The drunk utilitarian

by on October 28, 2014 at 2:36 am in Data Source, Food and Drink, Philosophy | Permalink

Here is a new paper by Aaron A. Duke and Laurent Bègue:

The hypothetical moral dilemma known as the trolley problem has become a methodological cornerstone in the psychological study of moral reasoning and yet, there remains considerable debate as to the meaning of utilitarian responding in these scenarios. It is unclear whether utilitarian responding results primarily from increased deliberative reasoning capacity or from decreased aversion to harming others. In order to clarify this question, we conducted two field studies to examine the effects of alcohol intoxication on utilitarian responding. Alcohol holds promise in clarifying the above debate because it impairs both social cognition (i.e., empathy) and higher-order executive functioning. Hence, the direction of the association between alcohol and utilitarian vs. non-utilitarian responding should inform the relative importance of both deliberative and social processing systems in influencing utilitarian preference. In two field studies with a combined sample of 103 men and women recruited at two bars in Grenoble, France, participants were presented with a moral dilemma assessing their willingness to sacrifice one life to save five others. Participants’ blood alcohol concentrations were found to positively correlate with utilitarian preferences [emphasis added] (r = .31, p < .001) suggesting a stronger role for impaired social cognition than intact deliberative reasoning in predicting utilitarian responses in the trolley dilemma. Implications for Greene’s dual-process model of moral reasoning are discussed.

The gated version is here.  The original pointer is from SteveStuartWilliams.

1 Steve Sailer October 28, 2014 at 3:08 am

I’ve got a question about pushing a fat guy to his death to stop a trolley: Aren’t fat guys hard to push around? It seems like basic physics. I’ve noticed that the Denver Broncos employ a bunch of highly paid fat guys to protect Peyton Manning and that they are really hard to push around. In fact, if you tried to murder a Bronco offensive lineman, he’d probably push you to your death instead.

Next question: Does the Trolley Question make more sense if you’ve been doing shots?

2 Drunk on caffeine October 28, 2014 at 4:00 am

>Does the Trolley Question make more sense if you’ve been doing shots?

That might just be the explanation.

Also, shots might help with the cognitive dissonance from the motivated stopping that comes afterward. You know, where the pro-utilitarian responders fail to consider all the bigger implications of utilitarianism, not to mention the necessary chance of lifestyle.

3 albert magnus October 28, 2014 at 7:20 am

I believe the variant of the trolley problem presented in this case is the one where you just push a button and it switches tracks where there is only one person instead of five. The fat man version is pretty stupid, imo.

4 Careless October 29, 2014 at 10:03 pm

You know how they sometimes have trouble giving third worlders IQ and other tests because they just can’t get past the hypothetical part?

You’re doing that, Sailer.

5 bob October 30, 2014 at 10:09 pm

Yeah, but if you are successful in your endeavors, you may end up detailing that trolley. Even if you pushed a skinny guy in front of a trolley it’ll end up with a police investigation. So as a utilitarian, it’s against your best interest to push anything in front is your means of transport, as you won’t get to where you want to be as quickly as possible.

6 Asher October 28, 2014 at 4:38 am

This reminds me of a Dilbert strip in which his colleague makes fun of him for reading a book about WII golf. Golf isn’t really a sport, and playing WII is not playing a sport, and reading a book about playing is also not playing. So he instead of say PLAYING TENNIS he is READING A BOOK about COMPUTER PLAYING of a FAKE SPORT. He is three removes from an athlete.

We face moral dilemmas all the time, but in our entire lifetimes we are unlikely to encounter anything like the dilemma of actively harming one person to save others. If we did, it wouldn’t look like the trolley problem and if it did we would be confounded by more practical dilemmas, not least the one pointed out by Steve. (I am not being facetious, if the scenario is intended to be realistic then certainly we should expect people to take practical considerations into account and it is in fact pretty hard to push people around.) In any case, we are not confronting people with the dilemma but only with questions about a dilemma.

