Traits of Deontologists and Consequentialists: Appearance and Reality

People who hold deontological moral views appear to others to be more “pro-social,” but actually aren’t, according to a new study. The study, entitled “Are Kantians Better Social Partners? People Making Deontological Judgments Are Perceived to Be More Prosocial than They Actually Are,” is by Valerio Capraro (Middlesex University, London) and seven others, and is available for download at SSRN.

The study investigates an evolutionary hypothesis for the prevalence of deontological moral views, namely that holding such views “work as a mechanism to signal social desirability.” The authors write:

this mechanism is evolutionarily favorable only if people preferring deontological courses of action are actually more socially desirable than people preferring the competing consequentialist course of action. Otherwise, potential partners would ultimately learn that deontologists are not socially more desirable than consequentialists, which would eventually lead to the loss of deontologists’ evolutionary advantage.

The authors’ method is to present participants with moral dilemmas (e.g., some trolley problems and other cases) in which there’s a choice “between a characteristically deontological and a characteristically consequentialist option” to see whether their behavior “can significantly predict prosocial behavior, which we see as one of the main ingredients of actual social desirability.”

They break “prosociality” into various forms—trustworthiness, altruism, and cooperation—and run studies for each. For each of these traits, they find that deontologists are perceived by others to exhibit it more than consequentialists. They also find that for each of the traits, consequentialists exhibit those traits at least as much as deontologists. They also look at a subset of deontological views characterized by “respect for others” and come to the same conclusions.

Perhaps unfashionably, I think that trolley problems and other stylized examples are quite useful in moral philosophy. However, I’m not sure how much they contribute to an evolutionary explanation of moral views.

These cases typically help themselves to omniscience, which is useful for isolating variables to focus on. That means, though, that they are rather different from the epistemic contexts in which we evolved and now live.

Additionally, the cases are designed to tease apart the implications of different moral views, whereas in the particulars of everyday life, the best versions of deontology and consequentialism at least seem to agree a lot. That would be worth taking into account in trying to figure out why, from an evolutionary perspective, certain moral views have persisted.

The full paper is here.


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