Utilitarianism wins outright part 9
A brief methodological clarification and then some notes on DPT
The bible says lots of things that seem revolting at first.
Leviticus 21:9 “And the daughter of any priest, if she profane herself by playing the whore, she profaneth her father: she shall be burnt with fire.”
Leviticus 24:16 New International Version (NIV) 16 anyone who blasphemes the name of the Lord is to be put to death. The entire assembly must stone them.
Second Kings 2:23-25 NIV Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. "Get out of here, baldy!" they said. "Get out of here, baldy!" He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys.
Numbers 31:17-18 Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man intimately. But all the girls who have not known man intimately, spare for yourselves.
It also has lots of things that seem contradictory.
“… I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” — Genesis 32:30
“No man hath seen God at any time…”– John 1:18
“… the earth abideth for ever.” — Ecclesiastes 1:4
“… the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.” — 2 Peter 3:10
However, Christians hold that the bible is divinely inspired, that the author of the bible is the greatest author in history, fully infallible and literally omniscient. If this were true, what would we expect? Well, we’d expect the bible to be brilliant, fully devoid of errors. We’d expect that every time the bible says some seemingly horrific thing, it turns out to be a piece of deep wisdom, that’s merely difficult to appreciate.
I have neither the time nor desire to delve into the defenses given by Christians of each of the aforementioned passages. I tend not to think that they’re compelling at all. However, for those who think that Christianity is correct, I’ve long since believed that they should use this as an argument for Christianity. Christianity makes the prediction that the bible should be a brilliant document, either fully or nearly fully infallible. Every seeming error should be wise if properly conceived. So if it turned out that the bible had no errors, that all the contradictions relied on misunderstandings and horrors relied on either foolishness or misunderstandings, that would be very good evidence for Christianity. Biblical brilliance is shocking on atheism, yet a straightforward prediction of theism.
However, Christians don’t tend to present this as a positive argument. The reason seems to be because the passages generally aren’t defensible. They’re certainly not sufficiently defensible to provide evidence of biblical brilliance.
I, unlike Christians, tend to think the moral judgements espoused by my preferred theory are defensible on independent grounds. If utilitarianism was the correct ethical system, we’d expect its injunctions to be independently justified, even when they don’t seem to be at first. This is a straightforward prediction of utilitarianism being correct. So to test utilitarianism, I see if its injunctions are, in fact, independently defensible. Every single time, they’d found to be defensible.
Much like in the case of Christianity, this provides strong evidence for my theory. Showing utilitarianism’s infallibility across a wide range of cases strongly supports utilitarianism.
This isn’t just intended to rebut the common arguments against utilitarianism. Instead, it argues that the failures of those counterarguments supports utilitarianism. Utilitarianism turning out to be right, even where it seems counterintuitive at first, would be very likely if utilitarianism were correct, but very unlikely if it weren’t correct.
Retrodictions are much easier than predictions. It’s far easier to claim that your theory best explains a phenomena after that phenomena has been discovered. Utilitarianism is able to, unlike all other ethical theories that don’t rely at least partially on utilitarianism’s judgements, make correct predictions about what ethical judgements will turn out to be justified upon reflection. So far, I’ve argued that 10 of utilitarianism’s judgements are all justified, largely on independent grounds. There are dozens of other cases where utilitarianism’s counterintuitive judgements turn out to be justified.
What else does utilitarianism accurately predict? Well, it accurately predicts the results of the dual process theory. The dual process theory predicts that more careful, reflective judgements will be more likely to lead to utilitarian conclusions. If utilitarianism were correct, we’d expect greater reflection by smarter people to point towards utilitarianism. This turns out to be the case. Let’s examine the evidence.
One 2012 study finds that asking people to think more makes them more utilitarian. When they have less time to think, they become conversely less utilitarian. If reasoning lead to utilitarianism, this is what we’d expect. More time to reason would make people proportionately more utilitarian.
A 2021 study, compiling the largest available dataset, concluded across 8 different studies that greater reasoning ability is correlated with being more utilitarian. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex’s length correlates with general reasoning ability. It’s length also correlates with being more utilitarian. Coincidence? I think not1.
Yet another study finds that being under greater cognitive pressure makes people less utilitarian. This is exactly what we’d predict. Much like being under cognitive strain makes people less likely to solve math problems correctly, it also makes them less likely to solve moral questions correctly. Correctly being in the utilitarian way.
Yet the data doesn’t stop there. A 2014 study found a few interesting things. It looked at patients with damaged VMPC’s—a brain region responsible for lots of emotional judgements. It concluded that they were far more utilitarian than the general population. This is exactly what we’d predict if utilitarianism were caused by good reasoning and careful reflection, and alternative theories were caused by emotions. Inducing positive emotions in people conversely makes them more utilitarian—which is what we’d expect if negative emotions were driving people not to accept utilitarian results.
This theory is reasonably contested—however, I’ve done about a semester’s worth of research in it for one of my classes. The evidence overwhelmingly favors the utilitarian results. The contrary evidence almost always serves merely to show that utilitarian judgements are correlated with lack of empathy and with sociopathy. This is true, but doesn’t undercut the DPT. Utilitarian judgements can be caused either by lack of empathy or by greater reflection.
This study argues that drinking lots of alcohol makes people more utilitarian. This is true (probably), however, alcohol reduces emotional inhibition, which explains the results.
This study says that thinking about math makes people more utilitarian, but reasoning about other things can make people more utilitarian or more deontological. This study is weird and is some evidence against the theory, but is not decisive. It’s also consistent with utilitarianism being correct. Reasoning can make people more consistent, but it can make their views more wrong if they attempt to form a coherent web with their false beliefs.
The last piece of data that’s worth discussing is this which compared the utilitarianism of people with ADHD to that of people without it. It concluded that there wasn’t substantial variance which is surprising on the DPT. If it were true, it seems it would predict that more impulsive people would be less utilitarian. A few things are worth noting.
1 This study found that people with ADHD were slightly less utilitarian, just not as much as the DPT would predict. It’s still some evidence.
2 The sample size was pretty small—only 50 people with ADHD and 134 people without ADHD.
3 People with ADHD differ in other respects from people without ADHD. As this makes clear, ADHD is correlated with lots of other things, which could undermine the reliability of the data.
People with ADHD are evil narcissists 2
As the header suggests, having ADHD is correlated with lots of things which serve as cofounders. People with ADHD are more likely to have personality disorders. ADHD seems to maybe have similar effects to psychopathy and to correlate with reduced empathy. All of these serves as possible cofounders, which make the data inadequate to establish that the conclusion is very likely.
Joshua Greene has written extensively about the DPT and is perhaps its most ardent defender. Overall, the large amounts of data favoring the DPT serves as good evidence for it, and similarly for utilitarianism.
If we consider every other realm for which we can be reasonably certain of the results, the correct results seem correlated with greater reflection. Thinking more should be expected to correlate with getting the right answer.
The popular conservative quip that “facts don’t care about your feelings,” is surprisingly appropriate in the case of normative ethics. Emotions lead people to begin babbling, invoking strange, mysterious entities like rights. Entities that float around doing nothing, until sufficient conditions are met, before a rights violation appears from the ether, making the whole state of affairs bad. Better reasoning leads towards truth, away from deontology and virtue ethics.
Reason imposes ethical demands. Unsurprisingly, better reasoners heed them.
And he disappeared (Descartes joke)
(The header is dark humor, people with ADHD are usually wonderful people. I happen to have ADHD and I’m pretty dang awesome).