Jim Everett’s posts

The Disunity of Utilitarian Psychology: Runaway Trolleys vs. Distant Strangers

Guy Kahane**, Jim A.C. Everett**,

Brian D. Earp, Lucius Caviola, Nadira Faber, Molly Crockett,

and Julian Savulescu

Last week, we invited people to find out “How Utilitarian Are You?” by filling out our newly published Oxford Utilitarianism Scale. The scale was widely shared – even by Peter Singer (who scored predictably highly). The Oxford Utilitarianism Scale does a pretty good job of measuring how well people’s views match up with “classical” utilitarians (think Bentham and Singer), which is the form of utilitarianism we used to anchor the scale. But that’s not all it does. It also teases apart two different dimensions of utilitarian thinking, tracking two ways in which utilitarianism departs from common-sense morality. Our new research recently published in Psychological Review links these two factors to distinct components of human psychology.

The first peculiar aspect of utilitarianism is that it places no constraints whatsoever on the maximization of aggregate well-being. If torturing an innocent person would lead to more good overall, then utilitarianism, in contrast to commonsense morality, requires that the person be tortured. This is what we call instrumental harm: the idea that we are permitted (and even required) to instrumentally use, severely harm, or even kill innocent people to promote the greater good.

The second way that utilitarianism diverges from common-sense morality is by requiring us to impartially maximize the well-being of all sentient beings on the planet in such a way that “[e]ach is to count for one and none for more than one” (Bentham, 1789/1983), not privileging compatriots, family members, or ourselves over strangers – or even enemies. This can be called the positive dimension of utilitarianism, or impartial beneficence.

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How Utilitarian Are You? Measure on The Oxford Utilitarianism Scale

Blog Authors: Julian Savulescu, Brian D. Earp, Jim A.C. Everett, Nadira Faber, and Guy Kahane

This blog reports on the paper, Kahane G, Everett J, Earp BD, Caviola L,  Faber N, Crockett MJ, Savulescu J, Beyond Sacrificial Harm: A Two Dimensional Model of Utilitarian Decision-Making, Psychological Review [open access]

How Utilitarian are you? Answer these 9 questions to find out…

If you enjoyed taking our ‘How Utilitarian Are You?’ test,  read our new blog post discussing how we developed it, what it shows, and why it’s important

Utilitarianism is one of the oldest and most influential theories about what the right thing to do is. It says that the right act is the one which has the best consequences. In the first formulation by Jeremy Bentham, hedonistic utilitarianism, the right act is the one which maximises happiness and minimises suffering. Richard Hare and Peter Singer made preference utilitarianism famous: the right act is the one which maximises satisfaction of preferences.

Utilitarianism was a novel egalitarian theory when it was developed in the 1700s. It was a radical departure from authoritarian, aristocratic or otherwise hierarchical ways of thinking, positing that each person’s happiness and suffering was to count the same. In stark contrast to the social norms of the day, utilitarianism held that the happiness of the pauper is just as important as the happiness of the Prince or the Pope.

Utilitarianism has fallen into disrepute. It is now equated with Machiavellianism: the end justifies the means, whatever those ends may be. It is also seen as coldly calculating, or else simplistically pragmatic. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche described it as a morality appropriate for shop keepers. Recently it has even been portrayed a doctrine for psychopaths. Pope Paul II put it succinctly in 1995:

“Utilitarianism is a civilization of production and of use, a civilization of ‘things’ and not of ‘persons,’ a civilization in which persons are used in the same way as things are used.”

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Cross Post: Want to be popular? You’d better follow some simple moral rules

Imagine that an out of control trolley is speeding towards a group of five people. You are standing on a footbridge above, next to a large man. If you push him off the bridge onto the track below, his body will stop the trolley before it hits the five people. He will die, but the five others will be saved. Should you push the man off the bridge?

Before you make your decision, you should know that your popularity could depend on it. According to a new study of more than 2,400 participants, which we carried out with David Pizarro from Cornell University, the way you answer the “trolley problem” can have a big impact on how much people trust you. So let’s have a look at your options.

You might say yes; saving five lives outweighs the harm of killing one person. And you wouldn’t be alone: you’d be making a moral decision in line with “consequentialist” theories of morality. Consequentialists believe that we should aim to maximise the greatest good for the greatest number of people, even if this means causing some harm – for example, by killing one person to save five.

On the other hand, you might say no; killing someone is just wrong, regardless of any positive consequences there might be. Here, you’d be making a moral decision in line with “deontological” moral theories, which focus on moral rules, rights and duties. Maxims such as “thou shalt not kill” and “treat others as you would like to be treated” (otherwise known asthe golden rule) fit into this category.
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Judging a person by their friends.

