The rise of utilitarianism: Why we should be worried

The rise of utilitarianism can be seen in studies of how people respond to the trolley problem.

The moral conundrum designed in 1967 by the English philosopher Philippa Foot presents three scenarios and asks whether one is better than the next.

In the first, “switch” scenario, an empty boxcar is heading towards five workers on the main track and will kill them all unless you pull a switch diverting it onto a side track where one person will be killed.

In the second, “loop” scenario, you can divert the trolley onto a side track that bends back onto the main track. It means killing one person in the knowledge that the collision will bring the trolley to a halt, preventing further casualties on the main line.

In the third, “footbridge” scenario you can stop the train killing the five workers only by pushing a man off a bridge above the track into the train’s path, bringing it to a halt.

Trolley problem

Image: PNAS

In each situation, one person gets killed to save five but with the loop, and more so, footbridge options the manner of the sacrifice is perceived as more troubling.

In initial surveys, only about 10 per cent of people would agree to push the stranger off the bridge when presented with the choice. Significantly, that 10 per cent scored high on a measure of psychopathic personality traits, such as lack of empathy, glibness and impulsivity.

However, a 2017 trolleyology study – yes, it has now become an entire sub-discipline – examined surveys over several decades and it discovered the endorsement rate for “footbridge” has been slowly creeping up. This “begins with individuals born approximately in the 1960s, and accelerates among birth cohorts after 1990”, the US and Brazilian research team writes.

“Recent cohorts (often referred to as millennials) are significantly more likely to support utilitarian sacrifice than their predecessors (especially baby boomers, born before 1970) – a divide which may contribute to patent disagreement between younger and older adults in real-word debates about ethics and policy.”

A major study published in February, analysing the responses of 70,000 participants in 42 countries to the trolley problem, shows just how far things have shifted. Across all countries, the average endorsement rate for the footbridge sacrifice was 51 per cent. It was higher in most western countries (61 per cent in the US; 56 per cent in Ireland).

Should we be worried? Yes, I think we should. Bernard Williams’ words come to mind: “If utilitarianism is true . . . then it is better that people should not believe in utilitarianism.”

For more see here from The Irish Times: