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Utilitarians aren't psychopaths--are they?

Mark D. White

The Economist published a short note recently summarizing the results of a forthcoming paper in Cognition that reports that experiment participants "who indicated greater endorsement of utilitarian solutions had higher scores on measures of Psychopathy, machiavellianism, and life meaninglessness" (from the paper abstract). The experimenters presented subjects with variants of trolley dilemmas--either watch five passengers in a runaway trolley car die, or push one bystander onto the tracks to his death to stop the car--and also asked questions to track their psychological dispositions, finding a strong link between the antisocial tendencies and willingness to kill the bystander to save the trolley passengers.

I'm not going to address the secondhand claims by the authors regarding the "characterization of non-utilitarian moral decisions as errors of judgment," which are inevitably and necessarily made from a utilitarian point-of-view; it's the same problem as with Kaplow and Shavell's Fairness versus Welfare, which dismissed nonwelfarist policymaking as insufficiently welfarist. (I happily note that the paper's authors do criticize these statements in the discussion section of the paper.) But I do want to discuss briefly the results reported in the Cognition study, and explain why I have mixed feelings about it.

First, the trolley problem is too nuanced to make a quick-and-easy judgment regarding deontology and utilitarianism (as the authors acknowledge in the discussion section of the paper, albeit for different reasons). True, simple utilitarianism would demand that, all else aside, you kill the one person to save the five. But a deontological outlook--which is much less well-defined--would not necessarily forbid this, as deontology is not categorically opposed to consequentialist considerations. Rather than simply comparing one to five and making a decision based on the equally valid interests of all the person involved (as a utilitarian would), a deontologist would more likely think about the moral status of the individuals in the case, considering any factors related to responsibility or desert in that particular situation. After ruling out such concerns, a deontologist--even a Kantian--may very well kill the one to save the five (for instance, by judging the duty to save five people to have a "stronger ground of obligation" than the duty not to kill the one, according to Kant's only guidance in such cases of conflicting obligations). The brute utilitarian would regard the decision as the implication of a simple comparison (1<5), while the deontologist would more likely use judgment based on the rights of the persons involved--even if they both come to the same result.

Furthermore, the trolley dilemma also wraps up in it the relative moral status of acts and omissions (itself tied into the deontology vs. utilitarianism debate), as well as issues of identity and virtue (am I the kind of person who can take a life, even to save others?), which themselves have greater implications if taking the one life leads to a change of attitudes toward future moral dilemmas. In other words, the trolley problem should not be used as a moral barometer distinguishing between utilitarianism and deontology. This becomes particularly clear when one considers the different reactions people have to the surgeon problem, in which a surgeon considers harvesting organs from his healthy colleague to save five patients who will die without them--very few endorse this action, even those who would push the bystander in front of the trolley, but it can be difficult to parse out the salient differences in the two situations. (Several variants of these problems, including both the trolley and surgeon dilemmas, were used in the study, apparently with no distinctions made.)

As any regular readers of my work (either on this blog or in print) know, I'm no fan of utilitarianism. But I would never go as far as to say its adherents and practitioners are psychopaths. Utilitarians obviously do care about the well-being of people--my problem is that they are concerned with aggregate well-being that ignores the distinctions between persons (as Rawls said so well) and the inherent dignity and rights of each (as Kant wrote). And that is problematic: regarding persons as nothing but contributors to the collective good implies that each person has no independent, distinct value. And if so, why care about people's interests at all? To my mind, the utilitarian's disregard for the dignity of the individual is self-defeating, since it eliminates any imperative to consider persons' well-being at all (much less to consider it equally with all others').

Of course, the popular press coverage leaves out all of the nuance and qualification present in the academic article, but that is par for the course. The study's authors recognize, of course, that all the "psychopathic" respondents who chose the "utilitarian solution" are not necessarily well-read in Bentham or Mill, nor did they necessarily use utilitarian thinking at all. Nonetheless, the results are suggestive, and if it leads us to look at the differences between utilitarians and deontologists in a different way, it's all good--and right!


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Nice piece.

Clearly any moral theory which derives from simple arithmetic fails.

But though you are polite to utilitarianism, you still aren't charitable. Your comparison is between simple utilitarianism and sophisticated deontological approaches (plural) whose practitioners exercise judgement rather than follow a simple formula. If you extended the same privilege to utilitarianism, I'm sure you would find many sophisticated approaches which similarly incorporate the good of individual dignity and have a role for judgement in evaluation.

Thanks--I tried to be careful to note that I was discussing "brute" utilitarianism, which of course is much more simplistic than anything Bentham or Mill envisioned. Nonetheless, it is difficult for any conception of utilitarianism to get the problem caused by the summation aspect, which renders individual utilities fungible and thereby rules out any individuation based on dignity or value.

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