Do Ethicists and Political Philosophers Vote More Often Than Other Professors?
Department of Philosophy
eschwitz at domain- ucr.edu
Department of Philosophy, Unit
421 North Woodland Boulevard
joshuarust at domain- gmail.com
January 7, 2009
Do Ethicists and Political Philosophers Vote More Often Than Other Professors?
philosophical moral reflection improves moral behavior, one might expect ethics
professors to behave morally better than socially similar non-ethicists. Under the assumption that forms of political
engagement such as voting have moral worth, we looked at the rate at which a
sample of professional ethicists – and political philosophers as a subgroup of
ethicists – voted in eight years’ worth of elections. We compared ethicists’ and political
philosophers’ voting rates with the voting rates of three other groups:
philosophers not specializing in ethics, political scientists, and a comparison
group of professors specializing in neither philosophy nor political
science. All groups voted at about the
same rate, except for the political scientists, who voted about 10-15% more often.
On the face of it, this finding conflicts with the expectation that ethicists
will behave more responsibly than non-ethicists.
Do Ethicists and Political Philosophers Vote More Often Than Other Professors?
What is the relationship between philosophical moral reflection and real-world moral behavior? Does reflecting philosophically on moral questions lead us to act better? Though the question is central to both moral psychology and moral education, it has never been systematically explored. In this and related articles we plan to make a start.
Certain practices and institutions seem to operate on the assumption that philosophical moral reflection tends to have a positive impact on moral behavior. Philosophical courses in medical, legal, and business ethics are required, presumably, in part on the assumption that philosophical reflection on those applied moral issues will, down the road, help improve the behavior of budding doctors, lawyers, and tycoons. Philosophers interested in doing what’s right – for example, in deciding whether to become vegetarian or whether to go through the trouble of voting on election day – sometimes reflect philosophically, considering consequences, virtues, or the universalizability of maxims, apparently under the assumption that such reflection will help guide them toward the good. Although the value of such reflective practices doesn’t strictly require that philosophical moral reflection tends to improve moral behavior – for example, there might be better and worse ways of reflecting, producing a net neutral result – the general acceptance of such practices at least invites that supposition (a supposition apparently shared by Aristotle, Kant, and Mill, among others: Aristotle 4th c. BCE/1962, 1103b; Kant 1785/1998, 4:404-5; Mill 1859/2003, ch. 2). If philosophical moral reflection has no tendency to further the aim of acting well, that problematizes the role of such reflection in everyday life.
Both real-world moral behavior and genuine philosophical moral reflection are recondite, difficult to control, and (as targets of study) fraught with methodological peril. Their relationship, therefore, is difficult to examine. Psychologists have put forward models according to which explicit moral reasoning of the sort encouraged by philosophers either stands near the center of morality (e.g., Kohlberg 1984) or serves mainly to rationalize moral intuitions arrived at prior to reflection (e.g., Haidt 2001), but direct empirical evidence is thin and the question remains wide open. One potential line of evidence that remains untapped is the moral behavior of ethics professors. If philosophical reflection does promote moral behavior, either generally speaking or in a broad range of cases, one might expect that philosophers, especially moral philosophers, would tend to behave better than other people, since presumably they are both prone to such reflection and skilled at it.
The best way to determine the moral impact of a lifetime’s philosophical reflection on ethics would be to randomly assign children either to careers in ethics or to other academic careers, then measure their virtue in adulthood using a moralometer. However, since the moralometer has yet to be invented, and since random assignment to careers would require an authoritarian dystopia, we’ll have to settle for more modest questions and more limited measures – which we believe can collectively illuminate the broader issues. The present study begins with the assumption that forms of political engagement such as voting have moral worth, and examines the voting frequency of four groups of professors: ethicists (including political philosophers as a subgroup), philosophers not specializing in ethics, political science professors, and a comparison group of professors from other departments. The key question is, do ethicists and political philosophers execute this civic duty more reliably than other professors?
We assume that
most ethical theories imply that participation in a representative democracy,
including voting in public elections, is in general morally preferable to
non-participation. John Stuart Mill
writes glowingly of the moral benefits that flow from political participation
(1861/2006). Aristotle envisions
political involvement as an important part of the virtuous life (4th
c. BCE/1962, 4th c. BCE/1998).
