Part of the plot of the simultaneously funny and profound television show The Good Place revolves around a professor of moral philosophy trying to teach some not very moral people how to be good. And it also pokes fun at the professor's personal life where he doesn't seem to do a good job of being a good person despite his academic specialty.

The question posed for comic effect in The Good Place has been posed in reality. Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind argues (I've bolded the key part of the claim):

From Plato through Kant and Kohlberg, many rationalists have asserted that the ability to reason well about ethical issues causes good behaviour... they believe that people who reason well are more likely to act morally.

But if that were the case, then moral philosophers–who reason about ethical principles all day long–should be more virtuous than other people. Are they? The philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel tried to find out. He used surveys and more surreptitious methods to measure how often moral philosophers give to charity, vote, call their mothers, donate blood, donate organs, clean up after themselves at philosophy conferences, and respond to emails purportedly from students. And in none of these ways are philosophers better than other philosophers or professors in other fields.

He even quotes this statistic as an amusing example of his claim:

...academic books on ethics, which are presumably borrowed more by ethicists, are more likely to be stolen or just never returned than books in other areas of philosophy.

Haidt reports that:

Schwitzgebel still has yet to find a single measure on which moral philosophers behave better than other philosophers.

I've deliberately used a simple catchy question title which leaves some definitions unclear. Let me be more specific in the question: is there any empirical evidence that suggests moral philosophers have more morally upright behaviour than other philosophers (on widely agreed criteria of good behaviour)? Answers should focus on empirical evidence not anecdote. So, for example, if they really do steal more library books that would count as contributing evidence.

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    As someone who has fun dabbling in philosophy, the immediate question that pops into mind is how in the world to you define "morally upright behavior" in a way which is both simultaneously empirically testable and well founded enough not to be ripped to shreds by said moral philosophers who are under trial.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Sep 30, 2018 at 18:19
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    What is the widely believed claim? The Good Place is a comedy, and isn't making a claim. If the question is about library books, let's focus. If the question is about 'behaving better' it is opinion-based.
    – Oddthinking
    Commented Sep 30, 2018 at 21:50
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    @Oddthinking I only quoted the good place as a topical introduction. Haidt uses the library books as a specific example to illustrate Schwitzgebel's claim that moral philosophers do not behave better than others, which fits with many of the much broader points Haidt makes about the nature of moral reasoning. But also stands as a specific empirical claim. The claim is that experiments have been done so I presume that they don't depend on subjective metrics or opinions. Perhaps I should have used a much longer quote that made this clear.
    – matt_black
    Commented Sep 30, 2018 at 21:58
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    @matt_black can you quote Schwitzgebel then? A premise of the show is that there is an absolute morality so "being more moral" sort of makes sense. In reality there is no such agreed standard, so such a statement is entirely opinion based.
    – Sklivvz
    Commented Oct 2, 2018 at 7:22
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    Are electrical engineers more electrical than other engineers? Commented Oct 3, 2018 at 21:21

1 Answer 1


First of all, the study cited was not, in any way, any kind of an empirical study, so, no, currently there is no standard for measuring that. How does one empirically measure "moral"? One can measure any individual's feelings about what is moral, but one person's "more moral" might not be another's, so you can't really standardize that.

Schwitzgebel, himself, did not claim to be making an empirical study, as much as an interesting examination of the philosophical subject. He did a survey of opinions and looked at the results. It was an opinion poll, not an empirical study.

Version I of the questionnaire asked respondents to compare, in general, the moral behaviour of ethicists to that of philosophers not specializing in ethics and to non-academics of similar social background. Version II asked respondents similar questions about the moral behaviour of the ethics specialist in their department whose name comes next in alphabetical order after their own. Both versions asked control questions about specialists in metaphysics and epistemology. The majority of respondents expressed the view that ethicists do not, on average, behave better than non-ethicists. Whereas ethicists tended to avoid saying that ethicists behave worse than non-ethicists, non-ethicists expressed that pessimistic view about as often as they expressed the view that ethicists behave better.

