January 28, 2022

Are they all like Jeremy Bentham?

How appropriate, I’ve always thought, that the father of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, was pickled and placed on display at University College London. Utilitarianism is a vinegary, dour, one-dimensional approach to bioethics.

Now I can wave a peer-reviewed study to support my bias  — which, admittedly, is not necessarily a healthy development. According to The Economist, two academics, at Columbia University and Cornell University, have published a study in the leading journal Cognition of the utilitarian personality type. It is not comfortable reading, at least for utilitarians.

Remember the famous trolley thought experiment? Should you push a fat man onto a railway track to save five people from being run over by a runaway trolley? Ninety percent of people say No. The remaining 10 percent are utilitarians who argue that the fat man should be sacrificed for greater good. The academics studied the personalities of these 10 percent.

“They found a strong link between utilitarian answers to moral dilemmas (push the fat guy off the bridge) and personalities that were psychopathic, Machiavellian or tended to view life as meaningless. Utilitarians, this suggests, may add to the sum of human happiness, but they are not very happy people themselves.”

As The Economist points out “That does not make utilitarianism wrong.” However, it does make you wonder whether appointing utilitarians to hospital ethics committees is a great idea. Any comments?

Michael Cook
How appropriate, I’ve always thought, that the father of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, was pickled and placed on display at University College London. Utilitarianism is a vinegary, dour, one-dimensional approach to bioethics.
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Jeremy Bentham
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