A teacher of mine said recently that the USA and UK favor a utilitarian ethical system - but I didn't find any sources supporting this claim.

EDIT To provide additional context: We were talking about the ethical basis of Germany (specifically about this decision of our highest court), which are based on a kantian philosophy. Afterwards he contrasted that to the USA/UK saying that they have utilitaristic ethics implemented. Therefore I'm interested in the initial argumentation/thinking of the founding fathers when they've written the constitution as well important and related decisions of the supreme court.

Therefore my questions: * What exact utilitarian viewpoint did they implement (e.g. Rule Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill) - or is their ethical viewpoint entirely different? * What was the reason they chose this exact ethical viewpoint? Why didn't they choose a Kantian viewpoint or something else? (I'm not sure whether it has something to do with the nationality of the persons involved => whether the USA didn't chose a Kantian ethic because he was German.)


2 Answers 2


There is no substantive ethical theory implemented in the US constitution. By 'substantive ethical theory' I mean a theory that says "an act is good if and only if . . . "

You might argue the US constitution embodies a social contract position, since (at least some versions of) social contract theories say that you don't need a substantive ethical theory to serve as the basis of legality or political authority.

Look at Rawls as the best expression of the kind of ethos implicit in the American legal system as it has developed over the last century. Not only do we not need substantive views about the nature of moral goodness, encoding those in law would be positively harmful, since it would license certain kinds of discrimination, such as wracked Europe during the wars on religion.

Given this, isn't the reasonable thing to do simply to let everybody have whatever substantive moral theory they like, but not let any one of those theories become the basis of law?


The reason social contract theory is not supposed to endorse substantive views about the good is that it's supposed to be relying upon self-interest. You're reason for wanting not to persecute heretics is that you don't want to get persecuted yourself, not because you think there is some deep moral code against doing so.

  • Please note, I'm not endorsing the Rawlsian line of thought I mention in the answer above, just reporting it.
    – user5172
    Commented Jul 8, 2016 at 13:49
  • “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” I don't see how to interpret this as other than social contract.
    – Dave
    Commented Jul 8, 2016 at 14:26
  • @Dave I take it that the other way to interpret it is simply to view it as a flowery introduction--that interpretation could be supported by noting that it nowhere defines "justice" "welfare" and the other key terms. You might think the founding fathers were more concerned with practical matters than building their constitution on a theory. That said, I'm in agreement that it looks like the social contract theory of Locke has had an influence on the document.
    – user5172
    Commented Jul 8, 2016 at 14:31

The Declaration of Independence, which on July 4, 1776 set the US on its own trajectory five years before the ensuing war was decided, makes a radical claim about ethics:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

This is a rights-based ethic, as opposed to a utility-based ethic, in which it is better to cause many to suffer justly than to cause one to suffer unjustly.

  • Well, we know that a root of crimes still is and was considered to be consequential. The one whose intentions in sanity state were bad deserves a punushment. So, I would not say there is one system based exceptionally on deontological system. They all always were pragmatic.
    – rus9384
    Commented Sep 27, 2018 at 16:04
  • I don't know that! Indeed, the purpose for the institution of governments is to secure inalienable rights for folks. But this is not to be superseded by somebody's decision about good consequences. Commented Sep 27, 2018 at 16:29
  • I mean intention makes the sense. If one didn't strive for something but accidentally his actions led to it, he probably is innocent. And existence of rights does not mean utility has nothing to do here. If it was so, capitalism would be wrong. Because capitalism is about utility.
    – rus9384
    Commented Sep 27, 2018 at 16:32
  • The most familiar example is the difference between manslaughter and murder. Neither one is OK, and government doesn't just do stuff (or not do stuff) that enables manslaughter. But punishments are chosen that acknowledge the correction needed for folks who think it's OK to intentionally take away others' rights... that person needs correction for both the harm and for the false belief that taking away rights of others is OK. This doesn't entail utilitarian ethics. There is also a separate conviction for attempted murder--- utilitarians would sya "no harm no foul". Commented Sep 27, 2018 at 16:40
  • I think if you prevented the terrorist act through killing (is murdering appropriate then?) the potential terrorist (and have proofs for that, and have evidence that police would not make it), you would not be seen a criminal. And there also exists rule utilitarianism.
    – rus9384
    Commented Sep 27, 2018 at 16:51

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