Although Kant himself is not entirely clear on the value of
representative democracy (1795/1996), more recent deontologists endorse the
value of participation and voting.
Rawls, for example, writes that citizens are “expected to vote” and that
even independently of its direct contribution to justice, voting “leads to a
larger conception of society and to the development of... intellectual and
moral faculties” on which the “stability of just institutions depends” (1971,
p. 234). We recognize, of course, that some
people have excellent reason not to vote either in general or on particular
occasions and that the question of whether voting is a duty, or contrary to
rational choice theory, or both, is topic of debate among political scientists
and political philosophers (e.g., Downs 1957; Ferejohn and Fiorina 1974; Parfit
1984; Lomasky and Brennan 2000).
However, we suspect that most cases of non-participation represent a
choice of individual goods over societal ones – a small moral failure in
conscientious citizenship, a failure perfectly compatible with moral excellence
in many other respects but a failure nonetheless. If philosophical moral reflection has a
positive impact on moral behavior, then, one might predict that ethicists,
perhaps especially political philosophers (who in the
Of course morality and immorality are too diverse, multi-faceted, covert, situationally malleable, and contentious to be captured by a single measure or even a small group of measures. So this study, considered alone, can illuminate only a small corner of the larger question motivating this research. We do not pretend that conscientiousness in voting is by itself an accurate index of overall moral behavior (especially given the concerns of “situationists” in social psychology such as Ross and Nisbett 1991; Doris 2002). We do hope, however, that a diverse range of studies, viewed jointly, may reveal an overall pattern. Voting is therefore just one measure among several we are exploring to assess the relationship between the professional study of ethics and everyday moral behavior – others include looking at the rates at which ethics books are missing from academic libraries (Schwitzgebel forthcoming), rates of donation to charity (Schwitzgebel and Rust in preparation), peer assessments of overall moral behavior (Schwitzgebel and Rust submitted), and responsiveness to email queries from undergraduate students (Rust and Schwitzgebel in preparation).
Among moral behaviors,
voting is particularly amenable to study for two reasons: First, it’s a matter
of public record whether a person has voted, so we needn’t rely on self-report
or direct observation. The latter are methodologically problematic, especially regarding
the moral behavior of as sophisticated and sparsely distributed a group as
professional ethicists. And second, for
In casual conversation, most of the people we’ve spoken to – although interestingly few political scientists – predicted that political scientists would vote more often than other professors. People were more divided about what to expect from ethics professors. A majority, perhaps, expressed the view that ethicists would be no more conscientious in this matter than other professors. This skepticism mirrors the more general skepticism about the behavior of ethicists we’ve found in other research (Schwitzgebel and Rust submitted). We aim to see if this skepticism is justified, at least with respect to voting.
Existing studies of professors’ voting rates are old and either very limited or based on self-report, and none look at ethicists or political philosophers specifically (Joyner 1963; Yee 1963; Turner and Spaulding 1969; Turner and Hetrick 1972; Creason 1978; Roettger and Winebrenner 1983). Although both psychologists and philosophers sometimes discuss the relationship between moral reflection and moral behavior (in psychology, see Kohlberg 1984; Haidt 2001; and the reactions to them; in philosophy, see Plato’s Apology, Protagoras, and Meno in 4th c. BCE/1997; Aristotle 4th c. BCE/1962; Kant 1785/1998; Mill 1859/2003; Moody-Adams 1997; Nussbaum 1997, 2007; Posner 1999), we are aware of no published empirical studies of the moral behavior of ethicists.
lists of professors from university websites in five
We assessed the voting history of each professor by looking for name matches between the faculty lists and public voting records of people residing within 60 (or in some cases 50) miles of the university. We excluded from analysis professors with more than one name match. (This amounted to 14.3% of the listed faculty, with very similar rates of exclusion among the four groups: χ2, p = .99.) Below, we will discuss the possible effects of false matches. When a match was found we also noted, when available from the public records, the voter’s birth year, gender, ethnicity, and political party. (Again, for details, see the methodological appendix.)
locations provided equally detailed voting histories (
We recognize that there are some shortcomings in these data: The selection of states may be unrepresentative (the Northeast, for example, is not included); we don’t have information about differences in voting opportunities especially in local elections; and the attempt to match professors’ names with names in voter rolls necessarily produces some overmatches that have to be discarded as well as some mismatches. This study is archival, labor-intensive, and limited by available data. However, it is in our view clearly superior to relying on self-report (as nearly all previous studies of professors’ voting behavior have done), since it seems to us likely that pressures distorting self-reports are likely to vary between the groups and thus be confounded with the variable under study.
