Thursday, April 5, 2007

Utility Vs. Morality

I was reading on Slate about a study that purports to show that people with damage to their ventromedial prefrontal cortex will, when put into a situation in which they must chose, make choices that are more utilitarian than moral. The researchers claim that they're uncovering evidence that common theories of morality are hardwired into the normal, healthy human brain. Their study design was a simple one: and part of it consisted of them creating a number of scenarios that involved choices. One choice would be the utilitarian thing to do, and the other was the moral thing to do. They then posed these scenarios to people with the brain damage, and some without, and noted the differences in their answers.

I downloaded and read the scenarios, and I'm not sure that I agree with the assertion that the scenarios measure "utility versus morality." Most of the scenarios, to my mind, posit competing harms - nasty outcome A versus nasty outcome B. Nasty outcome B is commonly a subset, or some other less severe variation on nasty outcome A, but requires that the subject actively participate in it. But the avoidance of nasty outcome A would be, under normal circumstances, a moral imperative itself, given the typical Western value system. If you're on a lifeboat, and the lifeboat is at risk of sinking, you would be expected to attempt to remedy this state of affairs. Risking everyone going to a watery grave out of sheer laziness is considered unacceptable to most of us today. As a layperson, I see these sorts of scenarios as measuring the relative levels of importance of "greater good" morality versus "personal blamelessness" morality. As a general rule, most people (at least in public) tend to lean towards the personal blamelessness model of moral behavior. Unsurprising, as stereotypical Christianity sees blameworthy acts as sinful, but tends to be more forgiving about situations where one might reasonably see an affirmative duty to intervene, but where there is a possible risk to self.

The scenarios that pit mere personal convenience or desire against altruistic behavior don't pass muster with me, either. The idea that you could describe letting a man bleed to death to avoid getting blood on your leather seats as "utilitarian" is one that I can't bring myself to take seriously. By that standard, the most selfishly petty and materialistic behaviors we undertake can be considered utilitarian; most crimes could be considered "useful" to the criminal in one way or another. And I suppose that it goes without saying that I'm amazed that researchers would hold up the needy machinations of abusive significant others as "utilitarian" behavior.

Accordingly, I have trouble taking this whole exercise as a valid test of the given variable. To be fair, coming up with a reasonably simple scenario that actually pits a utilitarian position against a moral one is not easy, especially when you also want to give people a heightened sense of emotional conflict between the choices. (And, perhaps more importantly, that both the utility and morality of any given action are subjective for many people.) But as it stands, I don't think that the scenarios, as written, actually represent what most moral philosophers would contend is the Utilitarian viewpoint on life. Mainly because they're too limited and short-sighted. (I'm going to leave aside the idea that the limits placed on the choices were overly arbitrary, and relied on the subject thinking that there was always a 100% chance of a given choice leading to a given outcome.) The researchers claim to have concocted their tests around "strict utilitarian thinking." While it may seem to make sense that carving up a single person against their will, so their organs can be used to save five dying people serves a utilitarian function, the longer term consequences of such medical policy can't simply be left out of the equation, and seriously compromise its utility. And paying to have someone sexually assaulted just so you can be their hero when you comfort them? Selfish and needy - most definitely. Utilitarian in any reasonably broad sense of the word - absolutely NOT. If the researchers seriously believe that such practices would be commonplace under a "strictly utilitarian" worldview, no wonder "humans are neurologically unfit" for such a system. If we weren't, we'd consistently butcher our children for snacks when the Cheetos ran low.

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