So instead of RESOLVING DILEMMAS these research subjects are ANSWERING QUESTIONS about PRACTICALLY MANAGING a HIGHLY ARTIFICIAL ethical dilemma.

Substantive contribution to our knowledge of actual moral reasoning: negligible. Dilbert is learning more about athletics from his WII golf book than we are learning about moral reasoning from these experiments.

7 Drunk on caffeine October 28, 2014 at 4:48 am

I am continually faced with the dilemma of actively harming one person (me) to help many others, at least if you count economic harm as a real harm and strategic donations as real help.

8 The Other Jim October 28, 2014 at 10:28 am

Yes, we all face moral dilemmas daily, but not deadly ones.

Asher’s point is that the trolley dilemma is a stupid and useless question. But he ignores the fact that it provides economics professors something to kill their time with. So there’s that.

9 Drunk on caffeine October 28, 2014 at 10:35 am

Well, the usual argument goes that since donations can save lives, we are indeed facing deadly dilemmas every day, e.g. see Louis CK:

10 Ricardo October 28, 2014 at 12:08 pm

Here is a contrived but not completely far-fetched example. On the ballot next week is a referendum requiring the use of seat belts. Should you support it? Such a law might plausibly save X lives each year. But it takes Y hours of police time to enforce it, and that means Z crimes will be committed that otherwise would have been prevented. If you find yourself asking yourself how large X is, compared to Z, then you are engaging in a trolley problem.

The usual response to this is to change the subject. Examples: “This is a question of human rights, not a matter of costs versus benefits.” “Police don’t really prevent crime anyway, they just clean up after the fact.” “Enforcement will be secondary, and so will not consume any additional resources.” Whatever. The point is, we can construct reasonably plausible scenarios which are essentially trolley problems.

11 JWatts October 28, 2014 at 4:13 pm

I think in response to that, I’d like to see the trolley problem restated. Instead of one person dying versus five people dying, let’s make it political. (US centric) If you could push a button the night before the next Presidential election, and the candidate you like least would die, would you do it?

12 Careless October 29, 2014 at 11:00 pm

No, his VP would get elected, and that’s likely worse.

13 TMC October 28, 2014 at 6:18 pm

““This is a question of human rights,” This is not changing the subject.
Question is “Should you support it?” Answer given is valid.

14 Peter Gerdes November 14, 2014 at 9:05 am

It is relevant to their moral REASONING not the morality of their ACTIONS.

Yes, contribution to how we decide how to act in cases of conflicting moral drives might be very small but so what?

As a philosopher one is naturally interested in not “what people do when the shit hits the fan” but “what is it right to do when the shit hits the fan.” Generally speaking we tend to think that answers to this question are more likely to be correct, less self-interested or simply reflexive application of a social norm when they are the result of prior consideration about when and what we should do in hypothetical situations. Indeed, people clearly show a great deal of post-hoc justification and inconsistent behavior when acting in the moment and no one believes this is really what morality requires.

If we are to assume we have any access to what is truly moral it must somehow be through our moral intuitions. If discovering this intuitions during hypothetical supposition rather than in the moment of crisis is regarded as a more likely road to the truth than it stands to reason we should want to know about people’s moral intuitions conducted during hypothetical questioning not how they actually choose to behave.

Since the trolly problem question comes primarily out of philosophical research (is this an intuition that is widely shared and if so can it be explained in a way that sheds light on which answer is better justificed) it is the right question for this purpose.

15 Ray Lopez October 28, 2014 at 4:44 am

Nice use of a Dilbert comic strip to illustrate your point, no pun. I suppose we could have the researchers do actual field work with the Trolley Problem, using live subjects and a real trolley, but that would require a trip by train to the penal camps of North Korea, where they probably do this sort of ‘research’ every once in a while, from accounts I’ve read from dissidents.

