Turns Out, Utilitarians Are Not Psychopaths

Utilitarians, it turns out, are not psychopaths

Ever since Philippa Foot introduced the trolley dilemma thought experiment in moral philosophy, in a paper entitled “The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect in Virtues and Vices” (Oxford Review, Number 5, 1967), people have used it to argue about the respective merits and demerits of utilitarianism and deontology, the two dominant paradigms in modern ethics (a third one, ironically endorsed by Foot herself, is virtue ethics).

You probably know the drill: there is an out of control trolley about to kill five people on the tracks, but you have nearby a lever that you can pull to divert the trolley on a different track, where it will kill only one person. Would you do it? What if instead of the lever you have to personally push a large man off a bridge and onto the tracks in order to stop the trolley? And no, you cannot sacrifice yourself, there is no other way out of the dilemma, and you don’t know anything about the people involved and their individual moral worth.

The standard understanding is that if one is a utilitarian, bent on maximizing happiness and minimizing pain regardless of who benefits or suffer, then you’d both pull the lever and push the man. If you are a Kantian deontologist you will do neither, since in both cases you would be using someone else as a means to your ends, and not as an end in itself, thus violating the categorical imperative.

Funny thing is, empirically it turns out that most people would pull the lever but also refrain from pushing the man, thus indicating an inconsistent view of morality, at the least from the point of view of the two major traditions.

More recently, cognitive and social scientists have gotten into the game, by carrying out studies that show that in most people’s brains two different things are going on in the two situations: in the lever scenario, much activity is evident in the areas of the brain that are in charge of rational thinking and executive functioning; but when you are asked to contemplate personally pushing someone to their death then it is the emotional centers of the brain that lit up all over the fMRI scan. The simple interpretation here is that when you are physically distant from the action you can reason in a more calculating manner, but that when you are pulled in up close and personal things become more emotional. The implications of these findings have not gone lost with people interested in debating the ethics of remote warfare, for instance.

Interestingly, there is a minority of people who always make the “utilitarian” decision: they pull the lever, but also push the large man. These subjects, a number of cognitive and social scientists have rushed to tell us on the basis of follow-up personality tests, have the psychological characteristics of sub-clinical psychopathy. The stunning conclusion, then, seems to be that utilitarians are psychopaths!

Not so fast, argues a group of researchers from Oxford University, who published a carefully conducted series of studies in the journal Cognition, arriving at quite a different conclusion.

The authors of the paper, Guy Kahane, Jim Everett, Brian Earp, Miguel Farias, and Julian Savulescu, were not convinced by the quick labeling of certain responses to what they aptly term “sacrificial moral dilemmas” (like the trolley problems) as utilitarian, smelling that something odd must be going on if people who subscribe to the moral philosophy of the likes of John Stuart Mill and Peter Singer turned out to be psychopaths, albeit of a sub-clinical variety.

To test their intuitions, Kahane et al. set up a series of four experiments during which they explored not just the connection between “utilitarian” decision making and psychopathy, but also set out to statistically parse just how utilitarian the alleged “utilitarians” actually were.

The way they did this was by asking a number of additional questions to participants, having to do with one’s propensity to engage in moral transgressions in a business context, to endorse so-called rational egoism, to donate to charities, to identify with the whole of humanity, to self-sacrifice, to assist distant people, and to reason ethically in an impartial manner that doesn’t favor one’s relatives and friends. The results were completely contrary to the “received wisdom” that seems to have already solidified researchers’ perception of utilitarianism as a psychopathic doctrine.

I’ll quote Kahane et al.’s directly, from the abstract of their paper, where they summarize their main results, though a good read of the full article is well worth the time in order to appreciate the intricacies of their experimental designs and the care they put into parsing positions in a more sophisticated manner than so many others. The comments in brackets are mine:

“In Study 1, we found that rates of ‘utilitarian’ judgment were associated with a broadly immoral outlook concerning clear ethical transgressions in a business context, as well as with sub-clinical psychopathy [the second finding confirms previous studies, but the first one suggests that the alleged utilitarians are actually prone to immoral behavior]. In Study 2, we found that ‘utilitarian’ judgment was associated with greater endorsement of rational egoism, less donation of money to a charity, and less identification with the whole of humanity, a core feature of classical utilitarianism [i.e., the “utilitarians” increasingly looked less and less like utilitarians]. In Studies 3 and 4, we found no association between ‘utilitarian’ judgments in sacrificial dilemmas and characteristic utilitarian judgments relating to assistance to distant people in need, self-sacrifice and impartiality, even when the utilitarian justification for these judgments was made explicit and unequivocal [more evidence that the “utilitarians” are no such thing, and that they rather fit the profile of rational egoists, which in turn is more logically associated with sub-clinical psychopathy].”

There are a number of important lessons to be derived from the Kahane et al.’s study. To begin with, yes, good empirical research can indeed be done on people’s moral attitudes, and it can be related to the general frameworks offered by moral philosophers. Indeed, such research is crucial if we want to make theoretical moral philosophy relevant to society at large.

But, and here is the rub, researchers need to be extremely careful in labeling “philosophical” positions that they may not fully understand, thus leading to spurious, and in fact even downright dangerous, conclusions. In this case it turns out that a whole approach to ethics (which, full disclosure, I actually reject on philosophical grounds) has been tainted by a false association with psychopathic tendencies, a “scientific” conclusion that was the result of badly thought out experimental protocols (and, likely, badly informed underlying philosophy).

That said, and for all the kudos to Kahane et al., even they have not gotten things necessarily completely right. Throughout their paper they label identification with the whole of humanity “a core feature of classical utilitarianism.” But a number of other ethical positions also take that feature to be central, from Buddhism to Stoicism (a kind of virtue ethics). What distinguishes utilitarianism is actually the focus on consequences (rather than intentions, as in virtue ethics and deontology), as well as the deployment of some sort of (usually vaguely defined) calculus that allows us to weigh total “happiness” (talk about a thorny concept!) and total pain. It would therefore be interesting to see follow up studies that discriminate from a psychological standpoint between different philosophical positions concerning ethics. For now, though, we need to exempt utilitarians from the facile charge of psychopathy, which can fairly be leveled instead to rational egoists.