Can ethics be taught: Doing a RCT to figure?

Pert Singer in this piece wonders whether teaching ethics can shape behavior:

In The Righteous Mind, Haidt draws support for his views from research by the philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel of the University of California, Riverside, and Joshua Rust of Stetson University. On a range of ethical issues, Schwitzgebel and Rust show, philosophy professors specializing in ethics behave no better than professors working in other areas of philosophy; nor are they more ethical than professors who don’t work in philosophy at all. If even professors working in ethics are no more ethical than their peers in other disciplines, doesn’t that support the belief that ethical reasoning is powerless to make people behave more ethically?

Perhaps. Yet, despite the evidence, I am not entirely convinced. I have had a lot of anecdotal evidence that my classes in practical ethics changed the lives of at least some students, and in quite fundamental ways. Some became vegetarian or vegan. Others began donating to help people in extreme poverty in low-income countries, and a few changed their career plans so that they could do more to make the world a better place.

How to figure this? Do a RCT!:

Two years ago, Schwitzgebel offered me an opportunity to test, more rigorously than had ever been done before, whether a class on the ethics of eating meat could change what students eat. Together with Brad Cokelet, a philosophy professor at the University of Kansas, we ran a study involving 1,143 students at the University of California, Riverside. Half the students were required to read a philosophical article defending vegetarianism, followed by a small group discussion with the option of watching a video advocating avoiding meat. The other half were a control group. They received similar materials and discussion on donating to help people in poverty.

We used information from campus dining cards to find out what food purchases the students in the two groups made before and after these classes. We had data on nearly 6,000 food purchases from 476 students. The purchases were identified with students who had, or had not, read and discussed the ethics of eating meat, but the data we received were made anonymous so that we could not identify any named student’s purchases.

The result was a decline, from 52% to 45%, in meat purchases among students in the meat ethics group, and the lower rate of meat purchases was maintained for a few weeks after the class. There was no change in the level of meat purchases in the charitable giving group (and we had no way of discovering whether these students gave more to charity).

Our results are, at this stage, preliminary and have not yet undergone peer review. We are seeking further data on the significance of watching the video – which may have appealed to students’ emotions more than their reason. Nevertheless, to our knowledge, this is the first properly controlled study, in the real world and not in a laboratory setting, of the impact of university-level philosophy classes on student behavior. The decline in meat-eating is not dramatic, but it is statistically significant, and suggests that in some contexts, ethical reasoning in the classroom can change behavior.




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