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I just came across an interesting study in which researchers found a correlation between socially conservative views* and psychopathic, narcissistic and Machiavellian traits or what the writers call “dark triad personality traits”. (I’ve linked to the article below). Liberal thinkers, of course (and I confess I am resisting such an impulse) will no doubt celebrate and make much ado over any finding that suggests their (okay, ‘our’) opponents are a bunch of psychopaths. Reading this, once I again I am rueing the fact that philosophy lays no great emphasis on reading stats, which is something of a deficit. Sure, there’s some Baysian analysis here and there, but in philosophy deductive logic gets a lot more attention. Nevertheless, the writers say that they analysed the hell out of their data and that their findings passed a high threshold for significance, so I’m just going to just take their word for it.

Marcus Arvan, the writer, ends up making a connection between his findings and virtue ethics, which caught my attention given that unbeknownst to myself, I may myself be a closet virtue theorist. This possibility arose at the CPA conference where I presented a paper on psychology and phronesis or moral wisdom (it can be found above the banner here). In the paper I was pointing out certain cognitive biases that could distort moral perception and one commentator noted that I was suggesting that good moral reasoning relies as much on introspection and the cultivation of own cognitive processes as it does on the production of sound moral arguments. This, in turn, it would appear, could represent a turn towards virtue ethics. Arvan, however, is far more explicit about this turn, and argues that what appear as ad hominem arguments (“He’s just a narcissist, don’t accept his condemnation of a social safety net”) may not actually be fallacious. In fact, Arvan seems to implicitly suggest that good moral views may depend on favorable personality traits, and voila, enter virtue ethics.

I’ve made the case in a pretty circular fashion here, which is to presume the truth that social nets and the like are morally good. Actually, though, as I write, I’m realising that the problem might be Arvan’s, not mine. To show this, I’ve done up a little argument below. Now his conclusions are much more tentative than the ones I’ve stated below. For instance, Arvan would not endorse my first premise, as it appears to be an overt causal claim between personality and moral judgement (as with any good researcher, his conclusions on the connection between these factors are far more tentative). Nevertheless, it’s easier to illustrate the underlying logic of the argument by using unequivocal claims, and thereby bring out the missing premise that is being presumed rather than defended.

The argument

If a person has psychopathic (P), narcissistic (N) or Machiavellian traits (M), then they will produce conservative moral claims.

P, N and M are negative personality traits (Arvan takes time to show this in his paper).

Negative personality traits give rise to poor moral judgement.


Therefore, since negative personality traits give rise to poor moral judgement, then we can appeal to a person’s negative personality traits to refute their moral judgements.

Then, the whole argument is offered as support for the legitimacy of virtue ethics.

Now even if all these premises were true, we’re still missing one. Namely, what is missing is a premise showing that conservative moral judgments are instances of poor judgements. We already have to believe that one (and I do) for this argument to hold. The fact that negative personality traits give rise to a particular brand of moral judgements, is not sufficient to show that these judgements are mistaken. Unless of course, we are already virtue ethicists, and then we take this as a given. But again, it appears the question is being begged here. I can say to someone, you’re a narcissistic jerk with no empathy, that’s why you’re arguing that we should throw the fat man onto the trolley tracks, and we might even be right about the genesis of our opponent’s claim. But, this is not enough to show that we ought not toss the fat guy onto the trolley tracks. Rather, some further independent grounds are required for that claim.

The second thing that occurred to me while reading this argument (and I can’t emphasise enough how sympathetic I am to the ideas being presented here) was the possibility of priming distorting results. According to Arvan, subjects were asked to identify their political leanings at some point in the study. What I really want to know is whether they did so before or after they answered the other questions. From what I recall, some studies have shown that female and African-American test-takers, for instance, tend to do more poorly on tests in which they are asked to identify their gender or race beforehand. Something, I know not what, is going on in these cases, where identifying one’s social location can affect test results. Is it not possible then, that identifying oneself as a conservative thinker or liberal thinker in advance might not prime a thinker in a particular fashion and thereby influence the manner in which they answer the questions?

It’s just a thought, and in spite of these prima facie problems, no doubt I will be gleefully citing this study at the next cocktail party I attend.

*It appears there was less of a correlation between fiscal conservatives and personality.