How Do Moral Philosophy Courses Affect Student Behavior?


Do college philosophy courses in ethics affect the real-world choices of the students who take them? A trio of philosophers recently took up this question and have just published their results. 

[Roy Lichtenstein, “Cow Triptych / Cow Going Abstract”]

Eric Schwitzgebel (UC Riverside), Brad Cokelet (Kansas), and Peter Singer (Princeton) conducted a controlled study of over 1,000 students that involved exposing about half of them to a lesson and teaching materials on the ethics of eating meat, having them complete a questionniare, and then monitoring their food purchases.

They write:

As far as we are aware, this is the first controlled study to show an effect of university-level ethics instruction, as conducted in ordinary philosophy classes, on non-laboratory behavior, using direct observational data rather than self-report. We found that after exposure to a philosophy article, a fifty-minute philosophy discussion section, and an optional online video concerning the ethics of eating factory farmed meat, students decreased their rates of meat purchasing from 52% to 45% of their food purchases of $4.99 or more in campus dining loca-tions for which receipts were available, compared to a constant rate of 52% among students in a control group exposed to similar materials on the ethics of charitable giving. This effect appears to have been a widespread moderate reduction of meat purchases among students ra-ther than the conversion of several students to strict vegetarianism. Although we had only limited ability to detect the time course of the effect, we did not observe a decrease in effect size among students for whom we had several weeks or several months of data. The effect size is in our judgment striking given the brevity of the intervention and the fact that most university students are likely to have been previously exposed to arguments for and against vegetarianism.

Expressed moral opinion also changed substantially. In the ethics of charity control condition, 29% of participants agreed that “eating the meat of factory farmed animals is unethical”, compared to 43% in the ethics of eating meat condition.

In an email, Professor Singer wrote:

It’s worth noting that the lead author, Eric Schwitzgebel, is best known for his previous research showing that professors who work in ethics do not act more ethically than other professors  This finding led him to doubt that we would get a positive result in this study. But like a good philosopher-scientist, he wanted to test his views against the evidence.

After teaching practical ethics for my entire career, I would have been disappointed if we had failed to get a positive result, but I too believe that we need to check our views against the evidence.  I’m glad that we now have the evidence to show that we are making a difference.

You can read the study, published in the journal Cognitionhere.

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Caligula's Goat
Caligula's Goat
1 year ago

Is the effect caused by reading philosophy and talking about or is it caused by simply being moralized to about eating meat? Had they read a sermon about animals or watched a PETA video or role l\played being a factory animal in a theater class, etc etc, would the effects have been the same? Stronger? So does this show us that *philosophy* has these effects or is this just exposure? Report

Joshua Mugg
Reply to  Caligula's Goat
1 year ago

They explicitly say in the abstract “It remains unclear what aspect of instruction influenced behavior.” So they acknowledge your criticism. Notice also that every student in the study was taking ethics. The control group learned about charitable giving. Given that Cognition published this (it is a high-impact journal), we can hope we get some interdisciplinary empirical work on the topic, comparing students in diverse disciplines. Report

Untenured Ethicist
Untenured Ethicist
1 year ago

The authors write, “Among philosophers who write on the issue there is widespread (though not perfect) consensus that it is generally morally better for the typical North American to eat less factory farmed meat. [citations omitted] .Thus,in exposing students to the philosophical arguments in favor of this ethical conclusion, we would be exposing them to arguments about which the range of reasonable disagreement spreads mainly between the view that avoiding factory farmed meat is morally required to the view that avoiding factory farmed meat is morally good but not required.” (2)

Perhaps this is an accurate characterization of the recent published debate. It is not an accurate characterization of the collective views of contemporary moral philosophers who have given the ethics of meat-eating careful thought. There are many contemporary moral philosophers who regularly eat meat, including factory farmed meat, and who do not think that there is anything good or praiseworthy about avoiding factory-farmed meat. Some may refrain from discussing their views to avoid antagonizing vegetarian colleagues, potentially giving the misleading impression that they are eating meat out of weakness of will.

