Welcome to the Nexus of Ethics, Psychology, Morality, Philosophy and Health Care

Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, philosophy and health care

Thursday, December 4, 2014

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

By G. Kahane, J. Everett, Brian Earp, Miguel Farias, and J. Savulescu
Cognition, Vol 134, Jan 2015, pp 193-209.


• ‘Utilitarian’ judgments in moral dilemmas were associated with egocentric attitudes and less identification with humanity.
• They were also associated with lenient views about clear moral transgressions.
• ‘Utilitarian’ judgments were not associated with views expressing impartial altruist concern for others.
• This lack of association remained even when antisocial tendencies were controlled for.
• So-called ‘utilitarian’ judgments do not express impartial concern for the greater good.


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.

The entire article is here.