Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Bartels and Pizarro: Consequentialists Are Psychopaths

... or at least they tend that direction on personality tests.

There are, I think, some gaps in the Bartels and Pizarro argument -- especially since there might be a pretty loose connection between real consequentialist moral thinking and tending to say "push the fat man!" when given a trolley problem. Quite possibly, undergraduates tending toward psychopathic personality will say the latter even if they aren't very good representatives of genuine consequentialist moral thought.

Josh Rust and I, in our study of the moral behavior of ethics professors, found that ethicists favoring deontology vs. consequentialism vs. virtue ethics all behaved about the same, both by self-report measures and by direct observational measures. To the extent there was a tendency, it was for virtue ethicists to self-report slightly worse behavior.

Update, Sept 28: In the comments I think I more clearly articulated my concern about Bartels and Pizarro than I did above, so I paste it here: "As a cartoon, imagine that you have a group of respondents who don't really think ethically about the dilemmas at all and just think it's funny to tell the prof to push the fat man, and suppose that psychopathic personality types are overrepresented in that group. Then you get the Bartels and Pizarro results, but there's no relationship with consequentialist thinking."

10 comments:

Matthew Pianalto said...

Whether there's a gap depends, perhaps in part, on what you want to count as "real consequentialist moral thinking." Does only careful, thoughtful consequentialist thinking count as "real"? I say this, not exactly as any objection to your point. However, I suspect that in the "real" world the line between consequentialist/utilitarian thinking and what Mill called "expedience" gets blurred. But for practical purposes, the latter is a "real" kind of consequentialism (just perhaps not a good kind).

Clayton said...

This is rich:

"In this paper, we question the close identification of utilitarian responses with optimal moral judgment by demonstrating that the endorsement of utilitarian solutions to a set of commonly-used moral dilemmas correlates with a set of psychological traits that can be characterized as emotionally callous and manipulative—traits that most would perceive as not only psychologically unhealthy, but also morally undesirable."

So, the problem with utilitarians is that their moral judgments are not clouded by emotion and that they are "Machiavellian" in that they are disposed to use others in ways that would lead to a greater good. So, the problem with utilitarians is that they are utilitarians?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Matthew: I agree that the distinction is a bit blurry. In fact, it's a huge problem (for Kantians too!) how the recommended patterns of reflection tend to break down in the non-ideal case. But, as a cartoon, imagine that you have a group of respondents who don't really think ethically about the dilemmas at all and just think it's funny to tell the prof to push the fat man, and suppose that psychopathic personality types are overrepresented in that group. Then you get the Bartels and Pizarro results, but there's no relationship with consequentialist thinking.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Clayton: LOL. Of course, "Machiavellianism" is supposed to be self-serving rather than for the greater good. It might be interesting, though, to try to pull apart self-serving Machiavellianism from greater-good Machiavellianism, personologically.

Matthew Pianalto said...

Eric: Sure. I haven't read the paper over-carefully, but I can imagine that they're just pointing out a correlation. And of course, such subtleties don't make good headlines, as does, "Utilitarians are not nice people." I'm no defender of utilitarianism, but maybe the more pertinent thing to discuss here are the distortions of fact that newspapers and magazines happily promote in order to gain readers. (If there's one thing you're going to remember from the Economist article, it's that utilitarians are not nice people.) But maybe I'm just being a fuddy-duddy.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

There's the empirical correlation, and then there's the interpretation they invite. Although they are somewhat cagey about the latter, they are to some extent responsible for both. Yes? The news media can also be held to blame for serious distortions, but in this case I think the media are just picking up on what Bartels and Pizarro know they are putting out to the casual consumer of their results.

Jim P Houston said...

Eric,

I've posted a brief report on some of your work with Joshua at The Philosophy Magazine blog section.

http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=3246

regards

Jim

Martin said...

They phrased the trolley question something like "WOULD you push one person off a bridge if it saved five others", not "SHOULD you...", thus selecting not for people who think utilitarianism is correct, but for people who are callous enough to kill. You can prefer the results of utilitarianism without actually being able to stomach killing someone yourself.

(Now, you can argue that it's actually more callous to let the five people die, but I don't think it's the super-empathetic people who will find it easiest to push people off bridges.)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Jim! And yes, Martin, that does seem a deficiency in their phrasing.

Rishard Marshall said...

Eric - if a naturalist consequentialist position results in psychopaths being better moral agents than non-psychopaths, where's the ethical dilemma? We might judge the group to be dislikable on all sorts of other grounds, but doesn't this result (if taken at face value) show that in terms of ethics they're pretty efficient? I'm not saying that we should take the results at face value, but if we did put those concerns aside, is there really a problem? Nietzsche had some pretty nasty elitist views about 'the herd' and so on, but he was pretty much a whizz when it came to thinking about morality. It's like the blonde Republican in The West Wing when she says, 'You don't dislike guns, you just dislike people who like guns.'