarianism and had to have a group discussion. Why think that the ethics class (as opposed to the group discussion, peer effects, emotional biases, the poetry of Rachels’ writing, etc) was the variable having this effect (especially when the ethics class material on charitable giving didn’t seem to change charitable giving)?

6. If the lesson was on factory farmed meat, as opposed to all meat, then it seems like a better design option would have been to tell students that some meat on campus comes from factory farms and some doesn’t. If the lesson was actually learned (instead of other non-conscious factors), then you ought to see a difference in behavior coming from the class much more clearly, wouldn’t you?

7. Ethics class, at least for me, isn’t having students read a single article and discuss it on their own. That seems more like advocacy (since the article is one sided). Maybe the reason why ethics classes don’t show this affect more widely is that responsible professors teach students arguments across a a spectrum of positions (instead of only one) and thus students choose the views that most support their pre-theoretical positions and don’t change their behavior? If so, then a good ethics class *shouldn’t* change behavior in this way right? Good one-sided propaganda, however, will change behavior. Is that what we learned? Report

Nicole
Nicole
Reply to  Caligula's Goat
2 years ago

Your response was thoughtful until you labeled a philosophical essay defending a position as “propaganda.”

Also, in case you haven’t noticed, we’re surrounded by pro-meat messages all the time. In the media, commercials, social pressure, etc. I think in more abstract/removed from daily life cases it’s more necessary to present both sides, but in this case the opposition is omnipresent. Most of the time we don’t notice them, because we’re so used to it. But every time a friend tells you about his favorite BBQ ribs, or you see a steak ad, or or or, that’s all pro-meat messaging.Report

Caligula's Goat
Caligula's Goat
Reply to  Nicole
2 years ago

Hi Nicole,

Your criticism is fair. By propaganda, I mean an entirely one-sided presentation of ideas. You introduce a new variable (“pro-meat messages in the media”), however, that seems like an irrelevant variable in this case since all subjects would have equal exposure, presumably, to those messages and those messages have nothing to do with ethical arguments of the sort explored and discussed in an ethics class. Thus, having students read a single essay defending vegetarianism, as a student’s only exposure to the topic of animal ethics, is propaganda in the sense I intend. However, if the term itself bothers you, replace it. I think the point stands without any change: one-sided presentation, without Socratic professor involvement, will (possibly) change a student’s eating behavior for (a small, medium, indeterminate) amount of time. That’s not surprising (though still worth researching), but it’s definitely not the stuff of an ethics class. Report

Nicole
Nicole
Reply to  Caligula's Goat
2 years ago

I agree that the subject should be presented from all perspectives. In part because I agree it’s good pedagogy (in part because I believe the vegetarian side looks even stronger when you actually look rationally at the pro-meat arguments).

But I think you’re wrong to say:
“those [media/social] messages have nothing to do with ethical arguments of the sort explored and discussed in an ethics class.”
When those messages contain just the sort of (bad) arguments you would encounter in an ethics class, e.g. it’s normal/natural, or protein requirements, etc. Though, yes, an ethics class would also include other (slightly less bad) arguments re:personhood and moral status.

However, I don’t think that the makers of this experiment were suggesting that this is how ethics classes should be taught. My takeaway was rather that ethics classes can and do impact the “real world” behavior of students–something that makes ethics classes more meaningful (imho) as well as more potentially dangerous (if, as you suggest, one-sided arguments are presented, possibly in favor of actually unethical ideas).Report

A Philosopher
A Philosopher
Reply to  Caligula's Goat
2 years ago

The press release states that after reading a philosophical article and class discussion, students in the experimental condition were presented with an optional video defending vegetarianism. Given that videos defending vegetarianism (from PETA, etc.) are typically graphic and emotionally charged, it is possible that it was the video that caused the change in behavior, not philosophical discussion or argumentation. This kind of third-variable issue should be examined and ruled out before any claims are made about whether classes in moral philosophy per se change behavior (as opposed to videos), or whether the results show that “This is evidence reason can be in the driver’s seat for some people.”Report

Caligula's Goat
Caligula's Goat
Reply to  A Philosopher
2 years ago

To follow up on this, I think that reason *might* be playing a role in student behavior here but it’s not *GOOD* reason that’s doing it. Instead, imagine being in an ethics class where a professor has student’s read Marquis’ “Why abortion is immoral,” allows students to discuss that article but does not intervene on that discussion, and then puts up an optional video that includes images of aborted fetuses.

Student opinion on the topic of abortion is likely to shift some distance, much like that of the students in this class, however, I would argue that while students are doing this, in part (but importantly not completely) on the basis of reason, it isn’t likely to be reasons given by Marquis. Instead, I think students are being affected by two sorts of things:

1. Being forced to entertain a position makes you less hostile toward it. This can be a tool of both good pedagogy, when professors make students entertain incompatible positions in order to force reflective equilibrium, but also for irrational persuasion (when only one side is being presented and forced upon a group without critique). In this case, I think presentation of only one position is likely to actually have a measurable effect on student behavior (though I’m not persuaded that the effect is large or long-lived).

2. Students are, for all of their perceived faults, extremely good pragmatic actors. Given the extremely one-sided presentation of ideas, they are likely to draw the reasonable inference that their professor is a vegetarian, that being a vegetarian is likely to look good in the eyes of this professor, and that writing in favor of vegetarianism will result in better grades. That sort of pragmatic reasoning *IS* reasoning, and it is likely to affect student behavior (though again whether it does this in a measurable way is disputable) though it isn’t because of the nature of an ethics class nor is it for the kinds of reasons a good ethics professor *would want* their students to be reacting to. Report

Eric Schwitzgebel
Eric Schwitzgebel
Reply to  Caligula's Goat
2 years ago

Thanks for the helpful comment! We don’t claim that it is “reason” in the driver’s seat. In follow-up studies we are attempting to determine to what extent the responses are being driven by the video vs other aspects of the class. Interestingly, in some cases it looks like presenting the video might be “backfiring”, that is, reducing agreement with the claim that “eating the meat of factory farmed animals is unethical” — perhaps because some students perceive it as too heavy-handed.

