Utilitarianism and Psychopathy

"The mismeasure of morals: Antisocial personality traits predict utilitarian responses to moral dilemmas" by Bartels and Pizarro is a thought-provoking study which reveals how psychological aspects of a person may underlie the sort of moral philosophical framework he prefers. The study specifically deals with antisocial personality traits and utilitarianism.

This is the abstract:

"Researchers have recently argued that utilitarianism is the appropriate framework by which to evaluate moral judgment, and that individuals who endorse non-utilitarian solutions to moral dilemmas (involving active vs. passive harm) are committing an error. 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."

What I see in this research is that the utilitarian methodologies (not necessarily their conclusions) are at odds with our innate moral sense (Universal Moral Grammar). The utilitarian idea that ends justify the means does not suit well with the conscience of most people, and this is what psychopathy is: the absence of a conscience. Indeed, most significant moral dilemmas we face in our lives are about the means to obtain a particular goal. Our moral sense is as much concerned with the actions themselves as it is concerned with their consequences. While utilitarianism provides us valuable answers regarding what to do in this or that particular situation, does utilitarianism offer us any valuable answer on what it means to be a good person, a better person, a moral person? I believe not. What makes us a better human being is not an exclusive concern with the consequences, but the development of virtues, the character traits such as compassion, empathy and justice. Consequences matter when it comes to specific moral acts; Virtues matter when it comes to being moral and living a moral life.


Komal said…
Very interesting! This has got to be one of my favourite posts so far.

I'm not a utilitarian, and this study confirms my own intuition that utilitarianism is morally bankrupt in many ways. Its refusal to consider things like character, motivation, deserts (or 'deserving') and the act/omission distinction all make it a bad philosophy, but I can easily see how it could make it more appealing to people with weaker moral intuitions, since those moral intuitions would presumably make people conscious of and care about things like character, deserts, etc.
Anonymous said…
'Bad' philosophy, Komal? Anyway that aside this whole piece depends on there being a consensus view of what conscience is, and how moral error is defined. There are just so few utile definitions here which might enable one to engage with it.
Love, Alec x