Home / General / The drunk utilitarian

The drunk utilitarian


Research! From France!

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 (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.

Let me suggest an alternative interpretation. One way to characterize pushing the fat man is as the utility-maximizing choice. Another way to characterize it is as The Bold Thing That Needs Doing. Perhaps the more drunk people are more inclined to undertake TBTTND than sober people irrespective of its utilitarian or deontological character. (Examples might include calling up an ex, quitting one’s job, eating a giant omelette at 2:00 AM, etc.) The perceived preference for utility maximization may not, I suspect, be as central to finding here as the abstract (I don’t have access to the study either) would seem to suggest the authors think it is.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • Linkedin
  • Pinterest
  • Lee Rudolph

    What always astounds me (in what I’ve read about Trolley Problem experiments, and in discussions with Trolley Problem fans; but I concede that my experiences of both kinds, though plentiful enough for me, may well be both inadequate and unrepresentative) is that Trolley Problem experimenters (and lecturers) and fans apparently refuse to take into account the social relationship between the experimental subjects (or lecture audience members) and the experimenter (or lecturer). Subjects (to some extent) and students (to a huge extent) are having a very unnatural frame imposed upon them. Whatever’s going on, it ain’t ethology.

    • Linnaeus

      Whatever’s going on, it ain’t ethology.

      It would be if the subjects were cats, dogs, or perhaps monkeys.

      • njorl

        The cat would switch the trolley so it runs over the dog instead of the monkey, particularly if the monkey could work a can opener.

    • djw

      Yes, absolutely. Occasionally you encounter the view that by stripping people’s moral reasoning of its ordinary contexts, you’re able to get closer to the heart of it, ignoring that the new forms of social interaction you’re creating to extract the data is itself a distinct social context, rather than the absence of one.

    • sleepyirv

      It’s strange to ask how a person’s moral institution works in a scenario that cannot happen. The Trolley Problem gives you perfect information about the outcome of your action even though in real life you’ll be, at best, working with difficult probabilities in the split second you get to make your decision. Add that the very unnatural frame of the scenario, and I cannot understand why anyone bothers with it.

    • sonamib

      Well, there’s the Ultimate Trolley Problem which does take into account any morally fraught decision you might ever face :

      Consider the following case:

      On Twin Earth, a brain in a vat is at the wheel of a runaway trolley. There are only two options that the brain can take: the right side of the fork in the track or the left side of the fork. There is no way in sight of derailing or stopping the trolley and the brain is aware of this, for the brain knows trolleys. The brain is causally hooked up to the trolley such that the brain can determine the course which the trolley will take.

      On the right side of the track there is a single railroad worker, Jones, who will definitely be killed if the brain steers the trolley to the right. If the railman on the right lives, he will go on to kill five men for the sake of killing them, but in doing so will inadvertently save the lives of thirty orphans (one of the five men he will kill is planning to destroy a bridge that the orphans’ bus will be crossing later that night). One of the orphans that will be killed would have grown up to become a tyrant who would make good utilitarian men do bad things. Another of the orphans would grow up to become G.E.M. Anscombe, while a third would invent the pop-top can.

      If the brain in the vat chooses the left side of the track, the trolley will definitely hit and kill a railman on the left side of the track, “Leftie” and will hit and destroy ten beating hearts on the track that could (and would) have been transplanted into ten patients in the local hospital that will die without donor hearts. These are the only hearts available, and the brain is aware of this, for the brain knows hearts. If the railman on the left side of the track lives, he too will kill five men, in fact the same five that the railman on the right would kill. However, “Leftie” will kill the five as an unintended consequence of saving ten men: he will inadvertently kill the five men rushing the ten hearts to the local hospital for transplantation. A further result of “Leftie’s” act would be that the busload of orphans will be spared. Among the five men killed by “Leftie” are both the man responsible for putting the brain at the controls of the trolley, and the author of this example. If the ten hearts and “Leftie” are killed by the trolley, the ten prospective heart-transplant patients will die and their kidneys will be used to save the lives of twenty kidney-transplant patients, one of whom will grow up to cure cancer, and one of whom will grow up to be Hitler. There are other kidneys and dialysis machines available, however the brain does not know kidneys, and this is not a factor.

      Assume that the brain’s choice, whatever it turns out to be, will serve as an example to other brains-in-vats and so the effects of his decision will be amplified. Also assume that if the brain chooses the right side of the fork, an unjust war free of war crimes will ensue, while if the brain chooses the left fork, a just war fraught with war crimes will result. Furthermore, there is an intermittently active Cartesian demon deceiving the brain in such a manner that the brain is never sure if it is being deceived.

      QUESTION: What should the brain do?

      • Caepan

        Um… punt?

  • Let me suggest an alternative interpretation.


    I’d like to see these results integrated into Michael Sandel’s wildly popular freshman intro lectures at Harvard. (These are online in various places, if you want to know, what one must suppose is, The Correct Way to Think About the Trolley Problem from the Standpoint of Philosophy. Though, probably it isn’t.)

  • Jordan

    They stole my research project!

  • njorl

    One thing to keep in mind, it has been scientifically proven that small people are more likely to stop a trolley than large people. The small people get sucked into the works and stop it while the large people merely get pushed aside.

    So whatever you do, don’t push a big fat guy in front of a trolley. And don’t harvest me them for organs, either. They’re all full of cholesterol.

  • xq

    It’s just a correlational study. Maybe utilitarians like to drink more?

    • sonamib

      I favor this interpretation. Alcohol is certainly the cheapest legal way to get intoxicated.

  • The Temporary Name

    eating a giant omelette at 2:00 AM

    This really depends on how many people the giant omelette is threatening.

  • Bill Murray

    another alternative theory

    drunk people like to push fat people around

  • J. Otto Pohl

    I am against utilitarianism at least in its more extreme forms because there is no way to reconcile it with the concept of universal human rights and dignity. It is a philosophy that easily accomodates the tyranny of the majority and the denial of minority rights. It is undeniable that the vast majority of the descendents of those that survied Stalin’s regime were much, much, much better off materially than their ancestors. It is also undeniable that this happened in large part because of forced industrialization and urbanization under Stalin’s reign which was based upon agricultural collectivization, forced labor, and massive state violence against civilians. Yet, a moral system that says you have the right to exterminate 10% of the population to secure a better economic future for the vast majority of the children and grandchildren of the other 90% still seems wrong.

  • Choosing drunks to be the Deciderer for the tough decisions worked so well with G W Bush.

  • In two field studies with a combined sample of 103 men and women recruited at two bars in Grenoble, France

    Let me suggest an alternative suggestion: The researchers were getting flack from their PhD supervisors about the amount of time they spent at the pub, and they needed to come up with an excuse in a hurry.

  • LosGatosCA

    IOW, The range of superior judgments from drunk people is not limited just to endangering people while driving, impressing their bosses and colleagues at work functions, and seeing the inner beauty of the waitress with the eye patch and broken arm at the dive bar in Greeley at 2am.

    • I have fallen in love with this comment and would like to tell it my entire life story.

  • ajay

    Another alternative: many of us will have had the experience of thinking, while sober: “This person I am talking to is clearly a fool, but politeness demands that I conceal my opinion, and instead give a sensible and reasoned answer to their extremely silly question.” Many of us will also have been in the same situation while drunk, and ignored the demands of politeness in favour of giving a very silly answer that will make it clear that we think they’re a fool.

    Another another alternative: maybe asking trolley problem questions is a common chat-up line in French bars (perhaps incorporated into some sort of Voigt-Kampff test) and the subjects were trying to impress the hot utilitarian they thought was coming on to them.

It is main inner container footer text