Utilitarians Aren't Psychopaths—Are They?

Are utilitarians more dangerous than other people?

Posted Sep 25, 2011

Ozymandias--savior or psychpath?

I'm not going to address the secondhand claims by the authors regarding the "characterization of non-utilitarian moral decisions as errors of judgment," which are inevitably and necessarily made from a utilitarian point-of-view. (I happily note that the paper's authors do criticize these statements in the discussion section of the paper.) But I do want to discuss briefly the results reported in the Cognition study, and explain why I have mixed feelings about it.

First, the trolley problem is too nuanced to make a quick-and-easy judgment regarding deontology and utilitarianism (as the authors acknowledge in the discussion section of the paper, albeit for different reasons). True, simple utilitarianism would demand that, all else aside, you kill the one person to save the five. But a deontological outlook—which is much less well-defined—would not necessarily forbid this, as deontology is not categorically opposed to consequentialist considerations, but rather is willing to consider other factors such as rights and justice (in nonconsequentialist terms).

Rather than simply comparing one to five and making a decision based on the equally valid interests of all the person involved, as a utilitarian would, a deontologist would more likely think about the moral status of the individuals in the case, considering any factors related to responsibility or desert in that particular situation. After ruling out such concerns, a deontologist may very well kill the one to save the five. The utilitarian would regard the decision as the implication of a simple comparison (1<5), while the deontologist would more likely use judgment based on the rights of the persons involved—even if they both come to the same result.

Furthermore, the trolley dilemma also wraps up in it the relative moral status of acts and omissions (itself tied into the deontology vs. utilitarianism debate), as well as issues of identity and virtue (am I the kind of person who can take a life, even to save others?), which themselves have greater implications if taking the one life leads to a change of attitudes toward future moral dilemmas.

In other words, the trolley problem should not be used as a moral barometer distinguishing between utilitarianism and deontology. This becomes particularly clear when one considers the different reactions people have to the surgeon problem, in which a surgeon considers harvesting organs from his healthy colleague to save five patients who will die without them. Very few endorse this action, even those who would push the bystander in front of the trolley, but it can be difficult to parse out the salient differences in the two situations. (Several variants of these problems, including both the trolley and surgeon dilemmas, were used in the study, apparently with no distinctions made.)

Being a deontologist myself, I'm no fan of utilitarianism, but I would never go as far as to say its adherents and practitioners are psychopaths. Utilitarians obviously do care about the well-being of people—my problem is that they are concerned with aggregate well-being that ignores the distinctions between persons (as John Rawls wrote) and the inherent dignity and rights of each (as Immanuel Kant wrote). Does that make utilitarians psychopaths? No, but regarding persons as nothing but contributors to the collective good implies that each person has no independent, distinct value. And if so, why care about people's interests at all? To my mind, the utilitarian's disregard for the dignity of the individual is self-defeating, since it eliminates any imperative to consider persons' well-being at all (much less to consider it equally with all others').

Of course, the popular press coverage leaves out all of the nuance and qualification present in the academic article, but that is par for the course. The study's authors recognize, of course, that all the "psychopathic" respondents who chose the "utilitarian solution" are not necessarily well-read in Jeremy Bentham or John Stuart Mill, nor did they necessarily use utilitarian thinking at all. Nonetheless, the results are suggestive, and if it leads us to look at the differences between utilitarians and deontologists in a different way, it's all good—and right!


In a decidedly different vein, I discuss the trolley problem in terms of Batman's refusal to kill the Joker in chapter 1 of Batman and Philosophy: The Dark Knight of the Soul (reprinted in the free ebook Superheroes: The Best of Philosophy and Pop Culture). And the utilitarianism of Watchmen's Ozymandias (pictured above) is discussed by J. Robert Loftis in chapter 5 of Watchmen and Philosophy: A Rorschach Test. (Both of these chapters are also included in Introducing Philosophy Through Pop Culture: From Socrates to South Park, Hume to House, edited by my friends and fellow Psychology Today bloggers William Irwin and David Kyle Johnson.)

You can follow me on Twitter and also at the following blogs: Economics and Ethics, The Comics Professor, and my homepage/blog.