LessWrong Survey Results: Do Ethical Theories Affect Behavior?

bypeter_hurford7y19th Dec 201247 comments


Awhile ago, Yvain released the results of the 2012 survey (that I participated in), which contained responses from over 1000 readers. So I uploaded the data into STATA and fooled around looking for cool things.

Mainly, I've heard some people argue that the moral theory you hold has little to no impact on your actual day-to-day behavior. I want to use these survey results to see if this is true -- are consequentialists more likely to donate money than deontologists? Are virtue ethics more likely to be vegetarian? We'll see!

While I can't make any claims to the representativeness of this survey or the external validity of drawing conclusions from its results, at least among the people who did take the survey, ethical theories people endorse seem to have little impact on their actual self-reported behavior.


The Ethical Theories

First, a breakdown of the actual ethical theories people endorse. Respondents were asked to categorize themselves into "accept / lean towards consequentialism", "accept / lean towards deontology", "accept / lean towards virtue ethics", or "other / no answer" (N = 1055):

Consequentialism 63.41%
Deontology 3.98%
Virtue Ethics 14.41%
Other / No Answer 18.20%

(Note that "no answer" are the people who specifically chose to note they had no answer. Other people ignored the question and didn't choose any answer at all, truly having no answer. Those people are not included in this analysis.)


Ethical Theories and Donation

So first up, I want to see if your ethical theory predicts how much money you are willing to donate, if any. Given the famous connection between utilitarianism and arguments like Peter Singer's who suggest you should donate all your money until it really hurts (you give so much money, you yourself become as poor as the people you're trying to help). Certainly consequentialism is not utilitarianism, but I would expect most consequentialists would endorse donation more than deontologists or virtue ethicists where donations aren't as mandatory.

So I took the charity data and dropped all the non-numerical answers, and LessWrongers have donated an average of $445.15 (N = 879, SD = 1167.095, min = 0, max = 9000) to charity over the past year. To get a better proxy for "effective charity", LessWrongers donate $331.05 (N = 884, SD = 4087.303, min = 0, max = 110000) on average to SIAI and CFAR. (I don't know why the max is higher on the SIAI/CFAR question, but not the inclusive charity question...)

Breaking down generic donations by ethical theory, we get this:

  Mean T-Test p
Consequentialism $479.41 0.266
Deontology $333.89 0.561
Virtue Ethics $433.25 0.887
Other / No Answer $358.54 0.323

Breaking down SIAI/CFAR donations by ethical theory, we get this:

  Mean T-Test p
Consequentialism $420.47 0.391
Deontology $0.00 0.629
Virtue Ethics $86.85 0.459
Other / No Answer $288.44 0.886

What we're seeing is that there are clear differences in the mean amount of money donated, with consequentialists giving the most. However, when we do t-tests (group compared to all not in the group), we find that none of these differences are statistically significant, which indicates the differences are probably due to chance.

This would lead us to suspect that ethical theory has no influence on the amount of money donated...


Ethical Theories and Percent of Income Donated

However, I have one more trick in the bag -- these donations don't take into account the income people earn. Many LessWrongers are students, and therefore can't donate much, even if they wanted to. What if we adjusted the donation totals by income, and instead looked at percent of income donated?

Overall, LessWrongers donate 1.75% of their income on average to generic charity (N = 523, SD = 5.70%, min = 0%, max = .88.24%) and 0.49% of their income to SIAI/CFAR (N = 523, SD = 3.11%, min = 0%, max = 52.38%).

(For those keeping score at home, the average income was $49563.76, N = 602, SD = $59358.34, min = $0, max = $700000.)

Breaking down percent of income spent on generic donations by ethical theory, we get this:

  Mean T-Test p
Consequentialism 2.09% 0.069
Deontology 1.09% 0.568
Virtue Ethics 1.36% 0.490
Other / No Answer 0.91% 0.161

Breaking down percent of income spent on SIAI/CFAR donations by ethical theory, we get this:

  Mean T-Test p
Consequentialism 0.60% 0.261
Deontology 0.00% 0.454
Virtue Ethics 0.15% 0.289
Other / No Answer 0.49% 0.993

A bit more can be made out of these results -- specifically, there's weak evidence that consequentialists actually donate more of their income (M = 2.09%) than non-consequentialists (M = 1.14%) with a p-value of 0.069, which is fairly significant. However, there are no differences across any other ethical theories or across SIAI/CFAR donations.

(Though Unnamed concludes that this might just be in-group bias.  Unnamed also does a more thorough analysis and finds more correlations between consequentialism and donation.)



However, Peter Singer isn't just famous for consequentialist arguments for charity... he's also famous for consequentialist arguments for animal rights, which he argues necessitate veganism, or at least vegetarianism. Are consequentialists more likely to be vegetarian?

  Not a Vegetarian Yes, Vegetarian
Consequentialism 84.39% 15.61%
Deontology 83.78% 16.22%
Virtue Ethics 88.97% 11.03%
Other / No Answer 90.00% 10.00%

Perhaps surprisingly, there is no statistically significant relationship (N = 958, chi2 = 4.73, p = 0.192). Your choice in ethical theory has no correlation with your choice to eat or not eat meat.

(Though Unnamed finds somewhat contrary results that are consistent with a connection -- consequentialists are more likely than non-consequentialists to be vegetarian [p=0.03], this effect holds up when looking at men [p<0.01] but not for women, and as a single analysis, sex and consequentialism both predict vegetarianism [p=0.007 and p=0.02 respectively].)