16 dearieme October 28, 2014 at 6:24 am

“Alcohol holds promise in clarifying the above debate because it impairs both social cognition (i.e., empathy)…”: really? Does it mean that those drunks who assure you that “I love you, pal” don’t mean it? Aw shucks.

17 Rafael Pereira October 28, 2014 at 6:39 am


18 dearieme October 28, 2014 at 6:42 am

I’m still contemplating the link below “Jared Diamond update and how he raised his two children like Pygmies”. Could anyone sober pair “raising” with “pygmies” without a small alarm going off in his mind?

19 Thor October 28, 2014 at 12:52 pm

Well, pygmies ARE easier to push in front of trolleys than the Bronco’s offensive line…

20 Ricardo October 28, 2014 at 4:37 pm

If it takes five pygmies to stop a trolley, but only one offensive lineman…

Now of course if it were a Dallas lineman, the decision would be easy. HTTR!

21 Jeff Kaufman October 28, 2014 at 6:53 am

What if we have some sort of taboo against making this kind of tradeoff, and alcohol makes us more able to ignore the taboo?

22 The Other Jim October 28, 2014 at 10:30 am

Sober people are keenly interested in what other people think of them, and whether they are behaving and answering questions in a socially approved way. Drunk people don’t give a crap.

And there you have it. Can I have my degree now?

23 Matt October 28, 2014 at 7:03 am

Oh this is very silly indeed. People who have chosen to get more drunk at a bar are more utilitarian – and we are supposed to infer a causal relationship between alcohol and utilitarian preferences? This would just about be the easiest question to answer in a lab experiment. We really cannot read anything into this *at all*.

24 Denis October 28, 2014 at 4:07 pm

Indeed. I’m surprised at how strongly the authors concluded despite the clear statistical shortcomings.

25 Bernard Yomtov October 29, 2014 at 9:28 am

Exactly right.

Maybe those who drink more are more utilitarian, drunk or sober.

I take it that the more “utilitarian” response is to let one die to save five. Is that right? Why does making that choice require “impaired cognition” anyway?

And maybe sober (less drunk) people are more likely to provide profound-seeming answers they don’t really agree with.

And no. I’ve never seen the great genius of trolley problems.

26 Derek Lowe October 28, 2014 at 7:41 am

This immediately brings to mind the Jeremy Bentham, a pub near University College, London. Booze and utilitarianism under one roof, as apparently is only proper.

27 Go Kings Go! October 28, 2014 at 2:05 pm

This brought to mind WKRP in Cincinnati, where they ran trhe same rest on Johnny Fever to test his reflexes.

Also, Herodotus’s description if Persian decision making: once drunk, one sober and proceed only if unanimous.

28 rayward October 28, 2014 at 7:50 am

If Duke and Begue were serious researchers, they would have measured the utilitarian preferences of those drunk on whiskey, those drunk on gin, those drunk on wine, those drunk on beer, and those drunk on marijuana. How are we to know which mind altering drug to use without serious research. [I think I smell a rat: this “research is more likely a parody of utilitarianism.]

29 Thor October 28, 2014 at 12:55 pm

This is true. The subjects were French. They were tipsy on wine. They should have run the experiment on Russians, drunk on vodka: “Bah, Ukraine or the Baltics? I spit me of Ukraine or Baltics!”

30 Bill October 28, 2014 at 8:58 am

What about the person who didn’t have any trouble thawing his innocent neighbor under the trolley to save others.

Dont stand next to him.

31 Granite26 October 28, 2014 at 11:30 am

Utilitarians get more drunk at bars. Seems like a pretty obvious on the face of it result. You’d have to be pretty non-utilitarian to go to a bar and stay sober.

