Utilitarian pushers are a miserable lot

Each spring semester I teach an applied ethics class called “Ethical Issues in Agriculture.” Today we discussed one of the most famous thought experiments in applied ethics—the trolley dilemma (a Youtube.com presentation of the issue is here). In this dilemma, a trolley is running out of control on a track where five men are working. In one variation, you are told you can save the five by pulling a lever to divert the trolley onto another track, where one man works, thus killing him. In another variation, you are told that you can push a very fat man off a footbridge onto the track to derail the train, thus saving the five.

Would you pull the lever to save five while causing the death of one in the first case?  Why? Would you push the man off the footbridge to save the five in the second case? Why?

I have used the trolley problem for many years in class. Most students are willing to pull the lever in the first case, but most are not willing to push the man in the second case. According to students, it is better to save five at the expense of one by pulling the lever, since five versus one seems to be the only pertinent factor in the first trolley case. This is classical utiliarian thinking. Utilitarianism is the idea that a decision is right if a greater good is served, such as more people benefiting than being harmed. Inflicting extreme pain on a person for information that could save thousands would be justifiable under utilitarianism. However, non-utilitarian thinking applies in the second trolley case because there are other things to consider. For example, in the first case all workers have preexisting harm since they are on track, whereas in the second case the man on the footbridge is not in harm’s way; our pushing him introduces him to harm. Diverting the trolley is what saves the five in the first case, whereas the death of the man is necessary in the second case. We also need to consider the rights of the man to decide for himself whether to leap or not–that is, we should not use him as a means to an end without his consent.

What is interesting with the trolley problem is people who use utilitarian thinking in the second case, choosing to push the man in order to save the five.

I read a study a few years ago that shed some light on people who are predominantly utilitarian thinkers. The study is “The mismeasure of morals: Antisocial personality traits predict utilitarian responses to moral dilemmas.” The researchers wanted to know how people who selected a utilitarian outcome to the trolley problem scored on personality assessments. Over two hundred college students were recruited for the study. The study showed that people who consistently adopt utilitarian solutions to moral dilemmas are more likely than others to have indications of psychopathic personalities or to feel that life is meaningless.

Most respondents in the study did not think it was right to push the fat man to save five workers. However, respondents who consistently chose the utilitarian solution to the different variations of the trolley problem also scored high on personality assessment indicators that suggested a high degree of psychopathy, emotional detachment to others, and a sense that life is meaningless. In other words, utilitarian pushers (people who believe it is acceptable to push the fat man off the footbridge) are not pleasant or happy people. In fact, we might even say their psychological profiles are troubling.

It is interesting that economics as a profession pushes the utilitarian framework (choose actions where the benefits exceed the costs). It’s our fundamental way of thinking as economists. Maybe this is why the 19th century historian Thomas Carlyle referred to economics as the “dismal science.”

In case any of you are worried, it’s okay to have an economist as a friend … as long as you don’t take walks along trolley tracks together.

 

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Author: Harvey James

Professor, Agricultural and Applied Economics, University of Missouri Editor-in-chief, Agriculture and Human Values

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