What are the psychological roots of utilitarianism? Why does utilitarianism attract some people but strongly repel so many others?
Psychologists have tried to answer these questions by using the now famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) ‘trolley problems’. Many psychologists assume that by studying how people respond to these problems, we can shed light on the psychology of utilitarian decision-making as well as on the sources of resistance to utilitarianism. Because of this research, many people now associate utilitarianism with a cold and calculating response to trolley dilemmas: to be a utilitarian is to be willing to sacrifice an innocent person to save a greater number of lives.
My collaborators and I have proposed a new two-dimensional model of utilitarian psychology which treats utilitarian moral decision-making not as an all-or-nothing category but as a matter of degree, and as involving two largely independent ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ dimensions. Decisions in sacrificial dilemmas tap the endorsement of “instrumental harm”, which can be theoretically and empirically distinguished from impartiality dilemmas that tap the more positive, impartial welfare-maximising dimension (“impartial beneficence”) of consequentialist theories and consequentialist tendencies in ordinary people. Since trolley dilemmas are concerned only with the issue of instrumental harm, they can at best only tell half of the story about the psychology of utilitarianism—and arguably the less important half.