‘Utilitarian’ judgments in sacrificial moral dilemmas do not reflect impartial concern for the greater good

Guy Kahane, Jim A.C. Everett, Brian D. Earp, Miguel Farias, Julian Savulescu

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

    121 Citations (Scopus)
    19 Downloads (Pure)

    Abstract

    A growing body of research has focused on so-called ‘utilitarian’ judgments in moral dilemmas in which participants have to choose whether to sacrifice one person in order to save the lives of a greater number. However, the relation between such ‘utilitarian’ judgments and genuine utilitarian impartial concern for the greater good remains unclear. Across four studies, we investigated the relationship between ‘utilitarian’ judgment in such sacrificial dilemmas and a range of traits, attitudes, judgments and behaviors that either reflect or reject an impartial concern for the greater good of all. In Study 1, we found that rates of ‘utilitarian’ judgment were associated with a broadly immoral outlook concerning clear ethical transgressions in a business context, as well as with sub-clinical psychopathy. In Study 2, we found that ‘utilitarian’ judgment was associated with greater endorsement of rational egoism, less donation of money to a charity, and less identification with the whole of humanity, a core feature of classical utilitarianism. In Studies 3 and 4, we found no association between ‘utilitarian’ judgments in sacrificial dilemmas and characteristic utilitarian judgments relating to assistance to distant people in need, self-sacrifice and impartiality, even when the utilitarian justification for these judgments was made explicit and unequivocal. This lack of association remained even when we controlled for the antisocial element in ‘utilitarian’ judgment. Taken together, these results suggest that there is very little relation between sacrificial judgments in the hypothetical dilemmas that dominate current research, and a genuine utilitarian approach to ethics
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)193-209
    JournalCognition
    Volume134
    Issue numberJanuary 2015
    Early online date13 Nov 2014
    DOIs
    Publication statusPublished - Jan 2015

    Bibliographical note

    Copyright 2014 The Authors. Published by Elsevier B.V. This is an open access article under the CC BY
    license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/).

    Wellcome Trust, Economic and Social Research Council

    Keywords

    • Altruism
    • Impartiality
    • Moral dilemmas
    • Moral judgment
    • Psychopathy
    • Utilitarianism

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