A new study finds that people who respond like utilitarians to the “Trolley Problem” have a strong link to “personality styles that were psychopathic, Machiavellian or tended to view life as meaningless.” Although that probably doesn’t surprise those of us who are familiar with utilitarians (like Peter Singer), the study’s authors don’t believe it undermine utilitarianism as an ethical theory:
. . . Prof. Bartels explained that he and his co-author have a different interpretation: “Although the study does not resolve the ethical debate, it points to a flaw in the widely-adopted use of sacrificial dilemmas to identify optimal moral judgment. These methods fail to distinguish between people who endorse utilitarian moral choices because of underlying emotional deficits (like those captured by our measures of psychopathy and Machiavellianism) and those who endorse them out of genuine concern for the welfare of others.” In short, if scientists’ methods cannot identify a difference between the morality of a utilitarian philosopher who sacrifices her own interest for the sake of others, and a manipulative con artist who cares little about the feelings and welfare of anyone but himself, then perhaps better methods are needed.
Perhaps the tests are flawed. But the authors should try to identify one of these mythical “utilitarian philosophers who sacrifices her own interest for the sake of others” before jumping to that conclusion.