Overall voting rates. Overall voting rates by group are shown in Table 1. (These data include only professors for whom we found a voting history with at least one recorded vote; for discussion of those with no voting record, see below.) The main result of our analysis is this: Political scientists voted somewhat more frequently than other professors (about 10-15% more frequently), while all other groups – including ethicists and political philosophers – voted at about the same rate. In fact the trend among tenure-track professors was for ethicists and political philosophers to vote a little less than the other groups (though the differences in voting rates among these groups remained within the range of chance variation). In other words, the data suggest that civic engagement as measured by voting frequency is no higher among ethicists, including political philosophers, than among professors in general.
mean recorded votes per year by area of specialization; numbers in parentheses include tenure-track professors only
Before we can draw this conclusion confidently, however, we need to examine the data for a number of potential shortcomings and confounds. To anticipate: We find no problems that undermine the main result.
Skew. The data are somewhat right-skewed (with the majority of individuals in the 0.25-1.00 range and a minority trailing off into twice a year or more). To correct for this, we use the positive square root of vote rate for all parametric statistical analyses. The main findings are the same either way.
by state. Due to differences in
voting opportunities and state recordkeeping, we found more recorded votes per
year for professors in
among the groups. ANOVA analysis assumes that the
groups do not differ in the variance of their scores. We initially thought that political
scientists or political philosophers might show a higher variance in vote rates
than other professors, since extreme views about the importance or
pointlessness of voting may be overrepresented in those groups. However, the variance in the square roots of
the vote rates is virtually identical among the four main groups (pooled
s2 = .052,
Professors registered to vote but with no recorded votes. Some professors were matched with a registered voter with no recorded votes. This might reflect recent registration, failure of the state to match the record with a record at a previous address, a gap in the data, or a pattern of not voting, and thus is difficult to interpret. Therefore, these data were excluded from analysis. Fortunately, the rates of name match with no recorded votes were small and similar among the four groups (6.2% overall, χ2, p = .60) and so unlikely to be driving any effects. Adding these professors into the analysis with a vote rate of zero does not change the main findings.
Professors with no voting record found. It’s also hard to interpret cases in which no voting record is found. The person may be a non-voter, but she may instead be registered to vote under a different name or in a different location, or she may have recently moved, or she may be a non-citizen or felon and so prohibited from voting. Nonetheless, it seems desirable to see if the four groups differed in percentage of professors with no record found. Table 2 presents these results. The difference between the groups is not statistically significant (χ2, p = .14).
percentage of professors with no voting record found under their name within 60 miles of their university (in FL, MN, and WA 50 miles: see appendix)
We further examined the trend for non-ethicist philosophers to have fewer records found than non-ethicists (two-tailed two-proportion z-test, p = .02, treating the p value cautiously since the χ2 is not significant). Post-hoc analysis reveals this difference to be driven almost entirely by professors at research universities (which have a higher proportion of non-ethicists than do other universities: 39% vs. 60%, two-tailed, two-proportion z-test, p < .001). We then checked these research professors’ professional and department pages for evidence of excusers from voting. We found that more than three quarters of the research professors with no matching voter record were either appointed fewer than two years before the data collection (i.e., after 2005), showed evidence of a foreign background, were dead, or were at least part time in another location. Excluding those faculty eliminates the difference between ethicists and non-ethicist philosophers. It also suggests that within two years of moving to a new location over 90% of philosophers at research institutions who are eligible to vote do register to vote – an impressively high rate compared to overall U.S. voter registration rates (68% of eligible adults in 2006, according to the U.S. Census Bureau; source: http://www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/voting.html).
