Right and Wrong

A Personal Analysis of Modern Utilitarian Ethics

Recently, I wrote an essay (and a related discussion post) in support of a kind of Utilitarianism I find interesting, including contrasting it with other common ethical frameworks. The flavor of Utilitarian ethics I supported is largely based on my interpretation of The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris. Ethics has been the subject of intense study for thousands of years, so truly novel approaches to it are rare. For this reason, very little of what I’ve written about it is original. At best, I’ve shared how I have internalized and summarized the views of people much smarter and articulate than I am, then took that interpretation and compared it to my understanding of other ethical theories. While I provided my view on these other theories, I’m certain that I have not done them justice and I would love to hear more about where I am misunderstanding them. That said, this is the blending of an informal essay with an even less formal discussion post, both related to the course reading, but I hope it will still amount to an enjoyable read.

Deciding on an ethical framework is no small task. There are many theories to consider and there is no clear consensus among philosophers even after millennia of debate. Each person’s intuitive moral calculus is steeped in their beliefs, values, and ideals, nuanced by familial expectations and societal norms, and often judged for compliance with ethical codes or legal systems. For these reasons, it seems insufficient to rely solely on “gut feeling” in every situation. The lack of consensus also means any personal framework is unlikely to match that of our neighbors. That said, we still have to start somewhere. We, both as individuals and as members of a society, must have some basis by which we can decide what a “good” action is. To build this basis, we must decide what “good” means, then determine how we can preserve this definition through a set of guiding principles (our moral framework) from which we can extrapolate answers to new problems. A respectable theory is testable, so answers it provides must have consequences in the world that we can, at least in principle, measure. In my opinion and based on this description, a utilitarian approach to ethics seems the most sensible.

What do I mean by Utilitarianism?

Actions have consequences. Utilitarianism takes this idea to heart; in essence, understand the consequences of actions and how they impact a key set of values (Bowden, 2009). I do not subscribe to the simple description of utilitarianism Garofalo and Geuras (2011) provide as “the theory that happiness is the good and that we ought to do whatever is necessary to promote the greatest happiness” (p.50). Instead, I believe people should avoid what Harris (2010) calls “the worst possible misery for everyone” (p.39) through the goal of maximizing “the well-being of conscious creatures” (p.13). While I do not believe this moral precept to be objective in the broadest sense (meaning it does not exist independent of conscious minds), I believe it is objectively true as long as there are minds to experience the well-being. To paraphrase Harris from his public lectures, this is to say that a universe of unconscious rocks is also devoid of moral concerns.

This also includes some form of moral naturalism and/or empiricism. I do not think this “maximizing of well-being” is encoded in the laws of nature or supernaturally decreed; instead, I believe that this precept is axiomatic, much as arithmetic considers 2 + 2 = 4 to be an axiom. This axiom and framework seem to be the lowest common denominator in describing why we might be inclined to gather some principles from other theories and why we might want to ignore others. By placing minimizing of misery and maximizing well-being as the guiding principles and understanding that these are the experiences of conscious creatures (happening in human brains), we have a way to pin these concepts to reality. We can study well-being in much the same way we study health and behavior. While the definition of “health” may seem vague, this does not prevent the formation of entire fields of study (e.g., medicine) or invalidate the idea of medical treatment. Harris (2010) elaborates on this, stating:

Indeed, the difference between a healthy person and a dead one is about as clear and consequential a distinction as we ever make in science. The difference between the heights of human fulfillment and the depths of human misery are no less clear (p.12)

Given this, we have a basis in reality for measuring well-being and therefore a way of both analyzing the impact of past and predicting the outcome of current moral decisions, thereby a way of measuring the utility of our actions.

A Brief Overview of Some Other Theories

Moral Relativism

If all options are equally valid, there is nothing to discuss. Such an approach, by definition, provides no value in determining which course of action is ethical, as literally any action (or even inaction) is moral. This is commonly known as normative relativism. I imagine many people may subscribe to descriptive relativism, meaning that they believe that different ethical standards may apply at different times and in different societies, but they do not advocate this seemingly self-defeating normative moral relativism. Even still, a belief that there are differences in what is right or wrong does not provide insight into how to determine which of these different approaches is better in some new scenario. If a barbaric (from our point-of-view) culture, believing it is perfectly moral to do so, conquers another culture, how do the people of the conquered culture determine what is moral? Do they continue using their existing standards, or do they use those of their conquerers? Should we, as observers, interfere to protect those being conquered if we believe their future will be far worse under the rule of their conquerers? I do not see how relativism of any kind helps us answer these questions to any satisfactory degree.