Jim A.C. Everett

www.jimaceverett.com

In case any readers have been living under a rock for the last few days, the ‘hard-left’ candidate Jeremy Corbyn has been elected Leader of the British Labour Party (see here for the BBC profile on him). Just by his fellow Labour ‘comrades’ (let alone his Conservative opponents), he has been proclaimed as the death of Labour, the savior of Labour, and everything in between. By all accounts Corbyn is a man who lives by his principles (whatever we think about these principles), and yet has sustained extensive criticism from across the political spectrum – particularly based on his close relationships with some very morally dubious individuals and organisations. Corbyn has been criticized with vigour, for example, for his support of Irish Republicanism and IRA terrorists, alongside the anti-Semitic and homophobic Hamas and Hezbolla (which he calls movements of “social justice”). Corbyn seeks closer ties with Russia and Putin (who has a sketchy human rights record to say the least), and has just appointed a Shadow Chancellor (John McDonnell), who credits the terrorism of the IRA with peace in Northern Ireland, who wanted to “assassinate Margaret Thatcher” and who apparently called for the “bitch” Tory MP Esther McVey to be “lynched”. Corbynistas (as the media has dubbed his supporters) have, as would be expected, come to his defense and argued that we cannot judge the man by his friends and that, anyway, some of these comments might have been taken out of context. Continue reading

Should Hitler have been able to speak at the Oxford Union?


@JimACEverett

 www.jimaceverett.com

The Oxford University Student Union (OUSU) recently voted to “condemn” the invitation of Marine LePen to speak at the Oxford Union (which is an entirely separate organization, for those outside of Oxford). In addition to condemning LePen and the Union for inviting her, the OUSU President was mandated to send an emergency letter (i.e. a letter that comes outside the normal weekly bulletins, and usually happens when a person is missing or there is an emergency). I was informed that as a student union, “we” had voted to condemn LePen and the Union for giving her a platform and were encouraged to protest. To what extent is this true? Had the Union, in inviting her, legitimised her politics?

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Review: Beyond The Abortion Wars, by Charles C. Camosy

 

@JimACEverett

 www.jimaceverett.com

I was recently lucky enough to receive an advance copy of Charles Camosy’s forthcoming book to review – ‘Beyond the abortion wars: a way forward for a new generation’. In this book, Camosy masterfully traverses the ‘battleground’ between the ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’1 camps in order to show that this battleground is in fact no such thing. In fact, as Camosy notes, the majority of the American public actually agree on a middle-ground position on abortion. Despite what one might think from reading certain media outlets and Twitter wars, there is actually a large consensus in the public regarding abortion. This insight is deceptively powerful. By demonstrating the areas of agreement, Camosy is able to help guide us beyond the abortion wars to allow a way forward for a new generation.

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Should men be allowed to discuss abortion?

@JimACEverett

 www.jimaceverett.com

Feminists are kicking up quite a storm in Oxford at the moment. Oxford Students for Life have organized a debate on abortion to happen tomorrow (the 18th November, 2014), which has inspired some rather troubling attacks. Now, Oxford feminists (‘WomCam’) are generally rather intolerant of any pro-life rhetoric (or, indeed, anyone that disagrees with them), but what has really got their goat this time is that the debate is between two men.

“It is absurd to think we should be listening to two cisgender men debate about what people with uteruses should be doing with their bodies. By only giving a platform to these men, OSFL [Oxford Students for Life] are participating in a culture where reproductive rights are limited and policed by people who will never experience needing an abortion.”

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Doing Good by Doing Nothing?

@JimACEverett

 www.jimaceverett.com

 

A common theme running through debates on combating global problems like poverty and common change is the idea that something must be done. Usually, this is taken to mean that some prosocial behaviour must be actively encouraged and sought out: for example, encouraging people to recycle, or having public health campaigns to encourage people to vaccinate. These solutions typically require individuals going out of their way to do what is often a costly behaviour, and consequently, have only limited success. But what if prosocial behaviour could also be encouraged by making use of the passivity of human nature? What if people could do good by doing nothing?

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To veil or not to veil?

As recent media coverage has documented, Muslim veils are a hot button issue at present.

Research suggests that “a major determinant of who is most vulnerable to anti-Islamic abuse may be the degree to which the individual is visibly identified as Muslim” (King & Ahmad, 2010, p. 886). For Muslim women, one such identifier is a veil. A veil can refer specifically to the hijab or head- scarf, covering just the head but leaving the face exposed, or the full-face veil, which covers the head and face. Hate crime and prejudice directed against Muslims seems to be strongly linked to such visible markers of “difference” (Dreher, 2006), and political discourse has used veils to represent “the problem of Islam” (Watson, 1994)

In recent work published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, I explored the way that such prejudice against Muslim women wearing veils may differ as a function of which particular veil is being worn. You can read the paper here for free (it’s open access), and so I won’t go into too much detail about how study and the psychological literature on prejudice and first impressions. Continue reading

Is there anything (morally) special about dogs?

As a borderline-obsessive dog lover, the news of the blaze at the Manchester Dogs’ Home this week particularly saddened me. A fire was started – it seems deliberately by a 15-year old boy – and around 60 dogs died, with another 150 alive after being rescued. Yet, alongside this there was some uplifting news. A number of passers-by ran into the burning building to rescue dogs, and as I write this the Just Giving page for people to donate to the home after the fire has now reached £1,416,549 in just a few days, with 140,914 donations. Of particular interest to me were the number of people calling the suspect ‘evil’ – this act really pulled at the heartstrings. More worryingly (but I am ashamed to say, understandable to me) were the visceral reactions to this where people were calling for this child to be burned alive himself.

What is so special about dogs? Do we have any particular moral obligations to dogs? Are there any rational reasons for the enhanced moral status of dogs?

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