I have no training in philosophy so bare with me here. I often feel like the way people, including philosophers, talk about it is irrational. I am here to ask if you agree with me on the following. If you do not agree, why not? If you agree, why do I feel like people don't really talk about it in these terms?

We have a moral codex programmed into our minds by evolution because cooperation is advantageous for a tribe of humans (so it is utilitarianistic), and we are smart enough to be able to create a society with moral norms that cannot be broken without having to fear punishment by the rest of the tribe (so this behaviour egoistically sensible as well). As a member of such a tribe it is easier to act correctly (in the egoistic sense) by trying to act utilitarianistically, and even easier by acting according to an intuition we call morality.

An example would be: A schizophrenic murders someone and is judged not to be in control of his actions during the crime. Therefore he should not punished, because the punishment can not keep future candidates in his position from committing such crimes. On the other hand, if I murder someone, being in control of my actions, but maybe having good reasons to murder the person, a bad childhood and whatnot, I should be punished because this punishment will keep future candidates like me from committing such crimes.

Another example: Killing 3 random people to save 4 is wrong, not because murder is inherently wrong, but because it is not utilitarianistic as soon as someone witnesses the (unfair and surprising) murders, spreads the word, and thereby spreads fear among the livin to be randomly murdered.

The reasoning of people to derive these 2 things seems to be super indirect, arguing with free will or moraly etc. I don't understand why my way of thinking is not the norm, rather than esotheric "moral" arguments based on basically emotions and instincts. Actually, it seems like half of philosophy seems to make such esotheric arguments instead of just reducing ethics down to utilitarianism. In my opinion the question of "what is ethical" is already solved since Darwin. Ethical=Utilitarianistic.

  • I agree with the premise of this question. I don't wish it to be closed because it is simple, obvious and direct. Perhaps I am uninformed, but something like Utilitarianism has to underlie cooperative actions. If the Utilitarianisms that we have don't say this, then we need a better one. It can't be as complex as everyone seems to make it.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Nov 19, 2023 at 23:07
  • 4
    One problem with the question is that it is being framed as an "isn't it obvious to everyone" matter, when it obviously isn't obvious to everyone. This makes it come across as pushing a personal philosophy rather than asking a question that could be answered with citations and/or technical explanations. Commented Nov 20, 2023 at 0:09
  • some people do reduce virtue to consequecnes, consequentialists. that's not to say consequences are irrelevant to virtue. e.g. philanthropy is a virtue, but if it's done in a damaging way we consider the philanthropist vain etc.. take it on a case by vase basis, i guess
    – user67675
    Commented Nov 20, 2023 at 3:21
  • The tribalism you describe is not utilitarianism. We can see that by the way most people will accept a great deal of suffering inflicted out of their perceived "tribe" but be outraged by a triffle to their own (the recent news show that enough). Utilitarianism would consider and balance the harm and benefit to the tribe with that of the non-tribe. In that sense, it is a hint to answer your question, because what you describe are our moral feelings, and moral theories try to avoid feelings based judgement to propose a conduct based on reason.
    – armand
    Commented Nov 20, 2023 at 4:22
  • Cooperation is not the only thing that can be advantageous to leaving progeny, so can egoism, and group selection required to fix a cooperative "moral codex" is a doubtful proposition among biologists. In any case, empirical evidence suggests that our "moral codex", if any, is pretty pliable and much of it is not genetic, it is acquired in early childhood. Evolution also gave us brain mechanisms that can override any of its instincts and intuitions. Most people have some moral intuitions that directly contradict utilitarianism as well.
    – Conifold
    Commented Nov 20, 2023 at 5:44

4 Answers 4


I think the thrust of your thinking is right- we have inherited a sense of what is ethical or moral through evolution, so presumably it helped increase our chances of survival. Perhaps there are two reasons why you will not find that simply taken for granted by philosophers. Firstly, philosophy is characterised by a respect for earlier schools of thought, and since evolution is a recent idea, there is a tradition of thinking about ethics etc which predates it and therefore approaches the subject from different directions, heavily influenced by the prevailing religious beliefs. Secondly, while our inherited mental mechanisms might have helped us to survive at some points in our history as a species, they might not be continuing to serve that purpose, given that the selection pressures today are vastly different than they were for most of the last fifty millennia, say. Given that, we might want to find a rational basis for updating them, just as we have updated many other aspects of our lives since we stopped living as cave men (or women, let's not forget).

