Trolley problem identifies psychopaths more than clarifying people's moral compass


EXCERPT: Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A trolley carrying five school children is headed for a cliff. [...] Guy Kahane, deputy director of Oxford’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, has never been a big fan of the sacrificial dilemma. The main problem, he says, is that it has been misapplied to situations it was never intended for.

Philosophically, the sacrificial dilemma has a narrow purpose. Your choice supposedly illuminates whether you fall into one of two camps on moral reasoning: choose to hypothetically end a life to save a few more, and yours is described as utilitarian judgment. Reject it, and you are said to be making non-utilitarian (“deontological”) judgments. Roughly translated, the utilitarian is concerned primarily with outcomes, while the deontologist[/url] has a morally absolute point of view [...]

So what do philosophers mean by utilitarianism? It means that you’re the kind of person who, as John Stuart Mill prescribed, is generally, genuinely concerned with the greater good. That you are capable of “transcend[ing] [y]our narrow, natural sympathies … to promote the greater good of humanity as a whole, or even the good of all sentient beings”. It’s an algorithmic way of seeing the world in which all your actions must aggressively maximise the good.

That’s a demanding moral framework! Let’s separate it from what I’ll refer to from now on as “scarequotes utilitarianism”, embodied by the reaction of “what, just kill the fat guy.”

Over time the distinction between the two has been been flattened because of inappropriate overuse of these sacrificial dilemmas. As a result we’ve begun to assume that “what, just kill the fat guy” is shorthand for an entire moral compass tuned to the kind of “God’s-eye” concern for the greater good that defines utilitarian ethics. And so, in addition to being “complex, far-fetched, and convoluted”, Kahane says, sacrificial dilemmas have been misunderstood and misapplied.

But while it’s absurd to use them to pigeonhole average Joe non-philosophers into the utilitarian/deontological boxes, could sacrificial dilemmas still offer some small glimmer of insight into the average person’s real-world moral reasoning? For example, might a person who answers “just kill the fat guy” — while not also believing, in true utilitarian fashion, that she should maximise welfare by donating 90 percent of her money to distant strangers — be more likely to agree that she should give to charity?

To find out, Kahane teamed up with some other Oxford philosophers, including Brian Earp, Jim Everett and Julian Savulescu. They designed a series of experiments to examine exactly how well the answer you give to the sacrificial dilemmas maps to your larger moral framework.

The results, published in January in the journal Cognition, were not encouraging. [...] Not only does a “utilitarian” response (“just kill the fat guy”) not actual reflect a utilitarian outlook, it may actually be driven by broad antisocial tendencies, such as lowered empathy and a reduced aversion to causing someone harm. ... So why should anyone care about this apart from some philosophers breathing pretty thin air? Because in recent years, psychologists and neuroscientists have seized on these sacrificial dilemmas as a tool of choice for understanding how the brain deals with moral choices...

But this isn’t to say any investigation of what happens in the brains of people considering moral dilemmas is useless. Kahane just thinks we should jettison the useless sacrificial dilemmas and find something genuinely distinctive of utilitarian moral thinking. In a paper published in Social Neuroscience he recommends we drop the sacrificial dilemma — which is better at identifying B-school psychopaths than it is at identifying morality. Instead, we need to find new ways to suss out a person’s ability to “transcend our narrow focus on ourselves and those near and dear to us, and to extend our circle of concern to everyone, however geographically, temporally or even biologically distant.” Then neuroscientists can have at it with the brain mapping... (MORE - details)

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