Can we declare that the ultimate moral good is to maximize understanding of deep truths, and all else follows from that?

The main thing that could morally distinguish humans from other animals is that we have more capable brains. Specifically, our brains are able to form abstract models that allow us to understand more of the world than other animals can. The models allow us to answer "how?" and "why?" in a deeper way than any other animal.

Understanding-based ethics is about understanding of deep truths. Making a database of all the blades of grass in your yard, for example, constitutes truth but is very shallow. Deep understanding is more than just a list of facts. It's about the deep structures tying different ideas together fundamentally.

  • Lying would be wrong under this system because it directly works against mutual understanding of the truth.
  • Murder would be wrong under this system because it deprives the world of a mind that could understand. The greater the mind lost, the worse the offense; this is why it is worse to kill a human than a raccoon. But everyone has their own unique viewpoint and experiences, so it is wrong to lose any life.
  • Lesser crimes such as stealing would be wrong because they damage the harmonious functioning of society, which is necessary to support the pursuit of truth. In a poor society, people have difficulty deeply understanding the world around them because they are too focused on scrounging for subsistence.
  • Education, research, and free and honest discourse would be ends in themselves.

Say the "best" moral system is X. Suppose, contrarily, that understanding-based ethics is not X. But by pursuing understanding-based ethics, we would best be able to learn of X. The more we understand about moral matters, and the more widespread this understanding among everyone in society, the more widespread adherence to X would become.

So that even if understanding-based ethics is not the best moral system, it would be the best way to reach the best moral system, and transition to it once it is known! So by following understanding-based ethics, we get to hedge our bets.

Understanding-based ethics sidesteps some of the problems of utilitarianism. If you could spend the rest of your life in a delusion box that grants you a feeling of happiness in a virtual world you can't distinguish from reality, should you? Utilitarianism says yes, probably. Understanding-based ethics says absolutely not.

Suffering is just an indicator of a problem, like the "check engine" light on your dashboard. The goal isn't to make the "check engine" light go off; the goal is to fix the engine.

  • i might agree, insofar as understanding is not just the goal of thinking but does seem to involve how we and others live
    – andrós
    Commented May 18 at 21:58
  • 1
    People can and have performed a lot of horrific experiments on other people in the name of increasing understanding. It probably wouldn't be too hard to argue that this can be done without much damage to the "harmonious functioning of society", or that the benefit is greater. It would be hard to avoid that if your ultimate focus is on increasing understanding, rather than reducing suffering and increasing happiness or well-being. Utilitarianism also implies a secondary goal of trying to reduce suffering you don't directly cause, which understanding-based ethics would be more indifferent to.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented May 19 at 0:32
  • @NotThatGuy Such experiments were usually done without informed consent, i.e. the subjects did not understand what was being done to them. The Tuskegee experiment was like that. That goes directly contrary to understanding-based ethics.
    – causative
    Commented May 19 at 0:40
  • @causative So would it be fine to do a horrific experiment with informed consent? "That goes directly contrary to understanding-based ethics" - does it? You didn't exactly define the metric you're trying to optimise. If you're trying to maximise understanding over time, or create the maximum understanding for the greatest number of people, it would be trivial to justify this. Or what other metric are you using? Under this framework, what would morally obligate you to make someone understand something right now? Also, why is consent be required at all? They can understand without consenting.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented May 19 at 0:56
  • @NotThatGuy "would it be fine to do a horrific experiment with informed consent" - couldn't be that horrible if they're informed and consenting, could it? "They can understand without consenting" - that wouldn't have worked in the Tuskegee experiment because if the subjects had understood they would have just refused to comply and the experiment could not have continued. Evil usually cannot survive without deception.
    – causative
    Commented May 19 at 1:00

2 Answers 2


There is, incidentally, a view known as epistemic consequentialism:

Many epistemologists seem to have sympathy for the basic idea behind epistemic consequentialism, because many epistemologists have been attracted to the idea that epistemic norms that describe appropriate belief-forming behavior ultimately earn their keep by providing us with some means to garner what is often thought to be the epistemic good of accurate beliefs. Consequentialist thinking has also gained popularity among more formally minded epistemologists, who apply the tools of decision theory to argue in consequentialist fashion for various epistemic norms. And there is also a consequentialist strand in certain areas of philosophy of science, especially those areas that attempt to explain how it is that science as a whole might have considerable epistemic success even if individual scientists are acting irrationally. Thus, there is a kind of prima facie plausibility to epistemic consequentialism.

