Relax, your utilitarian friends are not psychopaths

trolley problemAs 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).

72 thoughts on “Relax, your utilitarian friends are not psychopaths

  1. SocraticGadfly

    Philip, they’re also colliding with deontological ethics. A story a few weeks ago talked about how driverless cars are programmed to never go over speed limits, and the problems that causes in the “real world.”


  2. Robin Herbert

    I don’t think that anybody thinks that the purpose of an approach to ethics or morality, whether utilitarian, duty based or virtue ethics, is to prescribe, but I will leave that to the philosophy experts to clarify.


  3. brodix

    Human intuition being a function of cumulative knowledge. Intuition for an artist, or teacher, or scientist or five year old, or farmer are all different, because they work on varied knowledge bases.
    Non-linear dynamics as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thomas Jones

    I’m enjoying the commentary engendered by Robin’s comments, despite my inclination to favor MP’s comments upthread. Nevertheless, I have the same nagging suspicions as does Robin, but admit to difficulty in pinpointing where the problem is, other than cognitive fallibility. I appreciate Coel’s comments, but have problems with statements like “That follows simply because, by definition, your values, aims and desires are yours.”

    This strikes me as as too reductionist–perhaps tautological, and reminds me of my father’s default response, “Well, that’s your opinion.” In other words, *my* “values, aims, and desires” seem ultimately open to skeptical refutation.. But, as Donne wrote:

    No man is an island,
    Entire of itself,
    Every man is a piece of the continent,
    A part of the main.

    It would avail to little extent to counter my father’s claim with some notion of informed opinion. That would perhaps gainsay his broader life experience by means of my intellectual pretense–perhaps poorly apprehended, i.e., book-learning, as my mother would say. The norm is such until replaced by another now more generally accepted. If it were a matter of an appeal to general consensus or self-authority, then there seems little to take issue with when my good friend says–in an effort to deflect further discussion–“Whatever the Pope says.” As for Dostoevsky’s emphasis on the chimera of individual freedom, and despite my sense of its importance, I cannot envision it alone as decisive in such matters. Rather, it fails to dispatch with anarchic outcomes if not otherwise qualified.


  5. Robin Herbert

    Actualliy intuitions are not a function of cumulative knowledge – they are emotional states that push us towards or away from particular behaviours.

    Take the “theory of mind” mentioned earlier. This is how we know that other people are experiencing certain emotions or have certain intentions.

    But it is also the reason why so many people find it difficult to throw away plush toys. They are just fabric sewn together with foam stuffing inside, and yet people can’t escape the feeling that there is an accusing look in the eye of the pig that used to play “Let me call you sweetheart” as you stuff it into the garbage bag.

    It is the reason that people think those little soccer playing robots are more impressive than they actually are. They build them cute so they muck with your theory of mind. You attribute person like attributes to them for the same reason you attribute person like attributes to a teddy bear, and so most of the work has been done even before the robot has moved. Clever programming and child like voices add to the illusion.

    Scientists fall for this (or else cynically use this) all the time.

    New Scientist gushes that robots have achieved self awareness, but when you check it out it is just a fairly trivial piece of programming. But look at the video – it is those cute robots again – completing the illusion.

    Imagine the trolley scenario, where there is someone on one track and a bunch of the cute little soccer playing robots on the others. Some might hesitate because pulling the lever would feel somewhat akin to sending the trolley into a bunch of kids.

    But imagine if that feeling were considered a valid basis for moral action. You should pull the lever and trash the little robots because they don’t have any feelings or awareness.

    But then again the emotional states which lead you to want to save the life of the person on the track are basically the same as the ones which might cause you to hesitate to ‘kill’ the robots, or to hesitate to throw the plush toy into the garbage..

    So why are you really saving his life? Why is the intuition ‘real’ when it is about a person and not so when about a bunch of high tech toys?


  6. Robin Herbert

    Hi Thomas,

    Yes, we are all a piece of the continent. The feeling of duty that I have towards my children is repeated in billions of brains around the world – it is the same feeling, separately instantiated. If there is anything that could be called “mine” it is the way I decide to react to that feeling.


  7. brodix


    It’s not to say much of intuition isn’t nature, but some of it is nurture as well. Someone who has experienced a lot of trauma and death, probably will have different responses to the plush toy, than the person who grew up in a secure environment, possibly isolated and developed attachments to inanimate objects, specifically designed as emotional bandaids.

    Even much of that instinctive, intuitional nature is evolved through generations of co-exisitence, punctuated by bouts of violence.

    If emotion and instinct are not sourced from our stores of both learned and programed knowledge, where do they come from?


  8. Philip Thrift

    Robin Herbert says, “I don’t think that anybody thinks that the purpose of an approach to ethics or morality, whether utilitarian, duty based or virtue ethics, is to prescribe, but I will leave that to the philosophy experts to clarify.”

    But if one were a philosophy Ph.D. hired to work in Google’s (for example) driverless-car project team, what ethical programming would that philosopher install in the car?


  9. brodix


    This quote by Keynes comes to mind,

    “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.”

    One is also reminded of the dichotomy of innovators and managers and while it does seem philosophy has been been in the hands of the managers for quite awhile, there might still be room for further innovation.


  10. brodix

    As the above comment is likely to cause some ire, I’ll further clarify it by saying most of the managers I know would consider themselves innovators, in that they are constantly looking for more efficient and effective ways to use the same tools, to the same ends, while innovation requires really breaking new ground and exploring both new ways and new goals and 99% of the time, that is inefficient.


  11. Philosopher Eric

    Hi Robin,

    Thanks for your observations to me above, as well as in general. They are indeed informative.

    PE, in fact science deals itself out of any morality and ethics discussion, whether any of us want it to or not.

    So true! I find the epitome of this stance in how economists directly found their science upon utilitarianism, but then claim that we only “behave” as if happiness is good for us — they remain agnostic regarding whether or not their premise might reflect our actual nature.

    Science can tell us about why we have morality in the first place, and that may be very interesting but what use is it in deciding what to do?

    I was unaware that science does tell us why we have morality, though yes the theory that you are referencing is indeed my own. And as for using it to decide what to do, I’m with you! I’d never claim this about morality. My own position is framed as a sociological means by which a fundamentally capitalistic creature, evolved in order to more effectively function in societies.

    Let’s say you were right and that morality was based on empathy and theory of mind skills (which would immediately excuse me from having to have any morality).

    Actually my theory is not about “skills,” but rather “sensations.” So when someone’s thoughts about what someone else is thinking does bring personal sensations, this is what I’m talking about. “Respect” is a big one. Furthermore I perceive you to be no less sensitive in this regard than I am.

    It really is not the discipline of philosophy that I’m trying to improve, so I would hope that philosophers wouldn’t be all that defensive regarding my ideas. Instead it’s our mental and behavioral sciences that I believe have major problems. Would anyone like to defend them from my own critical perspective?


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