Out of Character

The surprising truths about the liar, cheat, sinner (and saint) lurking in all of us

Should We Base Our Morality on The Decisions of Psychopaths?

Are psychopaths utilitarian, and if so, should we be?

Josh Greene has been at the leading edge of illuminating how the moral mind works.  Together with his colleagues, he's demonstrated that many of the mind's moral judgments are driven by an ancient, intuitive calculus often based on the simple rule:  do no harm. Although automatic rules such as these often work well, they can sometimes lead to questionable decisions.  

In those cases, Josh and others suggest, we might "put the brakes" on our intuitive assumptions and consciously direct our judgments using principles like utilitarianism.  That may sound reasonable at first, but new research by Daniel Bartels and David Pizarro shows that this is exactly the strategy used by psychopaths. 

One classic moral dilemma often used to show the dissociation between intuition and logic-based moral decision-making is the "trolley dilemma."  Imagine the following:

You are standing next to a large man on a bridge over trolley tracks.  You suddenly notice a run-a-way trolley racing down the tracks.  If it is not stopped, it will run over 5 workmen further up the tracks.   If, however, you were to push the large man off the bridge, he would fall onto the tracks and prevent the trolley from continuing on to kill the 5 others.  Should you push him?

A large majority of people say no to this question -- they believe it's wrong to push the man.  Yet, if we change the problem such that instead of pushing the man, you can pull a lever which directs the trolley onto a new set of tracks where it will kill only one person while saving the other five, most people are willing to do so.  As you can see, the logical consequences of both versions are the same -- an action that takes one life but saves five.  Josh has argued that the reason for the divergence stems from a "tripping up" of our basic moral rules.  Do No Harm usually saves lives.  In the case where pushing a man to his death is needed to save lives, however, we still intuitively recoil at the thought of causing direct harm to another.  Flipping a switch doesn't evoke the same feelings as imagining physically grabbing the man, seeing the fear in his face, and hearing him scream.

Many philosophers and psychologists have argued that this "hiccup" in the system leads to a moral failure.  Isn't it always better to cause the least pain or greatest happiness?  This utilitarian philosophy can be argued to make the most logical sense.  Consequently, it is morally acceptable to push the man off the bridge.  The interesting part of Bartels' and Pizarro's findings is that this is exactly the moral strategy favored by individuals with anti-social and psychopathic tendencies.  In short, the individual doesn't matter. 

Utilitarianism can be contrasted with several other moral dogmas.  A primary one is deontology, which dictates that one should follow the rules irrespective of the consequences.  In the present case, that means it's never ok to harm someone even if it saves others.  Debates about the virtues of different moral views will undoubtedly continue.  Yet, the present findings give some pause about whether one should consistently overrule innate moral intuitions in favor of utilitarianism.  This is especially the case since defining what happiness is can be somewhat tenuous across individuals, especially if psychopaths are determining it.

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David DeSteno, Ph.D., directs the Social Emotions Group at Northeastern University.

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