Friday, October 7, 2011

Daleks are utilitarians, but are utilitarians Daleks?

Daleks are utilitarians, but are utilitarians Daleks?Richard Umbers | Thursday, 6 October 2011
Psychology researchers may have discovered a disturbing angle to utilitarian reasoning.

Instructing doctors to kill the dying rather than waiting for them to die is icky. But think of the quality of the organs they could donate! This is the argument some Belgian transplant surgeons used to justify taking organs from patients who had just chosen to be euthanased.

Creating rabbit-man chimeras for experimentation seems like sci-fi gone wrong. But imagine the cures that could be discovered! This is the argument used by some British stem cell researchers to justify the creation of hybrid cells.

A number of policy makers and bioethicists would have us put the “yuck factor” to one side in our moral choices in favour of utilitarian outcomes. In the words of one British MP arguing for the creation of hybrid embryos, "If human benefit can be derived… then it would actually be immoral to prevent it just because of a 'yuck' factor."

The assumption here is that our initial emotions and intuitions are deemed to be a bad guide to the proper policy description that a deliberation of costs and benefits would yield. As Peter Singer, the Australian uber-utilitarian, has written, ““In everyday life… our reasoning is likely to be nothing more than a rationalization for our intuitive responses … the emotional dog is wagging the rational tail.”

Well, however authoritative this might sound, it is false. Emotions are good guides to correct moral judgement and we should wager our prefrontal cortex to back them.

Utilitarianism has a superficially plausible method for solving moral decisions: the greatest good for the greatest number. If I can save five people from a speeding train by pushing a fat guy onto the railway track, why not? Out of six people, five are still alive.

But unless moral judgements can make room for imagination and empathy we could well end up with psychopaths making their way onto bioethics panels and, as far as output is concerned, nobody would be the wiser for that. Utilitarianism masks the need for real thought about means and ends and not just the most efficient techniques that get us to the outcomes we want.
Does the linkage between utilitarians and psychopaths sound extreme?

Perhaps, but two American academics have recently published a paper in the peer-reviewed psychology journal Cognition which correlates anti-social personality traits with utilitarian responses to moral dilemmas. This is not an ad hominempiece that says utilitarians are losers but it is statistically significant evidence that people lacking in moral character traits are overwhelmingly utilitarians. In the words of Daniel M. Bartels, of Columbia University, and David A. Pizarro, of Cornell University:

"We report a study in which participants responded to a battery of personality assessments and a set of 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. 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."

Would you push the fat guy off the footbridge? In most surveys 90 percent of respondents say that they would not. Over the last 10 years this has been interpreted as evidence of emotionally clouded moral judgement. Nine out of ten people, academics have concluded, allow their passions to impede their reasoning. Those individuals who can “correctly” choose to save the five lives at the expense of the fat man are people who typically have a higher working memory or who are more deliberative thinkers. They think like Peter Singer or Julian Savulescu orSteven Pinker.
For several years utilitarianism has been feted as a rational person’s normative ethical theory. The star of utilitarianism has been rising among policy makers and ethics committees when they debate issues like euthanasia. In the light of Bartels and Pizarro, however, we can also say that utilitarianism is the choice of the emotionally impaired.

Here is how the experiment was conducted. About 200 undergraduates (with a roughly even split between men and women) were paid US$3 each to answer 14 sacrificial dilemmas and a “battery of individual difference measures” with questions relating to enjoyment at the viewing of fist-fights, indifference to getting out of bed in the morning or whether we should just tell people what they want to hear. Participants who scored higher on the psychopathy, no meaning and Machiavellianism scales indicated a greater preference for utilitarian options in the ethical dilemmas.

The problem is that real world problems are different to the train track scenarios presented. These sacrificial dilemmas cannot discriminate between those who are thinking through the issue and those who are thugs. If psychopaths can pass the ethics test with flying colours then we need to revisit the nature of the test rather than revise our moral intuitions as evolutionarily backward.
There is a lesson in this. Of course, the fact that utilitarians tend to be psychopaths is not necessarily an argument against utilitarian ideas. But it should make us cautious about endorsing utilitarian arguments simply because they yield neat, all-end-tied-up answers. Doctors, nurses, administrators and politicians often have to deliberate agonising dilemmas. They should beware of utilitarian advisors who smirk that no dilemma is really agonising – it’s just a matter of counting up the plusses and minuses.

So when you hear ethicists arguing for euthanasia, or abortion, or embryonic stem cell research, it’s quite likely that they are really Daleks (of Doctor Who fame) in humanoid disguise, repeating “exterminate, exterminate!” Those deadly salt and pepper shakers were once like us but technology has turned them into rationally superior monsters devoid of all other emotions but anger. Their characteristic warning is “resistance is useless”. But, believe me, resisting utilitarians is not just worthwhile – it’s essential if we want to retain our humanity.

Father Richard Umbers teaches philosophy in Sydney. 
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