Academic rank. Academic rank is a confounding variable. Academic rank correlates with voting rate (using non-tenure track, Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, and full Professor as four ranked categories, ρ = 0.18, p < .001), and the four main groups differ in the distribution of academic ranks (χ2, p < .001), mainly because the “other professors” category has a lower percentage of tenure-track faculty. (This may reflect either a real difference in rank distribution or a tendency for non-tenure track faculty to be listed in university directories at a higher rate than on departments’ websites.) To correct for this, we excluded from analysis non-tenure-track faculty and faculty with no rank indicated. With this exclusion, there is no statistically detectable difference in rank between the four main groups (χ2, p = .06, with a trend toward higher rank among philosophers). The results of the analysis are virtually the same as without the exclusion: See the parenthetical data in Table 1. However, because of this confound, the remaining analyses include only tenure-track professors.
ethnicity, gender, and political party.
Political scientists have generally found that older people, Caucasians,
women, and Republicans vote more frequently than younger people, ethnic
minorities, men, and Democrats (see Abramson, Aldritch, and Rohde 2007; http://www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/voting.html). Fortunately, none of these variables appear
to confound our data. In contrast with
the national data, the male and female professors on our lists voted at the
same rate (square root of rate 0.98 vs. 0.98, two-tailed t-test, p = .82), as
did Democrats and Republicans (0.98 vs. 0.96, two-tailed t-test, p = .40, no
In accord with
national data, older professors voted more frequently than younger ones (r = 0.14,
p < .001). Fortunately for our
analysis, the four groups did not differ in mean age (ANOVA, p = .10, with a
trend for political scientists to be younger).
Also in accord with national data, self-described ethnic minorities
accord with research on gender distribution in philosophy (Haslanger 2008),
tenure-track philosophers overall were 77% male, with positive correlations
between gender and age (r = .15, p = .002) and gender and rank (ρ = .16, p
< .001). However, a regression
predicting philosophers’ rank on the basis of age and gender together shows
gender to be only marginally predictive of rank (p = .06). Our findings also support the widespread finding
Institution type. Professors at research-oriented institutions voted at the same rate as professors at teaching-oriented institutions (square root of rate 0.99 vs. 0.97, p = .39), so although a smaller percentage of philosophers at research institutions were ethicists than at teaching institutions (39% vs. 60%, two-tailed two-proportion z-test, p < .001), this difference, too, is unlikely to be affecting the comparisons.
Name frequency and city of residence. We were concerned that there may be a substantial number of false matches – cases with no local voting record for the professor but a voting record for exactly one other person of the same full first and last name (and middle initial when known) within 60 miles of the university (or in some cases 50 miles; see appendix). To test the possibility that false matches may be driving the results, we compared the voting rates of professors with common names and those with rare names (those names such that only one voter in the state had that last name and first initial), on the assumption that false matches would be less likely for professors with rare names. Professors with rare names were slightly more likely to vote than those with common names (square root of rate 1.00 vs. 0.97, two-tailed t-test, p = .04). Since voting rates among professors are considerably higher than in the general population, this result is consistent with occasional false matches dragging down the voting rates of professors with common names. However, since the effect size is small and since the groups did not differ in the distribution of common names (χ2, p = .38), it’s unlikely that false matches are having much effect on the main comparisons. Very similar remarks apply to the comparison between professors with their name matches in the same city that houses the university and those with their name matches in farther cities (square root of rate 1.00 vs. 0.95, p = .006, χ2, p = .19).
regression. A standard multiple
regression analysis accounting simultaneously for all the potentially
confounding factors discussed above is not possible due to the fact that the
great majority of records have at least one missing data point. However, enough data exist for a meaningful
regression analysis that takes into account age, academic rank, gender,
institution type, state of residence (treating California as the reference
group and excluding North Carolina which did not provide age data), and group
(treating the “other professors” as the reference group). Confirming our main analysis, specialization
in political science is a significant predictor (coefficient = .065, p = .003)
and specialization in ethics and specialization in non-ethics philosophy are
not predictive (p = .77, p = .18). Also
predictive is residence in
political philosophers vote no more often than other professors. Apparently, neither the general philosophical
moral reflection practiced by ethicists nor the more particular philosophical
reflection about democratic institutions practiced by
We also find it interesting that all the groups under study showed the same variance in voting rates. We had expected that there would be a wider spread of views about the value of voting among political scientists and political philosophers than among other professors. Either there is no such wider spread of views or that wider spread of views does not reveal itself in actual voting behavior.
