By now you’ve probably encountered one of the various “do you push the fat man in front of the subway train to stop it from running over five innocent people trapped on the tracks?” puzzles that moral philosophers have been using lately to distinguish the consequentialists (who care only about ends) from the deontologists (who care also about means). (I invoked some of these puzzles, in a slightly non-conventional way, in Chapters 16 and 17 of The Big Questions.)
Now come psychologists Daniel Bartels and David Pizarro to report that choosing what they call the “utilitarian” solution (by which they mean the consequentialist solution, though one might have more faith in their scholarship if they’d used the accurate word) is correlated with higher scores on measures of psychopathy, machiavellianism, and “life meaninglessness”. Those who would push the fat man are more likely to agree with statements like “I like to see fistfights” or “The best way to handle people is to tell them what they want to hear” or “When you think about it, life is not worth the effort of getting up in the morning”. In other words, they are what we tend to think of as an unpleasant bunch.
But you see, here’s the thing: Bartels and Pizarro did the wrong test. Because in every one of the dozen or so moral dilemmas presented to the subjects, they asked: Would you shoot the crewmember? or would you execute one of the hostages? or would you flip off the switch to the ventilator? — which doesn’t get to the moral issues at all. The moral issue is this: In your opinion, should you shoot the crewmember or execute the hostge or flip the switch? The researchers never asked those questions, so we have no idea what the subjects’s opinions were.
Tell me a story about 20 children trapped in a burning building and ask me if I think I should rush in to save them. My answer is yes. Now ask me if I would. If I’m honest, I am very unsure I would do the right thing.
So what do we learn from this research? Here’s one interpretation: Maybe most people agree that you should push the fat man, and most people realize that they themselves would shrink from this moral duty out of squeamishness (just as most people agree that you should save the children from the fire, and most realize they might shirk this moral duty). Therefore they answer “No, I would not push the fat man.” But it’s only the psychopaths and Machiavellians who exaggerate their own moral virtues by claiming that they would rise to this particular occasion.
Do I know that that’s correct? No, but I’m betting it’s far closer to the truth than the researchers’ own favorite interpretation, which is that consequentialism is a manifestation of psychopathy (or something like that).
Of course even if consequentialism is a manifestation of psychopathy, the right conclusion might be that the world would be better off with more psychopaths. But I don’t think this study tells that, because I don’t think it tells us anything at all about who’s a consequentialist. It tells us only about who’s willing to exaggerate his or her own moral uprightness, and nothing at all about their morals.