When considering the derivation of moral principles from a naturalistic point of view, it would seem to me that moral statements can only be conceived of in one way. That is, if we are trying to make a reasoned argument for why a moral principle ought/ought-not to be performed, you must argue about the utility/end of that action.

One ought not to steal because you run the risk of being arrested.

So if the outcome in this case ("risk of being arrested") is not preferred, then one ought not to steal. In fact, I see this as the potential solution to any is-ought problem: one ought to do something because the outcome is favorable - the outcome leads to some defined end that is preferable. (The nuance is of course deciding what is the most favorable action in a particular circumstance - you can only make the best decision given the information you have).

If someone states: Killing is wrong, it seems to me that they are really saying "I dislike killing", not that it is morally reprehensible. In this way, I do not see that they are really making a reasoned argument, they are simply stating their personal preference. To turn their scenario into one of utility I would say: "I have a preference against killing because it would bring upon an undesirable circumstance: a) It would lead to psychological disturbance on my part and/or b) it would lead to my potential arrest. Since neither of these options are preferable, I will state that I ought not to do it".

For something less extreme, the statement one should not lie could be unpacked into a consequence-based scenario: "I interact in a stable community of individuals whose successful cooperation is based on the principle of trust. I have observed in many scenarios that lying, generally, ends up causing further issues and may bring distrust onto me from the community. To maintain this social order for myself and others, I ought not to lie." Is lying permitted under certain circumstances? One could argue that a lie may protect someone (a consequence).

In this way, I could conceive of many moral systems in use today as being defined on this basis even if they differ in the particulars. The a priori assumption is that the moral principles chosen in the particular social context would maximize day-to-day predictability, structure/order, well-being, and facilitation of ideas. And for this reason, they have become the predominant set of standards followed by that group. I suppose we could call this a form of relativism; I'm not particularly sure.

I am having difficulty seeing other ways of conceiving of the justification of moral principles outside of this. The notion of certain things being an end-in-itself does not seem rationally justified and also seems subjective. So I can't see how someone might argue: You ought to perform good deeds because they are good by definition. This is not a reasoned argument to me and it seems to run into other problems such as how one defines "good" in the first place.

I can conceive of many moral questions being posed in this way. What are some counterexamples against this position? One counterexample I foresee is that one can never know for certain the outcome of one's actions in all scenarios. This might be true, but can't one reasonably be certain that various patterns of actions under probable circumstance can lead to a favorable outcome? Furthermore, even if one were following moral principles for another reason, they cannot be sure that their "good" action could have lead to a good outcome.

Perhaps I am being too simplistic here or I am abusing the definitions of various terminology. I welcome any counterexamples to help clarify my position.

  • 2
    There is no moral content in "One ought not to steal because you run the risk of being arrested." The moral decision was made by the person who instituted the law. His control over you is the moral act, not your compliance.
    – user9166
    Commented Oct 13, 2014 at 23:17
  • When people say "Killing is wrong", the vast majority do mean that it is morally reprehensible, not that its consequences are negative for the perpetrator. It is one of the blind spots of utilitarianism that it misses its obvious abhorrent errors if the calculus doesn't readily raise them. "You shouldn't be more upset if we put this baby down than when we put this border collie dog down, as you currently have more utility from the dog" is exacly the sort of blind spot I mean. There's a difference between clever & well argued and right. Utilitarianism is usually clever and well argued.
    – AndrewC
    Commented Oct 14, 2014 at 0:05
  • You worry that asserting a general "killing is wrong" without some logical argument from consequences is irrational, but plenty of people would feel that a failure to recognise an inherent wrongness to killing is the irrational position. There are many different reasons one may give a child to answer their "why not" about hitting other children. For example, a particular morality, substitutional reasoning, popular opinion, etc, so their own utility, or the general utility is just one of many ways of arguing, not the only way.
    – AndrewC
    Commented Oct 14, 2014 at 0:29
  • @jobermark That is a fantastic point, +1. I should have phrased it in context of consequences from who you are stealing from for example. I'll have to think about how to reword this point in my questions. Thanks.
    – syntonicC
    Commented Oct 14, 2014 at 1:49
  • @AndrewC I completely agree with your statements about certain acts being morally reprehensible or inherently wrong. However I feel like this arguments are circular and it bothers me that I cannot justify something as being inherently wrong other than referring to it being "inherently wrong by description". Why can we label certain things as inherently wrong without justification? Can I apply this same principle to anything I want and say its justification is "inherent"? That's what bothers me.
    – syntonicC
    Commented Oct 14, 2014 at 1:53

1 Answer 1


From Kant.

Humans have an innate sense of their own limited interchangeability.

