Perspectives on Ethics: Guy Kahane

Perspectives on Ethics

Runaway Trolleys or Distant Strangers? How (and How Not) to Study the Psychology of Utilitarianism

Recent work in moral psychology has been heavily influenced by three assumptions: (1) that we can directly map notions and distinctions from ethical theory onto everyday moral psychology; (2) that in this way, we can directly uncover the psychological roots of ethical theories; and finally (3) that this allows us to directly debunk or vindicate such theories. Greene’s work on trolley dilemmas is perhaps the most ambitious example of these assumptions at work. Alas, the relation between ethical theory and the psychology of morals is not that simple. Many have criticized (3) and (2). Here, I will instead largely criticize the first assumption, which is arguably more fundamental. Focusing on the case of utilitarian judgment, I’ll show that a great deal of current research deploys this philosophical notion in a manner that is both simplistic and unhelpful. I will outline a more nuanced framework for thinking about the relation between theories like utilitarianism and ordinary psychology, and report new empirical findings utilizing this framework. These findings strongly suggest that aspects of utilitarianism that go together at the philosophical context are actually independent, and even in tension, in the psychology of ordinary folk. I will end by exploring how such work might shed light on the psychological roots of utilitarianism.

Guy Kahane
Associate Professor
Fellow and Tutor in Philosophy, Pembroke College
University of Oxford

Wed, Sep 20, 2017
04:00 PM - 06:00 PM
Centre for Ethics, University of Toronto
200 Larkin