  • It sounds super strange to me to put the question "What is ethical behaviour" infront of "What is utilitarinaistic behaviour". Is it possible that the gist of the problem is that while I think you cannot tell me the reason for why your goal is an ethical world, I also cannot tell you the reason for why my goal is a happy world? So a typical philosopher's payoff function is overall goodness (which can be different from utilitarianism), while mine is overall happiness? (I assume here that utilitarianism means maximizing happiness)
    – typorum
    Commented Nov 20, 2023 at 18:23

How could all ethical questions be reduced to subquestions of, "What makes for the greatest good for the greatest number?" or, "What maximizes the sum of intrinsic value now and through the near, or even infinite, future?" Among others, one problem that utilitarianism has no clear solution to (if the problem is even formulable in utilitarianism in the first place) is, "What is it categorically imperative that we do?" One might dismiss the existence of categorical imperatives, but this would be the same as to dismiss the existence of categorical assertions, which seems absurd (either can be "grammatically" rendered with ease).

Now, there are some attempts to assimilate Kantianism to utilitarianism, one of which was R. M. Hare's universal prescriptivism. So one might think that utilitarianism can evolve itself so to absorb other ethical theories. However, what then is the point of being a triumphalist about utilitarianism? And what does it mean to say, "Evolution supports utilitarianism"?♑︎ Are we supposed to "obey" evolution as if it is some sort of god of rationality? That is a fanciful, if not downright naive, claim.

♑︎An analogy: would we say that evolution supports astrology? If we did say this, would we mean that evolution supports one "theory" of astrology instead of some other, some zodiac over another? Likewise, we would be tasked with figuring out whether act- or rule-utilitarianism, fully efficient vs. satisficient, Millian or Moorean, etc. was what evolution supposedly implants within us; and then we would still have to ask, "But is it true?" Seeing as evolution is not guaranteed to plant true beliefs in us, is it?


Every attempt to define "good" leads inevitably in a restriction of its meaning, of its value, by containing it in a box of an ideological construct.

History and humans decided in favor of utilitarianism 2500 years ago, in Socrates' trial. I will not debate for or against utilitarianism, I will just present a story.

One day, as Socrates was walking, someone he knew came to him and told him that he wanted to tell him something he had heard regarding one of his students. Socrates told him, that before he told him what he had heard, they had to do a triple filter test.

First the filter of truth.

  • Are you sure that what you heard is true? - Well .. not exactly, I just heard that ...
    So you are not sure that what you heard is true or false.

Ok, so let's now try the filter of goodness

  • Is what you are going to tell me about my student, good? - Good? No, on the contrary ...
    So you want to tell me something bad about my student that you are not sure it is true.

Anywhay, said Socrates, you can still pass the test, because there exists a third filter. The filter of usefulness.

  • Is what you are going to tell me about my student, usefull to me? - No, I do not think so.
    So, if what you want to tell me, is neither true, neither good, and neither usefull, why do I have to hear it?
  • Yes, similarly, in the book At the Feet of the Master it says that everything we utter must be true, kind and helpful, and be needed now, or else do not say it. This filter is well known, and makes sense.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Nov 20, 2023 at 14:03

No. I agree that we evolved a code of ethics or morality as we have evolved. But ethics is not utilitarianism. Ethics is wider than that. There is an ethical aspect to utilitarianism, but it is wider than that. I do not agree that our original ethics were utilitarian. There is no evidence of this. Humans do things like investing scarce resources to help one sick person. That is not utilitarian, but it is human.

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