Regarding whether ethics classes generally affect student behavior, I’m inclined to doubt that there are very many real-world behavioral effects. (For example, in previous work I find that ethics professors behave about the same as other professors, despite their much greater familiarity with ethics material.) It’s an interesting empirical question, very little explored, when and how ethics classes actually influence people’s choices; and then there is another interesting and underexplored set of related questions about the ethics of influencing students’ choices in the cases where the classes might do so.Report

Joe
Joe
Reply to  Eric Schwitzgebel
2 years ago

Hi Eric, if you don’t want to claim that this study shows that reason is in the driver’s seat here, you might want to have Cokelet stop explicitly saying so in the press releases!

That being said, I think we should all be more careful in these discussions: the fact that there is emotional influence on some belief or action does not mean that the belief isn’t thereby being influenced by ethical “reason”. Lots of views in meta-ethics and moral psychology hold that emotions can be constitutive parts of moral reasoning (Tappolet 2016). So if, for example, a video triggers emotions, it’s perfectly possible that the resulting emotional influence is part of sound moral reasoning. Unfortunately this rather simple point has yet to make its way into the zeitgeist, and philosophers continue to assume, with Haidt and without argument, that the influence of an emotionally laden intuition renders a belief or action less “rational”.Report

Eric Schwitzgebel
Eric Schwitzgebel
Reply to  Joe
2 years ago

Yes, I agree with that!Report

Eric Schwitzgebel
Eric Schwitzgebel
Reply to  Caligula's Goat
2 years ago

Thanks for these helpfully challenging questions, Caligula’s Goat! Point by point:

1. Psychological studies often do generalize from undergraduate populations. There are problems with this, of course, but maybe fewer when the study is meant to be a study of the effects of university teaching. UC Riverside is a large public campus with a diverse body of students. Please also note that the claim is “can influence” not “always does influence”.

2. Charitable giving was probably less effective at least in part because students were less convinced by the arguments. We focused on vegetarianism in part because we thought it was a best case scenario in the sense that based on anecdotal reports, it seems that people sometimes do change their attitudes and behavior after reading philosophical work on this topic.

3 and 4. I’m not sure we don’t see this effect in the U.S. population. Vegetarianism is more common today than it was thirty years ago, for example.

5. The class includes group discussion, emotional reactions, peer influence, and video. We don’t argue that the Rachels article alone was driving the effect. In follow-up work, we are trying to disentangle was aspect of the instruction was driving the effect.

6. It would have been lovely to do a comparison of factory-farmed vs non-factory-farmed meat on campus. However, non-factory-farmed meat is not generally available, so we had to work within the parameters of the campus dining options.

7. Only a very small percentage of students in class were vegetarians. It is a common pedagogical practice in philosophy to offer an article on one side of the issue and then discuss the pros and cons in discussion section, as our instructors did. If the article defends a minority position, students themselves are good at generating the con side. For example, when I teach Singer on charitable giving, I don’t also assign an article defending the view that there is no need to give as much as Singer says. Students already have plenty of inclination to believe that.Report

ml
ml
2 years ago

Most people are not born vegetarians, but instead become moved by something (healthier diet, empathy for animal suffering, environmental reasons) that changes their outlook and behavior. How they come to acquire that knowledge varies, but the thought that it could be acquired in an ethics class should not be shocking at all.

If only we could monitor the behavior of the students who took the charitable giving lecture to see if that impacted their attitude toward charity.

Report

circle spherical
circle spherical
Reply to  ml
2 years ago

Are they born meat eaters?Report

Andrew Higgins
Andrew Higgins
Reply to  circle spherical
2 years ago

We seem to be naturally inclined to enjoy the taste of meat, and motivated to pursue the things we enjoy. It also might be relevant that our eye locations are more similar to the typical meat eating species than herbivore species… but none of that carries any normative weight. Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  circle spherical
2 years ago

They’re not “born” meat eaters, but most of them are raised meat eaters from the moment they first eat solid food, which is basically just what one would naturally (figuratively) mean by being “born a meat eater”.Report

Alan White
Alan White
2 years ago

Some bits of anecdata. Over my career in intro ethics I taught the multiple-views curriculum of consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics (which I have always regarded as a form of consequentialism, though many disagree). When I taught each one I strongly advocated for it, though always with as strong criticism as I could muster afterwards. But especially when I taught Kant’s second version of the categorical imperative, I tended to use as powerful but ordinary examples of using people as mere means as possible, including neglecting to interact with checkout people in any way (talking on your cell throughout checking out, e.g.), or being in a long-term intimate relationship that may result in material comfort but did not truly involve deep care for your partner, which I likened to a mild form of prostitution. Apparently that latter example hit home in at least two instances–years after having students in my class I encountered two who said that the Kant lecture led to them filing for divorce, and that they were so much happier for it. And may I also say that that lecture affected my own behavior–and not just for motivating my own divorce–at least more day-to-day at checkouts–I always ask how the checker’s day is, look them in the eye, and wish them a good day. It’s just seemingly trivial social behavior, I know, but Kant has a point about its role in reinforcing and recognizing the intrinsic value of others in all our actions. Teaching ethics matters, and not just in some abstract fashion.Report