Friday, 2 September 2011

Rational psychos?

All too often, the choice of a benchmark of rational agency critically affects the consequences drawn from the empirical study of behavior in cognitive science. Fascinating examples arise from classical studies in the psychology of reasoning (here's a older post touching upon this). A recent Cognition paper by Daniel Bartels and David Pizarro provides challenging evidence concerning normative standards of moral judgment. The abstract goes as follows:

"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." (Bartels, D. & Pizarro, D., "The mismeasure of morals: Antisocial personality traits predict utilitarian responses to moral dilemmas", Cognition, 121, 2011, pp. 154-161.)

(I owe the hint to Thoughts on Thoughts.)

1 comment:

  1. This is the second time I saw this linked today. Earlier I saw it shared on google+. I have the same reaction now to the last sentence of the abstract as I had then, but maybe I should put it on my reading list. The abstract befuddles me, however:

    "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."

    Most of the time we aren't in moral dilemmas. Why would they infer from intuitions about moral dilemmas to how error prone people with anti-social personality traits are in general? It might be that people with anti-social personality traits have an easier time making the correct judgments in the tough cases precisely because they lack the personality and character traits that lend to utility maximization in ordinary life. For example, my paternal affections make it easier for me to spend afternoons and evenings caring for my daughter, but they would make it hard for me to allow my daughter to perish in a fire to save 20 other children. But that is an incredibly unlikely situation. My paternal affections make me less prone to error in daily life but more prone to error in the incredibly unlikely circumstances of difficult moral dilemmas. So what. I don't see how that is a problem for utilitarianism. Discussing the relationship between virtue and utility, Mill himself wrote that we ought to inculcate virtuous, pro-social character traits so that we may effortlessly maximize utility in daily life. It does not surprise me at all that it is possible to dream up cases that put the principle of utility in tension with the pro-social virtues that ordinarily maximize utility. But again, so what.

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