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Are Utilitarians Psychopaths?

Posted by Josh Rothman  September 29, 2011 10:15 AM

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Imagine that you're on a small ship. A fire breaks out, the ship sinks, and you and five others pile into an inflatable liferaft. A storm gathers, the seas get rough, and the little liferaft starts to fill with water. Unless you do something, everyone will drown! One man is injured, and it looks like he might die either way. Would you throw him overboard?

In recent years, psychologists have used moral dilemmas like this one to explore the way human beings think about morality. Only about 10% of people, they tend to find, make the rational, utilitarian choice (in this case, killing one man to save five); the other 90% choose to abide by moral rules (here, "Thou shalt not kill"), no matter the consequences. Most psychologists have focused their energy on figuring out why 90% of people make the non-rational choice. But in a new paper, published this summer in Cognition, psychologists Daniel Bartels and David Pizarro ask the opposite question: What's up with the 10% of people who are willing to push an injured man overboard? In "The Mismeasure of Morals: Antisocial personality traits predict utilitarian responses to moral dilemmas," Bartels and Pizarro arrive at an uncomfortable truth: People who make rational, utilitarian moral choices also tend to have "psychopathic traits."


John Stuart Mill.

Over the years, evidence has piled up suggesting that utilitarians make the choices they do because they're more rational. The rational 10%, Bartels and Pizarro write, tend to have "higher working memory capacity" and be "more deliberative thinkers." Still, they maintain, that can't be the whole story. Utilitarians, they argue, must have different emotional lives, too. To push a man overboard, you have to do more than figure out what's rational -- you also have to evade the pull of ordinary human connection.

To test their theory, they asked 200 undergraduates to consider a number of "sacrificial" dilemmas, including the liferaft dilemma. At the same time, they asked them to agree or disagree with a number of statements designed to elicit signs of psychopathy ("I like to see fist-fights"), Machiavellianism ("The best way to handle people is to tell them what they want to hear"), and existential malaise ("When you really think about it, life is not worth the effort of getting up in the morning"). What they found was that the people most likely to choose utilitarian solutions to the dilemmas were also the most likely to be callous, manipulative, and apathetic about the value of life. The utilitarian choice might be, in a rational sense, the best one. But, they write, those "'correct' moral judgments are most likely to be made by the individual least likely to be perceived as moral." (They've taken into account the tough-talking-freshman-guy factor; the correllation holds even when you consider only women.)

What are the implications? Psychologists, they argue, should stop assuming that the utilitarian moral choice is the best one. Each moral judgment is only one in a series; ultimately, it's part of a general outlook. It might be important to have a utilitarian on board your liferaft -- he "may be able to act for the greater good in ways that prove difficult" for most people. But it's good that most people have moral outlooks attuned to everyday life. It wouldn't be good if we were all utilitarians.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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