A classic thought experiment asks you to choose between doing nothing and letting an out-of-control trolley crash into a schoolbus, or pushing a fat man into the trolley's path, saving the kids but killing the bystander.
This "sacrificial dilemma" is a standby in the introduction to utilitarian thinking, and the choice to sacrifice the bystander rather than letting the children die is meant to expose you to the idea of taking a god's-eye view in which the greater good trumps individual welfare. It's made the leap to neuroscience, too, through fMRI experiments that are supposed to identify the neural correlates of moral reasoning by having subjects consider the problem while their brains are being scanned.
Guy Kahane from the Oxford's Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics has a sharp criticism of these experiments: what if deciding to kill the bystander correlates to a lack of empathy, rather than a propensity for cool reasoning? John Stuart Mill's utilitarianism asks you to ask, at each juncture, does this "promote the greater good of humanity as a whole, or even the good of all sentient beings?"
But the utilitarianism of killing the bystander is more like "utilitarianism" — it invites you to pat yourself on the back because you're such a rational being. However, that hyper-rational willingness to sacrifice others for the greater good rarely extends to ourself. The sacrificial dilemma is about someone else losing out for the greater good, while Mill might have asked his utilitarians to consider this dilemma: "If you gave up 90% of your income, you would be very poor, though you'd survive, and the money you gave could save 10,000 children from horrible deaths due to malnutrition and preventable disease in the developing world."
Kahane and his colleagues have published 'Utilitarian' judgments in sacrificial moral dilemmas do not reflect impartial concern for the greater good in the journal Cognition, in which they interrogate the difference between utilitarianism and "utilitarianism," and they imply that the traditional sacrificial dilemma wants you to behave like a psychopath, not a utilitarian:
Not only does a "utilitarian" response ("just kill the fat guy") not actual reflect a utilitarian outlook, it may actually be driven by broad antisocial tendencies, such as lowered empathy and a reduced aversion to causing someone harm. Which makes a kind of sense: in the real world, given the choice between two kinds of harm, most people wouldn't be able to cost it up quite so coldly. In fact, respondents who "killed the fat guy" also scored high on a question that asked them to assess how likely they would be to actually, in real life, kill the fat guy (and other sacrificial dilemmas, like the one where you must smother a crying baby to save a group of hiding refugees). They similarly aced the psychopath test (featuring statements like "success is based on survival of the fittest; I am not concerned about the losers") and flunked the empathy test ("When I see someone being taken advantage of, I feel kind of protective towards them"). As you might expect, "scarequote utilitarians" scored low on "concern for the greater good". Taken together, the results of their experiments caused the authors to conclude that answering in the "utilitarian" fashion may reflect the inner workings of a broadly amoral mind.
…But this isn't to say any investigation of what happens in the brains of people considering moral dilemmas is useless. Kahane just thinks we should jettison the useless sacrificial dilemmas and find something genuinely distinctive of utilitarian moral thinking. In a paper published in Social Neuroscience he recommends we drop the sacrificial dilemma — which is better at identifying B-school psychopaths than it is at identifying morality. Instead, we need to find new ways to suss out a person's ability to "transcend our narrow focus on ourselves and those near and dear to us, and to extend our circle of concern to everyone, however geographically, temporally or even biologically distant." Then neuroscientists can have at it with the brain mapping.
The trolley and the psychopath [Sally Adee/Last Word Do Nothing]
(via O'Reilly Radar)
(Image: FMRI Brain Scan, DrOONeil, CC-BY-SA)