Do ethics classes influence student behavior? Case study: Teaching the ethics of eating meat

Cognition 203 (C):104397 (2020)
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Abstract

Do university ethics classes influence students’ real-world moral choices? We aimed to conduct the first controlled study of the effects of ordinary philosophical ethics classes on real-world moral choices, using non-self-report, non-laboratory behavior as the dependent measure. We assigned 1332 students in four large philosophy classes to either an experimental group on the ethics of eating meat or a control group on the ethics of charitable giving. Students in each group read a philosophy article on their assigned topic and optionally viewed a related video, then met with teaching assistants for 50-minute group discussion sections. They expressed their opinions about meat ethics and charitable giving in a follow-up questionnaire (1032 respondents after exclusions). We obtained 13,642 food purchase receipts from campus restaurants for 495 of the students, before and after the intervention. Purchase of meat products declined in the experimental group (52% of purchases of at least $4.99 contained meat before the intervention, compared to 45% after) but remained the same in the control group (52% both before and after). Ethical opinion also differed, with 43% of students in the experimental group agreeing that eating the meat of factory farmed animals is unethical compared to 29% in the control group. We also attempted to measure food choice using vouchers, but voucher redemption rates were low and no effect was statistically detectable. It remains unclear what aspect of instruction influenced behavior.

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Author Profiles

Bradford Cokelet
University of Kansas
Eric Schwitzgebel
University of California, Riverside