We hope that the results of this study, when combined with other results, will help clarify the relationship between moral reflection and moral behavior. The simplest interpretation of this study is that moral reflection has no effect on behavior. However, we hesitate to draw this conclusion. It may be that we are wrong about the moral importance of voting regularly. It may be that voting behavior correlates poorly with overall moral behavior. (Probably so. But we doubt any tractable measures for this population correlate much better, which is why we aim for multiple measures.) As we continue to collect data, we hope a general pattern will emerge. Perhaps we will find ethicists to behave better, but only on a narrow range of practical issues very tightly related to their professional interests; or perhaps a certain amount of philosophical moral reflection proves beneficial while too much proves harmful. It may turn out that people drawn to careers in ethics profit from philosophical moral reflection but have a counterbalancing lack of other prods to moral behavior. Philosophical moral reflection might prove virtually inert, or it might provide a random push away from conventional morality, or it might prove morally helpful in some contexts and harmful in others. The theoretical possibilities are various. Given the paucity of data, we think it premature to draw general conclusions.
thank Anjelique Stevenson-Taylor for her long hours coding these data, as well
as the numerous people who have given us feedback on this project both in
person and on the Splintered Mind blog (http://schwitzsplinters.blogspot.com/),
especially Martin Johnson and the UC Riverside Statistical Collaboratory. This project would not have been possible
without staff support from the Philosophy Department at
Abramson, P.R., Aldrich, J.H., and Rohde, D.W. (2007), Change and Continuity in the 2004 and 2006
Aristotle (4th c. BCE/1962), Nicomachean Ethics, trans. M. Oswald.
Aristotle (4th c. BCE/1998), Politics, trans. C.D.C. Reeve.
Creason, N. (1978), ‘Registration and Voting Participation of Four Faculty Groups’, Nursing Research, 27: 325-7.
Ferejohn, J.A., and Fiorina, M.P. (1974), ‘The Paradox of Not Voting: A Decision Theoretic Analysis’, American Political Science Review, 68: 525-536.
Gross, N., and Simmons, S. (2007). ‘The Social and Political Views of American Professors’. Manuscript.
Haidt, J. (2001), ‘The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment. Psychological Review, 108: 814-34.
Haslanger, S. (2008), ‘Changing the Ideology and Culture of Philosophy: Not by Reason (Alone)’, Hypatia, 23: 210-23.
Joyner, C. (1963), ‘Political Party Affiliation of University Administrative Teaching Personnel’, Southwestern Social Science Quarterly, 43: 353-6
Klein, D., and Western, A. (2004-5), ‘Political Diversity in Six Disciplines’, Academic Questions, 18:53-65.
Kohlberg, L. (1984), The Psychology
of Moral Development.
Ladd, E.C. and Lipset, S.M. (1976), The
Lomasky, L.E., and Brennan, G. (2000), ‘Is There a Duty to Vote?’, Social Philosophy and Policy, 17: 62-86.
J.S. (1859/2003), On
Mill, J.S. (1861/2006), Considerations
on Representative Government.
M.M. (1997), Fieldwork in Familiar
M.C. (1997), Cultivating Humanity.
M.C. (2007), ‘On Moral Progress: A Response to Richard Rorty’,
D. (1984), Reasons and Persons.
Plato (4th c. BCE/1997), Complete
Works, ed. J.M. Cooper.
Posner, R.A. (1999), The
Problematics of Moral and Legal Theory.
Rawls, J. (1971), A Theory of
Roettger, W.B. and Winebrenner, H. (1983), ‘The Voting Behavior of American Political Scientists: The 1980 Presidential Election’, Western Political Quarterly, 36: 134-48.
L., and Nisbett, R.E. (1991), The Person
and the Situation.
Rust, J., and Schwitzgebel, E. (in preparation), ‘The Moral Behavior of Ethics Professors: Responsiveness to Student Emails’.
