Are you psycho? Then help push this fat guy off a bridge.

I saw an interesting paper a while back, via Crooked Timber, that applied a mixture of psychology and experimental philosophy to see just what kind of people have utilitarian intuitions. The punchline:

Participants who indicated greater endorsement of utilitarian solutions had higher scores on measures of Psychopathy, machiavellianism, and life meaninglessness.

I sent a joking email to some friends, since I’m an advocate of consequentialism and therefore sympathetic to utilitarian arguments. I also noted some caveats and, satisfied that I’d justified my sanity, moved on. But the excellent Will Wilkinson picked up the topic today on his new Big Think blog, The Moral Sciences Club. That led to some noise in my Twitter stream on the subject so, while it’s outside the normal focus of the blog, I figured I should write up a few quick thoughts. First, here’s Wilkinson:

Since it seems implausible that we are best off governed by Machiavellian psychopaths, I take the findings of Bartels and Pizarro–that those attracted to utilitarianism tend toward the psychopathic and Machiavellian–as prima facie evidence that utilitarianism is “self-effacing,” that it recommends its own rejection. This is a study about how, if you are a utilitarian, you should probably do the world some good and shut up about what you really thing is best.

My assumption is that this is in good fun. So I mean my response to be taken in the same vein. Here goes…

Being a utilitarian doesn’t make you a psychopath

No one said it did, but it’s still worth calling out. In fact, the authors were careful to say as much:

Nor do our results show that endorsing utilitarianism is pathological, as it is unlikely that the personality styles measured here would characterize all (or most) proponents of utilitarianism as an ethical theory (nor is the measure of psychopathic personality traits we used sufficient to conclude that any respondents reach clinical levels of psychopathy). It is also possible that possessing these sub-clinical psychopathic traits may be of moral value insomuch as individuals who are capable of such emotional detachment, while appearing to possess a questionable moral character in some situations, may be better able to act for the greater good in ways that would prove difficult for many (such as the very situations described in our target dilemmas)

Ok, so at least we have that out of the way.

BREAKING: Every ethical theory has problematic questions

Perhaps you are drawn to utilitarianism but you get squeamish when asked about pushing a fat man off of a bridge to stop a moving train from killing five others. Every moral theory is “problematic” in the sense that cases can be raised that tend to go against our moral intuitions. Consider Kant’s brand of deontology. It is famously posited that Kant’s formulation would not allow lying, even in the scenario in which you’re hiding Anne Frank in your attic and the Nazis come to the door and ask if anyone is hiding in the attic. Telling the truth in that scenario probably violates most of our moral intuitions. I’d like to see a study where the toughest questions of all prominent moral theories were asked, so I could see if the answers of deontologists, contractualists, etc. correlate with measures of psychopathy and the like.

What I’m suggesting is that it’s somewhat unfair (though interesting!) to zero in on such difficult questions. What if we asked a bunch of people a question where the utilitarian answer is in line with our moral intuitions? You have $100 to distribute among yourself and 9 other people. Assume diminishing marginal utility for each dollar. How do you distribute the money? The person who answers “$10 to each person” is both a better utilitarian and less Machiavellian than the person who answers “$100 to myself.”

Don’t like pushing people off bridges? You still can be utilitarian

There’s a reason we have rule utilitarianism. It’s not 100% obvious that the correct utilitarian answer is to push someone off of a bridge to save 5 others. A rule utilitarian could argue that the disutility of people incorrectly making snap moral judgments is so great that we should have a system of rules that are themselves designed to maximize utility. And that such a rules system doesn’t require you to murder someone to save others. There are other arguments one could make as well. You might think they’re copouts, but welcome to the vague moral calculus of utilitarianism. My point is that while the results of this study are interesting, we can’t take any particular decision as the definitive utilitarian position.

Endorsing utilitarianism does not mean rule by psychopaths

Wilkinson ends his post rather strangely (quote above). Sidgwick is right that it’s possible to be a utilitarian and not recommend that others act as utilitarians (for the greater utility!) But Wilkinson makes a move that I just can’t understand. He writes:

Since it seems implausible that we are best off governed by Machiavellian psychopaths

One response would be to say that it is plausible. And we could go there. For committed utilitarians, it could make some sense. But more practically, I think we can just argue that nothing here implies that utilitarian rule must be by Machiavellian psychopaths. As the above quote from the study suggests, there’s no reason to think that all utilitarians are psychopaths. Arguably, the reason such a high percentage seem to be is because the theory simply hasn’t permeated society very deeply. In other words, utilitarianism is unpopular; very few people truly hold it, say 1 in 100. Meanwhile, there are way more Machiavellian psychopaths in the population, so 10 out of 100 people give the “utilitarian” answer in one of these scenarios. Since that group happens to answer the same way as some utilitarians to this problem, it appears that most utilitarians are psychopaths when the real problem is we don’t have enough utilitarians! So, the utilitarian would argue, we just need to go out and recruit more non-psychopath utilitarians who can then rule in a world that avoids Wilkinson’s critique.

So there you have it. A few quick thoughts. I’ve definitely done the opposite of shutting up. Whether I’ve done some good is up for debate.