It is entirely possible that a college student who entered a philosophical ethics course having qualms about eating factory-farmed meat might leave the course without such qualms.Report

Flemming Dahl Christiansen
Flemming Dahl Christiansen
Reply to  Untenured Ethicist
1 year ago

You seem to assume that the contemporary moral philosophers who have given the ethics of meat-eating careful thought are the one who regularly eat meat and who see no reason not to do so. Im not aware of any reason to assume this.
Furthermore, you seem to grant that the recent published debate is dominated by somewhat pro-vegetarian views even though the philosophers who have thought about the matter don’t share these views. That would be very strange, since reseachers tend to think about the things they publish about.
Finally, you mention that pro-meat-eaters might refrain from discussing their views in order to avoid antagonizing the other side. That’s possible, but why should it be any more common, than the reverse phenomenon? In fact, I am a concrete example of the reverse phenomenon, since I have sometimes refrained from discussing my pro-vegetarian views in order to avoid antagonization, (though not, when speaking to philosophers). Report

Untenured Ethicist
Untenured Ethicist
Reply to  Flemming Dahl Christiansen
1 year ago

I am not asserting or defending any position on the issue of meat-eating. I am saying that well-informed moral philosophers who have thought about the issue carefully have reached a wide range of conclusions. There is no consensus.

Though it is certainly the case that researchers think carefully about the things they publish about, the converse is not the case. Philosophers do not always publish about the things they think about carefully. One possible explanation for the pattern of publication we see on this issue: people’s inclination to devote their time and energy to publication on the topic of animal welfare tends to be proportional to the level of moral status they ascribe to non-human animals.Report

Curious
Curious
Reply to  Untenured Ethicist
1 year ago

You say these is no consensus because many deny that it is morally better (e.g. commendable but not required) to avoid factory farmed meat and you at least imply that there are commonly held plausible arguments that support this denial – arguments that the silent opposition keep to themselves for one reason or another. As someone who intentionally picks humanely raised meat/eggs I am wondering about the details. Can you share some such plausible argument? Report

Untenured Ethicist
Untenured Ethicist
Reply to  Curious
1 year ago

Some think that sentience is not sufficient for moral status. Though it may be obvious that chickens are sentient, it is far from obvious that they have whatever features are necessary for moral status. They almost certainly lack rational nature.

If chickens lack moral status, there may still be ethical problems with eating factory farmed chicken, e.g. problems related to environmental issues or worker safety. But it is an empirically complex question how we ought to respond to those issues. Does the production of “free range” eggs burden the environment more or less than conventional egg production? What forms of food production have better working conditions?

Though eating wild-caught fish may be better (or less bad) for animal welfare than eating factory farmed chicken, it may be worse for the environment and for the safety of human workers. What then is the more ethical choice?Report

Cathy Legg
Cathy Legg
1 year ago

Did the students know their food purchases were going to be scrutinised and recorded after receiving this instruction? One imagines that informing them might be part of the process of obtaining their consent to participate. Report

Animal Symbolicum
Animal Symbolicum
1 year ago

I’m not saying that the researchers or their readers are in fact interpreting things this way, but just in case the temptation arises: change in behavior should not taken as solely criterial for “effectiveness” of philosophy classes, nor should change in behavior be the only goal.Report

Bill J Powers
Bill J Powers
1 year ago

If I tell you not to think about donkeys, you will think about donkeys. If I tell you eating meat produced in industrial farms is bad, you will think it bad. We cannot even contemplate a thought without holding it in our heads. I could run the same experiment with something like texting or wearing seat belts. I am certain that in every single case, results will indicate that my behavior is altered for the better. I suspect however that the persistence of those behavioral changes are short lived. We might think of this in terms of Quine’s Web of Belief. Ethics classes or driving classes make inroads into the periphery of our belief system, where beliefs are easily given some presence and just as easily fall away. And this, I presume, is because they have no substantive support that maintains and re-enforces them. If I am right, this study actually only demonstrates this short lived correlation between recent experience and subsequent nearly immediate behavior. This is so common that there must be a term for this in the psychological literature. I just don’t know what it is. I presume this behavioral trait is most demonstrated for beliefs for which we do not have a “strong” opinion. The study, as far as I can tell, did not try to measure the intensity of beliefs relative to industrial farms prior to the classes. That data would have been useful.Report

Melissa Murray
Melissa Murray
11 months ago

Has any nutritionist or medical doctor research on the benefits to brain function been included in these classes?Report