Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Odd piece of flawed anti-utilitarian research

Hmm, PLoS One has published the results of a social science research project claiming to show that utilitarian moral choices are predictive of low empathic concern. Moral philosophers will be aware of the scenarios that the investigators tested: There's Philippa Foot's trolley example, and a related example using a crying baby in wartime whereby the only way to preserve a whole bunch of people's lives is to smother the crying baby in order to prevent it from alerting enemy soldiers to one's location.

The researchers also had the participants complete Interpersonal Reactivity Inventories. Turns out, the folks making the choices that would have preserved more lives (ie the 'utilitarians') showed lack of empathic concern, courtesy of the IRI.  Now, utilitarians in both scenarios would, of course, opt to preserve the larger number of lives. What's odd is that the PLoS One researchers claim that this this is evidence for their contention that utilitarians lack empathic concern. Obviously, there is a different interpretation, namely that utilitarians, driven by empathic concerns choose to sacrifice (yes, proactively) a smaller number of humans in order to preserve a much larger number of other humans. Considering that the choice makers would be operating in emergency circumstances, this seems entirely plausible to this utilitarian. So, even if, according to IRI survey results, utilitarian responders showed typically a lack of empathy, it ain't clear that that is what drove in the end their choices in the scenarios put to them by the investigators.

It's just odd that the reviewers of this piece didn't realize that the researchers' labelling of a particular set of choices as lacking empathy doesn't prove that empathy is actually lacking by someone who makes such choices that they clearly disapprove of (despite protestations to the contrary - aka neutrality).

Independent of this, even if this experiment had shown that utilitarian moral choices lack empathic concern - which it hasn't! - it failed to show that such choices, given the dire circumstances painted in those scenarios, were not the lesser of two bad choices.

Addendum: A day after I wrote this, a survey of philosophers' views on core philosophical questions was released. Here are some interesting data on the trolley scenario the authors of the PLoS piece celebrated so much:
Normative ethics: deontology 25.9%; consequentialism 23.6%; virtue ethics 18.2%; other 32.3%.
Trolley problem: switch 68.2%; don’t switch 7.6%; other 24.2%.
Seems you don't have to be a utilitarian/consequentialist to flip the switch, as the authors of the PLoS piece mistakenly believe.

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