But the metaepistemological realist might tollendo tollens their way to the absorption of moral and epistemic facts into each other, so we would not have much trouble recapitulating epistemic consequentialism as a "properly" moral thesis. Then, by way of a knowledge/understanding distinction (c.f. the counterpart IEP article), it is a hop, skip, and jump to the formulation of a consequentialism of understanding.

Your argument from a method of improving moral understanding by improving the understanding per se, is perhaps a sort of transcendental argument. The idea that deception undermines understanding by undermining public reason shows up in Kantian circles (see Williams[23] or Finlayson/Rees[23] for (somewhat indirect) examples), but since, for example, R. M. Hare adapted principles inspired by Kant to a consequentialist framework, we should not find it too difficult to do much the same here.

Rawls in A Theory of Justice mentions several times a criticism of utilitarianism in terms of "conflating all persons into one." Since you have, "But everyone has their own unique viewpoint and experiences," as a sort of axiom of the system, you can bypass that criticism to some extent. Rawls generally criticizes the notion of "maximizing the good" throughout (he is emphatic about the right being prior to the good), e.g. because the range of increasing goodness might be too vague, or because notions like pleasure, happiness, and utility are not manageable enough on the right level (or there is a problematic circularity in needing to make ethical judgments even in setting the standard of utility in the first place). So if our understanding-of-understanding is vague too, that would compromise the idea of maximizing it, though.

However, if we have degrees of understanding vs. amounts of knowledge, then understanding pertains to order more than cardinal value as such, so one is tempted to think that prioritizing the understanding per se will mean adverting to a deontic structure that is not consequentialist. If the right-and-the-good priority problem is an ordering problem in the first place, no less, then the priority of the understanding is again to have the right precede the good, and we are still no longer in consequentialist territory.


I will answer only with regard to the problem of understanding the causes and remedies for suffering. The social efforts to remedy problems associated with the emotional "Check Engine Light".

Baruch Spinoza describes an affect as a feeling of desire, pleasure, or pain accompanied by an idea of its cause. The phrase "accompanied by" means the ideas of cause can be somewhat arbitrary and diverse. In general Spinoza maps or relates a feeling with an idea of cause taken from the set of items with names: self, others, God, or Nature. He argues that an idea of cause can be adequate or inadequate, which I translate to the terms accurate or inaccurate. Aesthetics is the idea that pleasure or pain have arbitrary causes which cannot be properly evaluated as accurate or inaccurate but merely arise in the subjective context of each respective individual. One would hope that feelings of pleasure, beauty, heaven, arise via grace and not feeling of pain, ugliness, hell. Affects are complex and do not always map to accurate sources of cause. Spinoza made strong claims to reduce the affects to patterns similar to geometrical figures. This claim was not convincing.

Thomas Szasz wrote The Myth of Mental Illness. Subsequently his license as a psychiatrist was challenged because he did not believe in mental illness! But Szasz argued that mental illness is a belief system concerning the meaning of behavior. The social context is some persons complain and other persons attempt to provide remedies. This is similar to the pattern where the mechanic repairs the fault to shut off the check engine light.

Szasz describes suffering as persistent pain which tends to cause the suffering person to complain. A person living in a totalitarian regime once stated the inhibition against the complaint. Quote: Complain and get your head bashed in! Szasz is talking about the liberty based system where the medical doctors, justice system, social workers, and so-called mental health workers have an incentive to hear complaints of patients and plaintiffs.

Szasz looks at the pattern of complaints to medical doctors, justice workers, and mental health workers, and the types of remedies they provide, to treat the following:

  1. medical disability or disease
  2. adverse social conditions
  3. unwanted pain not caused by 1 or 2

The experts who try to remedy suffering thus fall into three categories of medicine, social justice work, and mental health helpers that do not perform interventions as medical or social justice work. The ethics in the helper professions are now a mix of medical and justice concerns.


Beneficence, nonmaleficence, autonomy, and justice constitute the 4 principles of ethics.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to identify and remedy the actual causes of suffering in all cases. If I could accurately identify a cause of pain, and I can act independently to eliminate that cause of pain, then I can apply prudence, the ability to govern action by the use of reason, and I do not need to ask others for help. But humans obviously have cognitive-behavioral limits on this model that I call Ideal Prudence. We face serious limits in early life on this capacity and we face social limits in adult life.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .