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Ethicists who don't call their mothers

Posted by Christopher Shea  September 14, 2010 04:44 PM

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Are professional ethicists any more likely to keep in touch with their mothers than non-ethicist philosophers--or than non-philosophers, for that matter? Not according to a survey conducted by Eric Schwitzgebel, of the University of California at Riverside, and Josh Rust, of Crafton Hills College Stetson University, who posted their results on the blog Experimental Philosophy.

All three groups agreed that it was morally wrong for an adult to fail to touch base with his or her mother, face-to-face or by telephone, at least once a month. Seventy-three percent of ethicists believed this, as did 74 percent of non-ethicist philosophers, and 71 percent of non-philosophers. The differences in responses were not statistically significant.

The two scholars followed up the question about abstract ethics with one about behavior: How often did the respondents call their mothers? There were four possible responses, with the least engaged answer being "once (or less) every 2-3 months" (well short of the once-a-month standard). Eleven percent of ethicists fell into that category, as compared with 12 percent of non-ethicists philosophers--and, strikingly, a mere 5 percent of non-philosophers.

While that difference in behavior was was not robust--after subjecting it to further analysis, the authors called it "statistically marginal"--but Schwitzgebel and Rust wrote that even the weak version of their conclusion should give readers pause: Pondering moral issues professionally does not lead you to be any more likely to pick up the phone and call Mom, despite a societal consensus that that's the right thing to do.

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