Schwitzgebel, E. (forthcoming), ‘Do Ethicists Steal More Books?’, Philosophical Psychology.
Schwitzgebel, E., and Rust, J. (submitted), ‘The Moral Behavior of Ethicists: Peer Opinion’.
Schwitzgebel, E., and Rust, J. (in preparation), ‘The Moral Behavior of Ethics Professors’.
Turner, H.A., and Hetrick, C.C. (1972), ‘Political Activities and Party Affiliations of American Political Scientists’, Western Political Quarterly, 25: 361-74.
Turner, H.A., and Spaulding, C.B. (1969), ‘Political Attitudes & Behavior of Selected Academically-affiliated Professional Groups’, Polity, 1: 309-36.
Yee, R. (1963), ‘Faculty Participation in the 1960 Presidential Election’, Western Political Quarterly, 16: 213-20.
Appendix: Methodological Notes
[on-line only; not for print]
On the states selected: States with
small numbers of universities were excluded as inefficient to code.
On the universities selected: In each state we examined all the universities listed at http://www.utexas.edu/world/univ/state, then we excluded universities that either (1.) had neither a philosophy department nor a combined department (such as philosophy and religion) in which it was clear which professors were the philosophers, (2.) had neither a political science nor a cognate department (e.g., government) nor a combined department (such as political science and economics) in which it was clear which professors were the political scientists, (3.) had no on-line general faculty directory or what we judged to be an unworkable one for our purposes, or (4.) were located in a metropolitan area that crossed over a state border. Although many small colleges and universities failed to meet the four criteria, most large universities in the selected five states did meet all criteria.
On classification as an “ethicist” or “political philosopher”: We coded philosophers as ethicists if their listed areas of specialization included any of the terms “ethics”, “moral”, “political”, “law”, “policy”, “race”, “feminism”, “women”, “justice”, or cognates of any of these words. Philosophers listing “action” or “religion” among their specializations but none of the other ethics-related terms were classified as philosophers but not classified either as ethicists or as non-ethicists. So were philosophers who did not list any areas of specialization. The remaining philosophers were classified as non-ethicists. In all there were 1038 philosophers, of which 464 were ethicists, 429 were non-ethicists, and 145 were unclassified. We also tried a narrower criterion for “ethicist”, requiring that “ethics”, “moral”, or “political” appear in one of the first two listed areas of specialization. By this criterion, 362 philosophers qualified as ethicists. We chose the broader criterion as giving the more balanced distribution and thus more statistical power. However, the results look essentially the same using the narrower criterion: The marginal “ethicists” do not vote at appreciably different rates than ethicists more narrowly construed. “Political philosophers” were that subset of ethicists whose area of specialization information contained the words “political”, “law”, “policy”, “justice”, or cognates. We included, but only when listed on the departmental website, both adjunct faculty and emeritus faculty. We noted when a faculty member was specifically listed as emeritus, but since many departments did not list this information in the end we did not perform analyses using it.
Sampling the political scientists: We aimed to select half as many political scientists as philosophers. To do this, at each university we compared the online departmental faculty lists in philosophy and political science, taking a selection of political science professors equal to approximately half the number of philosophers at that university. If the political science faculty list was n/2 times as long as the philosophy list, we selected every nth political scientist from the list, starting with a random political scientist.
Sampling the comparison group of professors: To select the comparison group of professors, we started randomly with either the first or the second philosopher on each university’s philosophy department faculty list, then looked for the next person in alphabetical order in the general faculty directory who was clearly a faculty member and neither in philosophy nor in political science nor already selected for the comparison group. We repeated this procedure with every 2nd philosopher on each department’s list.
State distribution by group:
Table 3 below lists the distribution of professors by state and group.
number (and percentage) of professors in each state, by analysis group
Distance estimates: We determined whether a voter lived
within 60 miles of the university by comparing the voter’s zip code with lists
of zip codes within 60 miles of each university’s zip code. However, partway through the analysis, the
website giving us this information folded and the replacement website could
only deliver zip codes within 50 miles of each university’s zip code. For the majority of the data (
Determining birth year, gender, ethnicity,
and political party: All states
included year of birth in the voter records except