Everyone likes to think of themselves as moral. Objectively evaluating morality is decidedly tricky, though, not least because there’s no clear consensus on what it actually means to be moral.
A group of philosophers and psychologists from Oxford University have created a scale to evaluate one of the most clear-cut and well-known theories of morality: utilitarianism. This theory, first put forward by 18th century British philosopher Jeremy Bentham, argues that action is moral when it creates the maximum happiness for the maximum number of people. Utilitarianism’s focus on consequences states that it’s morally acceptable to actively hurt someone if it means that, overall, more people will benefit as a result.
There’s an online test you can take to assess yourself on this scale. It asks whether you agree with various statements, such as “From a moral point of view, we should feel obliged to give one of our kidneys to a person with kidney failure since we don’t need two kidneys to survive, but really only one to be healthy,” and “It is permissible to torture an innocent person if this would be necessary to provide information to prevent a bomb going off that would kill hundreds of people.” The questions highlight scenarios in which a utilitarian perspective is in conflict with other approaches to morality, such as deontology (which privileges following rules over making decisions based on the consequences of actions.)
Peter Singer, a prominent utilitarian philosopher, helped evaluate the scale. When he himself took the final version of the test, he scored a 61 out of 63—or, “You might be Peter Singer.”
The philosophers created the test to offer an alternative to the Trolley Problem, a dilemma so often used to evaluate utilitarianism that it’s become a cliché. In the Trolley Problem, a train is hurtling down the tracks towards five men stuck in its path. You can pull a lever to move the train onto another set of tracks—but if you do, you’ll kill a single man trapped in the train’s new path. Your dilemma: do you kill the one to save five?
A utilitarian approach states that whichever action allows the greatest number of people to live would be the moral one. This perspective holds in the commonly-referenced related scenario, the “fat man” case, which asks whether you would push a fat man off a bridge to stop a trolley in its path and block it from running over five people. (This scenario involves a “fat man” to eliminate the possibility of self-sacrifice—your weight wouldn’t stop the trolley, but his would.) The utilitarian answer is that the moral decision is to sacrifice the heavyweight man, because you’d still be killing one to save five.
By contrast, many deontological moral theories, such as the moral laws proffered by 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant, argue that killing is never acceptable—it would be immoral to pull the lever to kill one, even if that meant allowing the trolley to continue on its course to kill 100 people. Allowing harm to happen, by failing to stop the trolley continuing on its path, is not actively hurting someone and so would not be considered murder. And so, according to Kant, actively pulling the lever would be the immoral choice.
Though the Trolley Problem is compelling, the philosophers behind the utilitarianism scale don’t think that the scenario accurately captures or assesses utilitarian views.
“Utilitarianism is fundamentally about maximizing welfare, doing the most good overall, which is an altruistic aim read out over the most number of possible people,” says Brian Earp, research fellow at Oxford Uehiro Center for Practical Ethics who helped create the scale. “These Trolley dilemmas are ways where people are trying to back utilitarians into a corner by creating very unusual circumstances where you might have to do something that’s in tension with common-sense morality. For the most part, being utilitarian would be doing things like giving your money to charity, or donating your kidney, or helping the old lady across the street.”
Just because someone does the ostensibly “utilitarian” act in the Trolley Problem scenario does not mean they ascribe to utilitarian values. Assuming this is a logical fallacy, explains Earp. Yes, if someone is utilitarian, they will choose to push someone off a bridge to save five other people’s lives. But pushing someone off a bridge does not in turn necessarily imply utilitarianism. “You might just like shoving people off bridges,” says Earp.
Past studies that have assessed personality based on how people solve the Trolley Problem have led to findings that don’t seem to make sense, says Earp. For example, “utilitarians” as assessed by the Trolley Problem score higher on ratings for psychopathy (pdf), machiavellianism, and life-meaninglessness. “That didn’t make any sense at all,” says Earp. “Psychopaths don’t care about maximizing welfare.”
Earp says the new scale should create a more nuanced psychological understanding of utilitarians. For example, he says, two key concepts within the theory—that welfare should be maximized for all, and that you should be willing to do “instrumental harm” to achieve such welfare—seem to be in psychological tension. Those who tend to be focused on the former seem to be instinctively more reluctant to enact the instrumental harm required by utilitarianism. Conversely, those who are less concerned about the instrumental harm tend to have a reduced sense of welfare for all. “The people who are not so fussed about causing instrumental harm and say, ‘yeah, I’d be willing to tolerate torture if that was necessary to stop a bomb going off’—those people tend to be relatively low on the impartial-beneficence side of the scale,” he says. “In the general population utilitarianism is not an intuitive position.”