As I’ve written recently over at The Philosopher Magazine’s Online, rumors of widespread psychopathy among utilitarians are overrated. Indeed, they appear to be entirely unfounded, an artifact of not-so-carefully thought out social psychology experiments on “trolley-type” dilemmas. And the whole story ought to be a cautionary tale about research in moral psychology in general, especially when done by psychologists who know little about moral philosophy.
The article is a commentary on a very carefully conducted series of studies testing the by now apparently generally accepted idea that people with a utilitarian moral outlook share a number of psychological characteristics with psychopaths. The paper reporting these studies, by Guy Kahane and collaborators, is well worth a full read. 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 to statistically parse just how utilitarian the alleged “utilitarians” actually were.
Here is the summary of the findings, with my comments in brackets:
“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].”
The overall message is that 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).