Dust Specks

We can also take it into a more abstract realm of theory. Eliezer Yudkowsky in "Torture vs. Dust Specks" outlines a thought experiment:

[H]ere's the moral dilemma. If neither event is going to happen to you personally, but you still had to choose one or the other:
Would you prefer that one person be horribly tortured for fifty years without hope or rest, or that 3^^^3 [an obnoxiously and unfathomably large number] people get dust specks in their eyes?
I think the answer is obvious. How about you?

According to Yudkowsky, consequentialists (at least of the utilitarian variety) should choose torture over dust specks, since less total harm occurs. Does this turn to actually happen?

  Torture Dust Specks
Consequentialism 45.19% 54.81%
Deontology 11.11% 88.89%
Virtue Ethics 13.79% 86.21%
Other / No Answer 35.85% 64.15%

Here, we see another statistically significant relationship (N = 636, chi2 = 39.31, p < 0.001), and it goes exactly as expected.  People's ethical theories seem to influence their choice of theory in this scenario (or the other way around, or a third variable).



Going back into the practical realm, let's look at politics.

  Communist Conservative Liberal Libertarian Socialist
Consequentialism 0.30% 1.82% 41.03% 29.64% 27.20%
Deontology 2.38% 16.67% 21.43% 26.19% 33.33%
Virtue Ethics 1.99% 5.30% 34.44% 28.48% 29.80%
Other / No Answer 0.00% 2.69% 31.18% 34.41% 31.72%

Here, there is a statistically significant relationship (N = 1037, Chi2 = 50.91, p < 0.001) between ethical theories and political beliefs -- the plurality of consequentialists and virtue ethicists are liberal, the plurality of deontologists are socialist, and the plurality of others or no answers are libertarians.



Continuing along a similar path, next let's look at religion:

  Agnostic Atheist, nonpiritual Atheist, spiritual Theist, committed Deist/Pantheist Theist, lukewarm
Consequentialism 5.71% 81.35% 8.72% 1.35% 1.35% 1.50%
Deontology 11.90% 54.76% 7.14% 11.90% 7.14% 7.14%
Virtue Ethics 12.50% 61.18% 13.16% 5.26% 3.95% 3.95%
Other / No Answer 10.00% 75.79% 6.84% 3.16% 1.05% 3.16%

Again, another statistically significant relationship (N = 1049, Chi2 = 64.74, p < 0.001) between choice of ethical theory and religious beliefs -- consequentialists were more likely than deontologists and virtue ethics to not be religious.


Sequences and Meetups

And for a bit of bonus material, here's another interesting finding -- there is also a statistically significant relationship (N = 1052, chi2 = 128.43, p < 0.001) between ethical theory endorsed and amount of sequences read. Whether sequences convince people to adopt more consequentialist theories, whether people with consequentialist theories are more likely to enjoy and therefore keep reading the sequences, or some hidden third variable at work, I cannot figure out with the current data.

  ~1/4 of Sequences Read 1/2 of Sequences 3/4 of Sequences Never looked Never heard of 'em Nearly all Some, but <1/4
Consequentialism 11.83% 14.82% 21.71% 0.60% 31.44% 4.49% 15.12%
Deontology 14.29% 7.14% 9.52% 4.76% 19.05% 11.90% 33.33%
Virtue Ethics 11.26% 12.58% 10.60% 1.99% 15.23% 20.53% 27.81%
Other / No Answer 14.66% 14.14% 10.99% 6.28% 16.75% 11.52% 25.65%

And this trend continues among those who have been to a LessWrong meetup (N = 1044, chi2 = 34.27, p < 0.001):

  Never Been to a Meetup Been to a Meetup
Consequentialism 66.52% 33.48%
Deontology 92.68% 7.32%
Virtue Ethics 84.00% 16.00%
Other / No Answer 79.14% 20.86%



In meta-ethics, there is a distinction between moral internalism, which is the theory that moral beliefs must be motivating, and moral externalism, which is the theory that you can have a moral belief and not be motivated to follow it. For instance, if moral externalism is true, you can legitimately think that eating meat is morally wrong but still eat meat.

Now, moral interalism and externalism are more about the semantics of moral statements, what moral statements refer to, and less about actual behavior. Even if people claim that eating meat is morally wrong while still eating meat, it's easy enough for the internalist to deny that the meat eater was telling the truth or making a coherent statement.

However, when it comes to the results of the LessWrong 2012 survey, there are very mixed results on whether choice of ethical theory influences actual behavior -- there's weak evidence that consequentialists are more likely to donate, and even those who do donate are certainly not giving up everything and becoming poor themselves, let alone giving 10% like Giving What We Can advocates.

Furthermore, there's evidence that vegetarianism does not depend upon ethical theory, but there is evidence that it influences people's choice of dust specks vs. torture in the right direction, at least for slightly less than half of the consequentialist sample.  Additionally, there's a relationship between politics and ethics, and relationships between religion and ethics.

This essay has no intention to make a normative point. Certainly there are all sorts of consequentialism theories that don't require you to donate all your money and never eat meat again, and I'm making no accusations of hypocrisy. However, this survey does seem to confirm what Chris Hallquist has previously noted -- moral beliefs don't seem to motivate much, at least for the average person.

(I also cross-posted this on my blog.)