Is there a school of ethics that doesn't view any particular action as bad or unethical, but rather actions are only bad if they result in negative outcomes for society? For example: murder itself is not bad but the negative consequences of murder on society (grief, loss of productivity, etc.) make the action of murder bad. Inversely, if someone is murdered but it results in no negative impact to society (including police investigation or people wondering what happened to the victim), this act of murder would not be immoral.

I seem to recall hearing about some school of ethics that took this view but I can't recall what it was called or who originated it.

  • 2
    Yes, it is called utilitarianism en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Utilitarianism
    – Conifold
    Commented Sep 20, 2016 at 18:00
  • Perfect. Thanks. As you might have guessed, philosophy is not my area of expertise. I appreciate the quick response.
    – JRF1111
    Commented Sep 20, 2016 at 18:03
  • Everything is an action whether you do it or not. Therefore, how come a consequence is bad in a current in which actions are not marked as bad or good. A consequence, as another action, can be nothing based on that idea.
    – Tarik
    Commented Sep 20, 2016 at 19:45
  • Take care not to conflate ethics with morals. Ethics is the behavior that fits within an ethos... ergo, a Nazi killing a Jew is ethical behavior within the Nazi ethos. It is still, unquestionably, immoral. Commented Nov 21, 2016 at 7:11

1 Answer 1


The murdered person would count, in Utilitarianism, (positively or negatively according to the happiness he contains, even if he produces no effect on anyone else), and his absence would change the sum of "utility" in the world.

I think what you are after is material consequentialism.

There are very few absolute holders of this position in the Western tradition, since it means that no act is moral or immoral when you do it. So it is impossible to behave morally. You just have to behave, and find out later whether it was moral or immoral. Which is not how we intuitively want the world to be.

Even the most absolutist Utilitarian wants to be able to compute the odds of his action helping or hurting, and have the decision matter. So most forms of consequentialism involve the intent or expectation behind the act, rather than the material outcome.

Skepticism and the associated (but better developed) Hindu or Buddhist traditions that encourage peace through detachment sometimes favor material consequentialism as a criterion for morality, as a way of making the point that these computations really do not matter and just encourage worry and other investment in suffering that might limit equanimity or compassion.

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