32 Dan in Philly October 28, 2014 at 12:02 pm

I’ve always thought of the dilemma as thus:
The people on the tracks know the risks of walking on the tracks. You have to assume they are compensated for the risks they are taking (either through $$ or some other incentive such as thrills) and therefore you interfering with the outcome is adjusting the outcome they should have known to expect when they took the chance.
Let’s suppose the group of 5 are thrill seekers who want to see how close they can come to being run over before jumping out of the way, and the 1 is an innocent bystander who knows and relies upon the fact that the train will not be coming his way. If you know all that, are you less likely to switch the tracks, fat guy or not? What if the group of 5 are all highly compensated workers who get risk pay for doing such dangerous work, and the one opted out of the high risk due to his concerns for leaving his wife a widow. You have interfered with all of that.
I consider the only ethical thing to do is nothing at all. But after a few drinks I doubt I would be able to reason at such a level and who knows what decisions I would make?

33 Drunk on caffeine October 28, 2014 at 12:56 pm

But, perhaps the risk compensation has an inbuilt discount for the probability that someone like you is present during an emergency situation, ready to switch to the lower casualty path. And perhaps the bystander’s decision to take a walk there already took into account the small probability that someone like you might flick a switch in an emergency situation and reroute a train his way.

>I consider the only ethical thing to do is nothing at all.

No, but for egoists it might be the most rational thing to do. As soon as you interact with a situation, everything that happens (through omission or action) will be your fault. If you can plausibly demonstrate ignorance or incapability to affect outcomes, you’re off the hook. This is why people will jump to excuses like, “All charities are frauds or ineffective”, or, “My donations will just make poor people more lazy”, and why no one in Germany during the holocaust had any idea that the holocaust was going on (after the fact, of course).

Also beware tainted altruism. If you make someone better off, but you also benefit, or if you make someone better off but not as much as you could, rest assured you will be the devil’s second cousin. Avoid any connection or association with the less fortunate, and your moral status will be pure as snow.

34 RoyL October 28, 2014 at 1:08 pm

It is action vs inaction

If I pushed the fat guy I would probably spend much of the rest of my life in bars, if I didn’t, after a period of time I would decide I made the right decision. Humans are really good at self justification when they didn’t do anything, not so good otherwise.

We all feel more culpable for what we do than for what we don’t do.

If I was incapable of guilt, I wouldn’t bother to do anything, and the fat man still wouldn’t be pushed.

Knowing all this I fail to see the utilitarian basis for pushing the fat man.

35 Sam October 28, 2014 at 3:46 pm

Not a very surprising result given the surfeit of utilitarians on the autism spectrum (including Bentham himself).

36 Pshrnk October 28, 2014 at 10:09 pm

Severely restrictive quarantines in ebola like situations might approximate the trolley problem.

37 Lord October 29, 2014 at 9:58 am

The trolley problem is much a cudgel to beat utilitarianism into people with the only distinction between those that accept the premise to play the game and those that rebel to say no they won’t.

38 li zhi October 29, 2014 at 10:34 am

These types of “experiments” are exactly why “social sciences”, as practiced, is an oxymoron. H.S.Sapiens has individual, familial, tribal, and global priorities/interests. Asking questions about behavior in new situations is equivalent to asking someone a ‘what if’ question about their faithfulness when exposed to a significant enticement. The result will have about zero predictive value; my guess most highly correlated with their expressed opinion about Truth, Beauty, and Apple Pie (or the American Way, take your pick). Most people earn their paychecks in a job where they could fairly easily be replaced (including virtually all academics). Hence showing up at work by definition harms at least one other person. Unless you support more than the average number of dependants, then you are doing more harm than benefit. Not sure why you need a Trolley to ask about choices of this type – we all make choices every day which directly (and obviously indirectly) result in both harm and benefit. Does anybody really believe we’re consistent about it?

39 Peter Gerdes November 14, 2014 at 9:08 am

That only matters if your goal is predicting behavior. That isn’t the background for these studies or why they are done. They are motivated by a desire to understand people’s seemingly irreconcilable philosophical intuitions when considering the hypothetical not how they would act. See my comment above.

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