Tag Archives: BRAIN DAMAGE

Utilitarians are not nice people

Such, at least, is the conclusion drawn by writers at the ‘Economist’ who have just reported on the publication, in ‘Cognition’, of a paper that claims (in its title) that ‘Antisocial Personality Traits Predict Utilitarian Responses to Moral Dilemmas’.

Reading the article in the Economist made me recall a report that apparently appeared in the Los Angeles Times a few years ago. In the same it was that reported that when “asked to resolve hypothetical dilemmas — such as tossing a person from a bridge into the path of a trolley to save five others — people with damage to their ventromedial prefrontal cortex tended to sacrifice one life to save many”. Indeed, according to the report, “people with damage to their ventromedial prefrontal cortex” are “about three times as likely to sacrifice one person for the greater good compared with people without brain damage or those with damage in a different part of their brains” (or, rather, this is how they respond to rather unlikely thought experiments). This was based on findings published in Nature by Koeings et al in a paper titled “Damage to the prefrontal cortex increases utilitarian moral judgements” (available as as pdf here)..

The new paper referred to in The Economist (‘The Mismeasure of Morals’) is by Daniel M. Bartels of Columbia University and David A. Pizarro at Cornell University. The two note in their abstract that “Researchers have recently argued that utilitarianism is the appropriate framework by which to evaluate moral judgment, and that individuals who endorse non-utilitarian solutions to moral dilemmas (involving active vs. passive harm) are committing an error.” But they then report on “a study in which participants responded to a battery of personality assessments and a set of [trolley] dilemmas that pit utilitarian and non-utilitarian options against each other. Participants who indicated greater endorsement of utilitarian solutions had higher scores on measures of Psychopathy, machiavellianism, and life meaninglessness.” The authors claim “these results question the widely-used methods by which lay moral judgments are evaluated, as these approaches lead to the counterintuitive conclusion that those individuals who are least prone to moral errors also possess a set of psychological characteristics that many would consider prototypically immoral.”

Bartels and Pizzaro (and indeed the Economist) are keen to stress that the “results do not speak to whether utilitarianism …  is the correct normative ethical theory, as the characteristics of a theory’s proponents cannot determine its normative status”. It is also pointed out by Bartels & Pizzaro that “a variety of researchers have shown that individuals with higher working memory capacity and those who are more deliberative thinkers are, indeed, more likely to approve of utilitarian solutions”.

Still, does it make anybody wonder? Is it wrong if it does?