  • It is consonant with our genetic nature, to encourage genes similar to, but not among, our own, in order to have an adequate variety to breed together.
  • It is consonant with our dependence upon intellectual stability, in that it encourages us to help those that may not share our genes, but speak from similar experience and may preserve our "memes".
  • It is a direct survival trait, in that it vouches for our individual social value in cases of disaster and excessive consequence (which may impair our utility, but may leave genetic and memetic value).
  • It grows out of our social conscience, which may be partially inborn.

So one can consider it totally natural.

It is in fact so natural to so many of us that it is reasonable to follow that impulse into a moral system, via the Golden Rule, or its mostly-debugged rewrite, which is Kant's Categorical Imperative. What flies directly in the face of this notion of "There but for the grace of God, go I." is inherently wrong.

It provides an anodyne to runaway Utilitarian thinking. We know, regardless of its utility, murder is wrong, as we would not accept being killed for utilitarian reasons, unless they were exceptionally strong. Therefore one must allocate a much higher utility than would naturally balance a killing, in order to justify it. I would let myself die to protect my husband, but not just because I am taking up space someone else wants. So you may feel free to kill me in a war for survival of my people or my culture, but not to kill me just because you want my land, whatever the utility my land might provide you.

This does not do away with the reference to utility entirely. But it makes it a secondary consideration under the principle of fairness, and it so outweighs measured utility that it shortcuts the computation completely in a lot of cases.

For instance: It provides U.S. society very little added utility to arrange its social institutions around the possibility of people being gay. And there is a lot of utility to spend in making those arrangements.

Among other things, the tax code is shaped to encourage a certain type of marriage, which has a certain biological role that gay folks will not generally fulfill. (It overtaxes couples with equally high incomes, to allow for non-working spouses and the experience gap temporary absence from the workforce causes.) Making that subsidy less efficient wastes utility.

But we are going to do all of that re-arranging, eventually, just because you might have been me. We do not need to do the math, because the math does not obviate that possibility. Utility would have to really mount up to matter, and the differences are not great enough.

Likewise, most of our criminal laws exist primarily because the victim "might have been me". Libertarians are not idiots -- they can do math. It is not, in general, worth paying for most laws in a strictly person-to-person economic computation.

But there is more data. We do not want to deal with the fear that we might end up in the victim's place, so we establish authorities to keep us safe. Dispelling that fear increases the efficiency of the whole system enough that it offsets the expenditures. The return on investment is so great that most of economic history has been a succession of protection rackets. Insurance has a huge profit margin.

Still, we would never have discovered that, if our thinking were primarily utilitarian by nature. Each cave-man would think (rightly) that he was best off keeping his own kill and defending his own cave, or maybe stealing what he needed. Instead, he looked at the things happening to others, saw that he was not so special, and agreed that it would be better if none of the worst ones were allowed.

  • There are a ton of great points here and I can't answer to all of them. Instead, here is a general question. If I understand correctly, you are saying that in some cases people are willing to compromise potential benefits by being fair to a second party. Can we not argue that there is a utilitarian benefit to compromise within a society? I have more to say on your other points but I really want to think about it carefully first. Thanks for your thoughtful response.
    – syntonicC
    Commented Oct 14, 2014 at 2:03
  • Yes, but I think for most people these two forces are distinct. There is some kind of shelf-function, where utility has to add up and overbalance the sense of fairness. This implies to me that fairness is actually a separate thing, that it is more natural (for all the genetic reasons that make us social animals), and that mere exchange of utility, or planning around he utility of a social contract cannot adequately model the differences.
    – user9166
    Commented Oct 14, 2014 at 14:01
  • 1
    Also there are a few aspects of how humans are put together that argues against utility being the more natural behavior: 1) We reckon odds quite poorly, and naturalistic utility comparisons require an extensive, reliable sense of probability. 2) We react to slights and infractions way out of scale with the loss from an early age. 3) Many of us are reflexively helpful to a degree that is self-undermining and automatically seek an authority who will deploy us well.
    – user9166
    Commented Oct 14, 2014 at 14:28
  • You can also argue that 'giving is its own reward', and that all of this pro-social behavior provides pleasure. But that is just coping reality to your presuppositions. Of course the final 'calculation' takes the form of some balance of nerve impulses, so of course it looks like a calculation and of course the 'right' answer gives pleasure. But that is not a good reason for presuming utilitarian ethics. It is the form and presentation that the playing out of any other ethics would still take, given that we are animals.
    – user9166
    Commented Oct 14, 2014 at 14:57
  • 2
    @syntonicC - If you mean "can I encompass this thinking within a utilitarian framework", then the answer is "yes", as you can assign value to fairness (and indeed economists try to e.g. with the Ultimatum Game: smbc-comics.com/?id=3507#comic). But I think jobermark is right on target in saying that this isn't how it feels to the person actually making the decisions. Just because you can shoehorn anything into a utilitarian framework (the utility of what God wants is enormous; the utility of virtuous-acting is enormous; etc.) it doesn't mean that utility is inherent.
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Oct 14, 2014 at 19:32

You must log in to answer this question.

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