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Two basic queries

Posted by christianmunthe on 22 May 2013 at 14:15 GMT

As a moral philosopher I find the article highly interesting! However, as with some of the other studies cited by the authors I (and I know many of my colleagues) am struck by two very basic things:

1. The use of the term "utilitarian" and "utilitarian moral judge". It is a standard and elementary notion within utilitarian ethical theory since the 1800's (e.g. Sidgwick and Hare to mention two classics) that adherence to utilitarianism does in fact not mean that one is disposed to attempt to use utilitarian calculations as a decision tool (although one views it as the correct moral theory), especially not in single cases. On the contrary, partly due to the insights about how one may be tricked by one's own psychology, utilitarian ethical theorists have repeatedly claimed that one should not do this, but use more common sense moral rules. But the subjects under scrutiny in this study seem to be doing exactly what a utilitarian thus tells people not to do. It would therefore seem that labelling them "utilitarians" or "utilitarian moral judges" is a bit problematic, since they exhibit a response behavior in the study inconsistent with standard utilitarian ideas on decision making. Moreover, the examples/vignettes used (as they are here described) seem in fact not to certify even use of a theoretically utilitarian calculation, since such a calculation would demand certification of all sort of side-effects, strategic consideration of the impact on one's own future psychology, concern for the overall importance (in terms of consequences) of observing established societal rules and so on, but merely a tendency to choose/decide on/justify acts in light of the outcomes given in the examples/vignettes. The presence of such a tendency, however, does not imply either adherence to utilitarian ideas (whether or not one knows about the word "utilitarianism") or behavior in compliance with such ideas. Alternatively, psychology and related disciplines have invented a new and separate meaning for the term "utilitarianism", in which case the connection between the investigations of moral philosophers and empirical scientists forming the start of this article can either be questioned or, at least, is in need of redescription. At the very least, the definition of "utilitarianism" and what it means for a person to be a "utilitarian" in the terminology used in this and similar studies should be made clear in order to forestall confusion.

2. What the study seems to establish is a correlation between two things, (A) what is called the "utilitarian" - "non-utilitarian" response variations, and (B) degrees of concern for those parties sacrificed in the scenarios/vignettes used in the study. However, I wonder how the methodology can establish that values on any of these variables explain or "predict" each other any more either of the ways. That is, doesn't the data just as well support the proposition that if one is disposed to reason morally in a way that justifies sacrificing one person for the sake of the many, this makes one less likely to feel concern for the person thus sacrificed. This, of course, is not to question the idea of the role of emotion in moral judgement, but such a role is, of course, consistent also with the idea that moral judgement influence emotion.

No competing interests declared.