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Utilitarianism seems to be based on personal gain or positive / negative emotion.

  • Why help others? It makes you feel good, or it makes the world a better place which may benefit you with good feeling later on.

  • Why work hard? Makes you feel accomplished. Earns you money or accomplishment which may later make you feel good.

  • Why not kill people? Makes you feel bad, or puts you in prison which will cause you bad feelings as time passes.

The philosophy, to my limited knowledge, determines how to treat others based on personal gain either by full-circle chain reaction or by immediate emotional responses (feeling good, feeling bad), but this seems like a selfish and subjective motive for things.

Is there a philosophy that determines why we should do things based on a deeper reasoning for acting than feelings or personal gain?

For example, a philosophy about

  • doing things to be remembered as a great person?

  • acting simply because it would be a waste of potential not to?

  • or any other reason not based on personal gain or feelings?

What we want and our feelings are the most common motivator for us, and I surely dont claim to be above that kind of motivation, but I don't feel that it's a very high level of thought. It seems to be selfish idealism, and while difficult to ignore the wants of our human nature, it's appealing to me to think beyond selfishnessness if possible. I'm just wondering what philosophers have said about this.

  • The specific schools you are picking out are "Utilitarianisms". Look outside those schools, or even very far within them, and you can pick any big name in ethics from Diogenese of Sinope to Sartre. You should probably be more specific or you will get 'everyone but these three or four schools' as an answer, which will not give you much direction. If what motivates your specific question is the broad appeal of Utilitarianisms and their apparent ubiquity, maybe you should focus in on that instead. – user9166 Sep 23 '15 at 18:28
  • @jobermark I wasn't aware that the idealism I described was used only in 2-3 schools of thought. I will do as you suggest – Viziionary Sep 23 '15 at 18:47
  • I am not sure I got my point across. Utilitarianism is exactly that set of philosophies that do depend on good or bad feelings to judge whether acts are right or wrong. So now instead of being too broad, your question rules out all possible answers. Sorry to be confusing. – user9166 Sep 23 '15 at 20:04
  • @jobermark I changed one line to ask not if there is a "version of utilitarianism" but "another philosphy" which explsins instead a way of behaving toward others based on acts not intended to improve one self's position, at least not directly (for example, being remembered as a great person after death would be acceptable) – Viziionary Sep 23 '15 at 20:10
  • The main modern figures you want to look at are Kant and Rawls. More recently perhaps Levinas and bioethical claims that the "selfish" agent is not the "individual" but the genetic substrate transcending individuals. – Nelson Alexander Sep 25 '15 at 18:32
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The two other main schools of ethics I'm aware of are...

  1. Deontological Ethics (acts are good, bad or neutral in themselves)
  2. Virtue Ethics (the morality of the act is tied to my character)

Kant's moral philosophy is probably the best known example of #1, while Ancient Greek Philosophy often stresses #2.

Also, Utilitarianism doesn't imply that you act in a way to make you feel good, but simply to maximize the good. I help others not because I feel good about it, but because they have the capacity to suffer or feel joy.

A broad comparison....

As a Utilitarian, I would kick a rock in anger, but not a person because a rock can't suffer and thus I'm not contributing to pain. As a deontologist, I would look at the act of kicking itself as good, bad or neutral, and as a virtue ethicist, I would situate the morality of the kicking in what it says about my character.

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There are too many answers here, ethics provides a wide range of potential motivations for appropriate action across time. But it really originates in a lot of places in the exact opposite of the trend you note.

If the tradition of Greek philosophy starts from Thales, its ethics surely starts from Diogenes of Sinope, the Cynic. His primary ethical motivation, which came to him in a dream, was "Deface the currency."

His take on human motivation was that we are all tricked into doing too much for our own comfort, and we should do what undermines this habit. He chose to sleep outdoors, to wear the same thing all the time, and to busk for food as a 'performance artist'.

In a sense, civilized people no longer know what they are. In the metaphor of 'defacing the currency', we should discover how to be authentic, by removing or ignoring the artificial value added to an act by social convention and public approval, or by out own habits and selfishness.

He had an implicit faith that there is a deeper motivation within humans that can only be uncovered by discarding all artificiality and questioning our 'natural' motivations. In particular, acting based on utlity is so automatic, and so dictated by circumstances, that it cannot have positive ethical value itself. The real nature of what is good must be sought elsewhere.

Modern philosophy maintains this basic thread in Nietzsche and Sartre, who both preach a basic form of authenticity as a primary basis for ethics. As Nietzsche frames it, acting on utilitarian motives alone is itself weak and cowardly, and ignores an obligation to 'make art of one's Self'. If you do not look behind them often enough, you are an automaton governed by your social context.

Religious figures who incorporate this perspective sometimes phrase it in Darwinian terms. There is an obligation to the forces that formed you for you to find and contribute what is unique within you and transcends what is currently natural to everyone. So you can contribute change to drive evolution forward.

Other traditions very early roots are also often directly contrary to 'Utility' as a motivation. For instance seeing through the confusion the world presents is one of the earliest principles of Indian philosophy, and it very early also turns in a skeptical, ascetic direction like Cynicism.

  • I apologize for invalidating your answer. You suggested that I narrow it down. – Viziionary Sep 23 '15 at 19:00
  • You posted this answer after asking me to re-word my question, and it seems like the answer basically says "too broad" or at least begins that way. Could you edit you answer to fit the improved question, as it currently stands? – Viziionary Sep 24 '15 at 14:07
  • I have considered editing it, but it still fits the question as reworded. Cynicism is an example of an ethics not based on personal gain or feelings, which is what you request. It is based on the idea of authenticity and freedom as the highest values. The basic idea is that you are going to pursue comfort and success anyway, so acting that way cannot really be considered 'good', it is just automatic. For Diogenes, and his modern equivalent, what is 'good' is uncovering and exploring the parts of yourself that run counter to your automatic motivation, pushing the boundaries of evolution. – user9166 Sep 24 '15 at 16:08
  • Very interesting – Viziionary Sep 25 '15 at 4:13
  • I edited the comment into the answer, since it seems to be what you were really after as an answer. – user9166 Sep 25 '15 at 15:16

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