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Saturday, October 01, 2011

Study linking utilitarian moral views to psychopathology is actually measuring irreligiosity

The study, "Antisocial personality traits predict utilitarian responses to moral dilemmas," asked about hypotheticals where the subject could save several innocent lives by taking steps to sacrifice fewer innocent lives instead. E.g.:
"A runaway trolley is about to run over and kill five people, and you are standing on a footbridge next to a large stranger; your body is too light to stop the train, but if you push the stranger onto the tracks, killing him, you will save the five people. Would you push the man?"
People who answered "yes" turned out to also score higher on tests for psychopathic tendencies. Interesting, but the "utilitarianism" answer to this kind of question turns on a lot more than utilitarian views. It also turns crucially on religious views. A person who believes that there is a God who has his own mysterious purposes for the directions that people's lives take will not want to step in and "play God" himself, deciding who should live and who should die, because he knows that he himself DOES NOT have some wise master plan for the course of other people's lives. Religious people will be glad to try to save lives, but will be very reluctant to intervene to trade one life for another.

Thus the actual correlation that the study is finding could well be between irreligiosity and psychopathology. Is there a way to separate out the religious from the utilitarian components of the question, in order to determine which is responsible for the correlation with psychopathology? One possible control would be to preface the trolley question with an instruction to "suppose that there is no God," but religious people might not really be able to inhabit that hypothetical, making the control ineffective. You can't very well discern someone's moral framework by asking them to assume it away.

Another possibility is to ask at what point someone would sacrifice their OWN life to save x number of innocent others. Would they trade their life for ten innocent others, a hundred, a thousand, for everybody else in the world? The lower the number the more utilitarian the subject (so long as the number is greater than one). THAT measure of utilitarian tendencies would presumably not correlate with psychopathology. Did they ask it?

It sounds like they didn't. At least, that is the gist of the authors' own critique of their own study (!), as contained in their own press release:
While some might be tempted to conclude that these findings 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 psychopathology 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.
If their questions fail to distinguish between people who would sacrifice themselves vs. people who would only sacrifice others, this would seem to be an easy lack to supply. Just add some questions about self sacrifice. And why not probe for religious views while they are at it, since a correlation between irreligious views and psychopathology is clearly part of what their initial results are measuring. Might as well try to find out how big a part.

UPDATE: I sent a note to one of the authors, professor Bartels:
How people answer "playing god" type questions will obviously be affected by whether they believe that there is already a God who is playing god.
Haven't heard back.

I have known many people with antisocial personality traits and they are rude people who do not want to have so much contact with others, they are very reserved
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