Me, researcher, dishonest?

Morals Test Bench

Philomag’s newsletter is back in force after the summer break with a study of 1098 students in 10 countries comparing utilitarian and deontological morals. By testing students’ behavior through games of dice and sums to be won, researchers come across a counterintuitive result: those who proclaim their attachment to an intangible moral rule (deontologists) are more dishonest than those who act to maximize general well-being (utilitarians). In other words, a Chinese or an American, classified as utilitarians, are actually more moral than Kenyans or Turks, who brandish sacred creeds.

Why is such a study counterintuitive? Because utilitarianism has shown its power to engage individuals in catastrophic ethical traps, whose deontology protects us. For example, re-read the variants of the trolley problem. In a caricatured thought experiment, utilitarianism could force doctors to sacrifice a healthy individual to distribute her organs to ten others who have a vital need and thus obtain a positive of 9 lives saved. More realistically, wartime utilitarianism turns good Japanese or good Germans into enemies that are suddenly hateful and deadly to their American or Jewish neighbors.

Utilitarianism, an inhumanism?

Utilitarianism poses a crucial problem: who defines general well-being and the rules for respecting it? A spiritual guide, an intellectual elite, a local, national, planetary popular consensus? Unlike customs and religions, utilitarianism does not flaunt its links of interest, which are nevertheless fundamental in the choice of rules. It uses cultural rather than natural postulates, hidden under the pragmatic logic that implements them. Utilitarianism is based in particular on the assertion “all life has the same importance”, which is a social aberration. Would you agree, for example, to voluntarily sacrifice your child to save two other strangers, on the sole pretext of the mathematical gain of a life?

How can we understand in this case the result of the researchers? The easy way is to show the major biases of the study. The utilitarianism < > deontology scale ranks the following countries: China, United Kingdom, India, United States, Sweden, Pakistan, Colombia, Guatemala, Kenya and Turkey. You instantly note a standard of living in the first half that is significantly higher than the second half. It is not as easy to get by in life for selected deontologist students compared to utilitarians. The tests were for financial gain. A truly objective study would have compared Anglo-Saxons and Latins with a similar standard of living.

A second major bias is to assume that students have received equivalent training. Due to the differences in means, we can believe that the opposite is true. To compare the effects of two philosophical systems, you must have your tested with the same chances of pushing their philosophical reflection.

A lack of knowledge of the mind

Our researchers seem to consider morality as a kind of software implanted in the mind, of which we could compare several versions and judge the most effective. Morality would be a package of indivisible ethical memes and would create the behavior of the individual during each episode of life. Strictly teleological approach to the mind, which seriously ignores its true functioning. Neuroscience is giving us a different discourse today.

From an ontological point of view, behavior is the permanent negotiation, within the mind, between a host of parameters. Fortunately for our liveliness, most are treated unconsciously. The result is presented to the consciousness in the form of an elaborate scene, joined to an automatic reaction. The behavior takes place without the need to think about it. Habit, intuitive system of thought, this process receives different names and decides the vast majority of our daily actions. This should not be seen as any ethical reflection. These automatisms are structural and anchored by the past experience of each individual. Moral references are inscribed: what the child we were was able to understand, in a more or less easy environment depending on the country where we grew up.

The tests used by researchers study this “structural” morality and not moral reflection . Reflection is another system of thought that awakens in more complex and personalized circumstances. For example, place your guinea pigs at the head of a company that must lay off workers. Utilitarians will do so without a state of mind and without accompaniment, because the cost would be to the detriment of the company and therefore of the collective of employees. While deontologists will worry about the fate of each fired people. The empathy of the deontologist allows her to replace each victim. While the utilitarian holds his own empathy on a leash to become a substitute for the collective.

Who has priority?

Let’s take a closer look at this relationship, because this is ultimately where the difference between utilitarianism and deontology comes into play. Relationship between individual and collective, or more precisely between the individualist and collectivist poles of our mind, since the collective does not exist other than through the similar representations we share. It is an abstract and not material person. The physical reality of this person is the effort that our neural networks make to converge towards a conceptual mimicry. The effort is very concrete but the result is an approximation. There is no “collective personality” embedded in a single brain, only the idea that each of us has of it. This idea is the collectivist pole that dialogues with our individualist pole, in other words our ego.

Which pole has priority over the other? They frequently come into conflict. Does the individual interest take precedence over the collective or the other way around? Wokism and other groupisms testify to a contemporary exacerbation of egotism. Individuals come together to assert particular rights. The opposite approach of collectivism, which seeks to convey the general interest to individuals. Does the work of our researchers come to the rescue of a collectivism unleashed by individual interest? This is unlikely since groupism is booming, on the contrary, in utilitarian countries. It is in the USA, in particular, that collectivism is threatened, more than in “deontological” countries.

Minor offence

The researchers’ mistake comes from a one-way problem. They do not consider the proper direction of the individual-collective relationship. The moral reflection they favor is the collective pole judging the individual pole. A censor makes an impavid judgment regardless of the context. The general rule ignores any customization. This is how in front of a crazy trolley you have to save the greatest number of people, regardless of their individual characteristics. Whether it’s your child, a complete stranger, a psychopathic murderer or a benefactor of humanity, doesn’t matter, the rule says.

The appropriate direction is the individual pole judging that the collective pole does not violate its elementary rights. A person can go so far as to sacrifice herself for the collective good, but this decision remains her full property and not a social “tax”. If the collective interest is hierarchically superior, it is by organizing individual interests and not by ignoring them.


Contrary to what Philomag’s account asserts, utilitarianism is not an effort at moral reflection, but a simplistic facilitation. It consists in replacing the competition between possible behaviors, complex when it summons all the parameters, by simple diktats, which federate individuals and contexts. Reduction and not reflection. The utilitarian makes her choice very quickly. The deontologist hesitates and drags. Another potential bias of the study is whether the testers had a set amount of time to respond to the tests. The certainties of the utilitarian, in matters of morality, are more disturbing than the procrastination of the deontologist.

What slows down the deontologist is that she tries to put herself in the place of the other. Empathy is an instinctive drive that needs to settle in every situation. There is a delay between impulse and empathetic representation of behavior. Every ethical decision is a reconstruction of the scene where it occurs. The scenario takes time. The utilitarian, on the other hand, is a kind of best-selling author who arrives with her photocopy and says: “Play me again, I always make a splash with these lines!”

Stopped or on the way

Neuroscientific studies show that by inhibiting the temporoparietal junction of the brain with magnetic pulses, deontologists become utilitarians. They can no longer aggregate all the parameters of their usual thinking and are content to act according to the simple algorithms of utilitarianism. Mind reduction can be artificial as well as cultural. It would be very easy to turn us all into good utilitarians, stopped at the side of the road, while being deontological is a life journey never completed.


Social norms and dishonesty across societies, Diego Aycinena, Lucas Rentschler, Benjamin Beranek, Jonathan F. Schulz, 2022

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