In an article at Aeon, philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel asks the question "are professional ethicists in fact more ethical than others" and arrives, unsurprisingly, at the answer of "no." However, the question that he spends a great deal of time pondering in the article is why, exactly, should that result be unsurprising to us? Shouldn't the presumption, at least among ethicists, be that knowing something about ethics would make you a better human being?
Schwitzgebel summarizes his results, based on empirical studies, as follows:
Ethicists do not appear to behave better. Never once have we found ethicists as a whole behaving better than our comparison groups of other professors, by any of our main planned measures. But neither, overall, do they seem to behave worse. (There are some mixed results for secondary measures.) For the most part, ethicists behave no differently from professors of any other sort – logicians, chemists, historians, foreign-language instructors.
In part, I think his results are the product of the particular choices that he made in what to evaluate. He writes:
Here are the measures we looked at: voting in public elections, calling one’s mother, eating the meat of mammals, donating to charity, littering, disruptive chatting and door-slamming during philosophy presentations, responding to student emails, attending conferences without paying registration fees, organ donation, blood donation, theft of library books, overall moral evaluation by one’s departmental peers based on personal impressions, honesty in responding to survey questions, and joining the Nazi party in 1930s Germany.
Part of the problem, I think, has to do with the fact that many of the examples that he offers are either matters of moral controversy, or simply aren't ethical problems at all. For example, whether it is moral or immoral to eat the meat of mammals is a subject on which there is genuine (and often pronounced) moral disagreement. It's not, as in the case of joining the Nazi Party, a situation where the right answer should be obvious to a moral person (alas that it wasn't obvious to a great many Germans in the 1930s!).
In the case of measures such as responding to student emails or calling one's mother, it's not clear to me that these are "moral" questions per se. Neglecting to respond to student emails may be unprofessional (or not!), and calling one's mother may be a tied to many social and interpersonal factors, but in any case, I would need a great deal of convincing to believe that any particular answer on these questions tells you much about the morality of the person answering. After all, what is the right answer to the question "How Often Do You Call Your Mom?"
Of course, Schwitzgebel acknowledges that some of these examples are trivial. But then, why bother to include them? I'm not sure littering, in itself, is immoral or unethical, though a great deal depends on what the context is in which the question is asked. It should be noted that Schwitzgebel's methodology attempts to account for these issues by first gauging whether respondents view an act as unethical and then asking whether they've done that act. He also adduces an argument he describes as "cheeseburger ethics" in which ethicists shouldn't be expected to act more morally than those around them, but can recognize their own moral mediocrity at the same time they are aware of the issues at stake.
And that's the point I think. What makes an ethicist an ethicist isn't that they are a morally superior human being, but that they are aware of the complexity of even approaching the moral question. One might hope that studying how ethics is done and how people behave should make you a better human being, but the reality is that it largely demonstrates the difficulty of formulating a cogent ethical worldview in the first place. Now, perhaps that would make many ethicists more cynical -- more likely to just decide ethics is bunk and do what they want regardless -- but Schwitzgebel's results don't suggest that either.
The difference between ethics as an academic category and, for example, courses on legal ethics in law schools, is that a legal ethics class gives you a set of instructions and demands that you obey them. Failure to comply with those standards represents an ethical lapse. The standard is clear, even if there are cases where the application is arguable. However, in the general realm of human behavior, what it means to act ethically is far dicier, and professional ethics are those people whose job it is to attend to the dicey nature of human morality.
If you reduce ethics to compliance with a set of rules, and then view morality as ensuring that you are on the right side of those rules, then yes, it might be surprising that ethicists aren't more ethical than average. But that's not what it is. If you want to be a moral human being, the proper course of action isn't to study ethics, but to cultivate virtue, a la Aristotle, practice acting with courage, justice, temperance, and wisdom, and over time, you may become more moral. If you want to know why its difficult for anyone, let alone ethicists, to effectively do this, study ethics.