Beyond sacrificial harm: A two-dimensional model of utilitarian psychology

Psychological Review 125 (2):131-164 (2018)
  Copy   BIBTEX

Abstract

Recent research has relied on trolley-type sacrificial moral dilemmas to study utilitarian versus nonutili- tarian modes of moral decision-making. This research has generated important insights into people’s attitudes toward instrumental harm—that is, the sacrifice of an individual to save a greater number. But this approach also has serious limitations. Most notably, it ignores the positive, altruistic core of utilitarianism, which is characterized by impartial concern for the well-being of everyone, whether near or far. Here, we develop, refine, and validate a new scale—the Oxford Utilitarianism Scale—to dissociate individual differences in the ‘negative’ (permissive attitude toward instrumental harm) and ‘positive’ (impartial concern for the greater good) dimensions of utilitarian thinking as manifested in the general population. We show that these are two independent dimensions of proto-utilitarian tendencies in the lay population, each exhibiting a distinct psychological profile. Empathic concern, identification with the whole of humanity, and concern for future generations were positively associated with impartial beneficence but negatively associated with instrumental harm; and although instrumental harm was associated with subclinical psychopathy, impartial beneficence was associated with higher religiosity. Importantly, although these two dimensions were independent in the lay population, they were closely associated in a sample of moral philosophers. Acknowledging this dissociation between the instrumental harm and impartial beneficence components of utilitarian thinking in ordinary people can clarify existing debates about the nature of moral psychology and its relation to moral philosophy as well as generate fruitful avenues for further research.

Similar books and articles

Is Mill an Illiberal Utilitarian?Jonathan Riley - 2015 - Ethics 125 (3):781-796.
Causal Inefficacy and Utilitarian Arguments Against the Consumption of Factory-Farmed Products.Moti Gorin - 2017 - Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 30 (4):585-594.
Environmental Harms, Causation, and Act Utilitarianism.Amy White - 2004 - Environmental Ethics 26 (2):189-203.

Analytics

Added to PP
2017-12-22

Downloads
461 (#23,471)

6 months
78 (#13,834)

Historical graph of downloads
How can I increase my downloads?

Author Profiles

References found in this work

Reasons and Persons.Derek Parfit - 1984 - Oxford University Press.
What do philosophers believe?David Bourget & David J. Chalmers - 2014 - Philosophical Studies 170 (3):465-500.
Practical Ethics.Peter Singer - 1979 - Cambridge University Press.
On Virtue Ethics.Rosalind Hursthouse - 1999 - Oxford University Press.

View all 79 references / Add more references