Intuitive Morality

Garofalo and Geuras (2011) refer to intuitionism as “the belief that human beings have a moral sense that recognizes the moral character of an act” (p.58). For intuitive theories of morality, we can examine where our intuitions come from and even compare it to other animals that display similar intuitions. While describing the process that led to typical human intuitions such as they are could be a very long article, suffice it to say that we have little reason to believe that our evolved sense of right and wrong perfectly preserves things we seem to care about (such as fairness and altruism for people outside of our family or social group). Intuitions vary across cultures (and even from person to person within a culture) and intuitive theories explicitly provide no way to use logic to decide between conflicting intuitions. Given this rejection of rational dialogue proposed by purely-intuitive theories, in my opinion, it is excused from the conversation. I am not sure how to justify including principles provided exclusively by an intuitive theory in my moral decisions, and where it agrees with other theories, the other theory probably has reasons that can be articulated and defended.


Deontological theories of ethics such as Kantianism seem to commingle the contradictory relative approach to ethics with an a priori declaration that good will is the deciding factor. Garofalo and Geuras (2011) spell this out in the clearest of terms by stating that “[a] deontological ethical theory is one which maintains that the ethics of an action does not depend upon the consequences” (p.53). This seems flawed for a few reasons. First, they pin the ethical decision to a purely subjective experience. It is notoriously difficult to determine intent or motive. This is because we can not expect an immoral person to provide us an honest description of their intentions. How then, do we actually determine whether an act was committed with good will? Is a person’s claim that they meant well sufficient to know that they meant well? If not, how else can we know? It also fails to cover cases where people act with what they believe are good intentions but simply subscribe to a faulty view of what good intentions are. Many people have conflicting or incompatible views of what moral actions are and Kantian deontological ethics provides us with no clear way to judge these competing sets of values or actions, since there is no effect to measure. For these reasons, I believe Kantianism provides us shaky ground on which to anchor moral precepts, however reasonable they may appear. I believe anything valuable that can be gleaned from Kant’s categorical imperative can be expressed in terms of how it will change well-being or misery. How is Kant’s axiom different from Harris’? Much like with arithmetic, we can, at least in principle, empirically measure the impact of actions on overall well-being. We have no means of empirically measuring whether acting ethically under Kant’s view impacts anything in reality since consequences do not matter, only good will.

Virtue Ethics

Virtue ethics declares that we should make decisions based on whether or not we believe a particular choice exemplifies a virtue. But how do we determine which characteristics are virtuous? Why should we care whether an act exemplifies altruism over greed or honesty over dishonesty? Garofalo and Geuras (2011) share this concern, stating that “virtue theory has questionable aspects” (p.59). A utilitarian ethical theory can preserve the virtues we actually care about because they are more likely to lead to less misery and more well-being. This is to say that we could derive a virtue theory of ethics from a sufficiently explored utilitarian theory.

Why Not Blend Theories?

An approach proposed by Garofalo and Geuras (2011) when faced with only flawed theories is to “acknowledge that each has valuable insights that we can use” (p.60) and blend them. While I suppose I can understand this approach, I cannot agree that utilitarianism is flawed. Rather than individually address the objections raised about utilitarianism by Garofalo and Geuras, I will propose that their objections do not apply to this particular flavor of utilitarianism, both because I do not value “happiness” in the way they suggest and I consider inflicting misery worse than providing additional well-being is good. This is to say that if killing one person could save the lives of five, I believe the act is still wrong. This may seem surprising or somehow at odds with the ideas of utilitarianism, but I believe this is simply a matter of considering all the implications. How would the five, still living, people feel knowing someone was killed so they could live? How much more stressful would it be to live in such a society that readily killed people in this way?

I also believe that the other proposed theories are deeply flawed. Therefore, I cannot integrate the proposed insights from these other theories into mine, at least not based solely on the merit (or lack thereof) of their originating theories. That said, many of the precepts offered by these other theories are, in fact, useful. The key is to reframe them in the context of how well the minimize misery and/or maximize well-being.

Can Utilitarianism Actually be Specific?

Utilitarianism has been called imprecise or vague. It seems reasonable to ask how such a moral framework can be used to make actual moral decisions. I have found that generalizing certain experiences, based on history, helps. These include:

  • Honesty, in the long run, leads to less misery
  • Treating humans are expendable leads to more misery
  • Living in a world where inflicting gratuitous harm to humans is acceptable leads to more misery

These generalizations are tied to real experiences and could potentially be shown to be incorrect. They are based on the experiences of billions of humans and through analysis of history. The ties to reality are what allow these hypotheses to be tested and falsified. By having ties to reality, this type of theory can change to accommodate new data.


Having an ethical framework that maps the consequences of moral decisions to reality in testable ways moves us closer to what I believe should be the goal of a philosophy of morality: a science of morality. While this framework hardly makes quick work of most real ethical dilemmas, I would question a framework that claimed it did. But being difficult does not mean such a framework flimsy. Being a moral person requires work, including being willing to ask tough questions like Am I making good choices? as well as having ways to answer those questions.


  • Bowden, P. (2009). In Defense of Utilitarianism. Retrieved 4 1, 2018, from https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1534305
  • Geuras, D., & Garofalo, C. (2011). Practical ethics in public administration. Vienna, VA: Kogan Page.
  • Harris, S. (2010). The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. New York, N.Y.: Free Press.
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