The Moral Behavior of Ethicists: Peer Opinion - Eric Schwitzgebel and Joshua Rust, 2009

Obviously, no single study could resolve a question of this magnitude and complexity. We decided to begin simply by asking philosophers (both ethicists and non-ethicists) for their views on the moral behaviour of ethicists. We asked philosophers because, more than any other potential group of respondents, they have extensive interaction with a broad range of ethicists and otherwise socially comparable nonethicists. We are of course aware that responses are likely to be biased by a number of factors and at best represent beliefs based largely on behaviour as observed in professional contexts. However, even if peer opinion turns out only to be a mediocre indicator of the actual moral behaviour of ethicists, philosophical opinion on this issue merits study simply as a sociological or psychological fact in its own right, illuminating how optimistic or pessimistic we are, as a group, about the practical moral benefits of philosophical ethics as currently practised.

As Schwitzgebel points out himself, there's nothing inherent about examining and understanding a subject matter that requires an alteration of behavior, necessarily.

On the other hand, the connection between career and behaviour can be tenuous and complicated. Police officers commit crimes. Doctors smoke. Economists invest badly. Clergy flout the rules of their religion. Whether they do so any less than people of other professions, or any less than they would have had they chosen another career, can be difficult to assess.

While looking at people's clogged arteries would certainly inform a doctor and might make them more likely to live a healthier lifestyle (and give them more credibility in lecturing their patients), I'm sure there cardiologists who are obese and eat diets laden with saturated animal fats. Having that knowledge doesn't magically transform the behavior.

International Journal of Obesity: The effect of physicians’ body weight on patient attitudes

(Cited mostly because they examined obsese vs not-obese physicians, so there were clearly enough obese ones to sample for a study)

NY Times Blogs: When the Doctor is Overweight

By the same token, Nicolo Machiavelli was certainly a moral philosopher, but that status did not stop him from noting or even, seemingly, lauding the effectiveness of amoral, unscrupulous behavior in his most famous work, "the Prince."

The Prince is sometimes claimed to be one of the first works of modern philosophy, especially modern political philosophy, in which the effective truth is taken to be more important than any abstract ideal. It was also in direct conflict with the dominant Catholic and scholastic doctrines of the time concerning politics and ethics.

Although it is relatively short, the treatise is the most remembered of Machiavelli's works and the one most responsible for bringing the word "Machiavellian" into usage as a pejorative. It even contributed to the modern negative connotations of the words "politics" and "politician" in western countries.

Wikipedia: The Prince

There is also the very well documented and fairly universal concept of "self-justification," where, even when our actions are something we consider to be "wrong," we will find reason why that doesn't really apply in our case, if it relates to something that is particularly convenient or desirable to us as an outcome.


Immoral behavior is widespread. Here, we have outlined a framework of self-serving justifications emerging before and after moral violations that enable people to do wrong and feel moral. By distinguishing between pre- and post-violation justifications, our framework contributes to the behavioral ethics literature and may additionally inform interventions aimed at increasing ethical conduct.

For anyone seeking to behave more ethically or encouraging others around them to do so, acknowledging the power of justifications in shaping self-serving perceptions is a key. Taming our drive to justify our behavior may be the path to ethical conduct.

Association for Physiological Science: Self-Serving Justifications: Doing Wrong and Feeling Moral (Shaul Shalvi, Francesca Gino, Rachel Barkan, and Shahar Ayal, 2015

So, even when we know/believe the actions in question are not moral, we find a way to excuse it when we do it, so having that abstract knowledge, as a philosophical academician, would not necessarily translate into more moral behavior. In short, even moral philosophy professors are, first and foremost, human beings, with all the potential flaws the rest of us have.

  • I think you make a perfectly valid argument for why we wouldn't expect to see an effect. But that doesn't answer whether there is any empirical evidence about whether the effect exists which was the question.
    – matt_black
    Commented Oct 2, 2018 at 23:12
  • @matt_black - feel free to find an empirical definition of "more moral," and maybe someone can design such a study. Commented Oct 2, 2018 at 23:24
  • Read the claim and the surrounding quotes: they specifically say the experiment has been done. Is it any good as an experiment? I don't know, but a theoretical critique of the possibility of the experiment does not address the claim.
    – matt_black
    Commented Oct 2, 2018 at 23:29
  • @matt_black - No, a philosopher did surveys, asking other philosophers about their opinions or feelings. That's about as far from empirical as you can get. Eric Schwitzgebel acknowledges as much in his paper, but argues that there is still value to be gained from looking at the issue. Commented Oct 2, 2018 at 23:41

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