I've been thinking about how people devise ethical systems, and if in fact we could create an ethical system that allows for positive command. I think I, and probably most people I meet, am at my core a utilitarian as it feels the most intuitively isomorphic way of expressing ethical inclination. However, there keep being wrenches thrown in to that general worldview, and I'm wondering whether a perfect system could allow for positive command.

For example, the difficult case of the Kitty Genovese wherein I'm genuinely agnostic whether people could be held accountable for not acting. Similarly, Philippa Foot's famous (and by this point infamous) raises serious concerns about this fundamentally utilitarian ideal - and its similar cases lead me to reconsider the principle entirely.

So, would I want to accept a society that imposed a command of "Thou shalt give x amount of charity every day" (or something along those lines).

My gut reaction is no. It feels too intrusive and restrictive. And, if we just extrapolate upwards, it then becomes easy to reject all notions of positive command, and to want to build a system with only negative commands (i.e. "Thou shalt not kill").

However, this is only a possible consideration if there exist moral commands which can not be cogently expressed by their negation. For the example above, I'm trying to figure out a way to express the idea of "Thou shalt give x amount of charity every day" as a negative command, but I can't think of an example. The only things that come to mind are "Thou shalt not pass by a struggling neighbor or a struggling friend or a struggling [fill in the blank]..." ad infinitum. To express this idea in a negative, one would need to express every possible scenario which one cannot allow for, and using the principle of plenitude, this is uncountably many and therefore impossible. So, to my mind, the idea of "Thou shalt give charity" feels inexpressible in its negation in a finite sense, and therefore should not be included in our moral system.

My question is am I wrong? Is it actually possible to express any theorem or command finitely (or, cogently) by its negation? Or, would this maybe be a good boundary for an ethical system?

  • You might not dislike this article: academia.edu/1978779/Searles_Ontology_of_Human_Rights
    – MmmHmm
    Nov 4, 2016 at 17:45
  • 1
    The Genovese case did not happen as you say it did. More recent investigations have questioned the original version of events. A 2007 study found many of the purported facts about the murder to be unfounded, stating there was "no evidence for the presence of 38 witnesses, or that witnesses observed the murder, or that witnesses remained inactive en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_of_Kitty_Genovese#Reaction Do your homework, don't rely on urban legends.
    – user4894
    Nov 4, 2016 at 18:43

2 Answers 2


I am not OK with utilitarianism for other reasons, it encourages too much intelligence (therefore elitism and lawyering) and too little empathy (because 'missing' someone else's perspective 'accidentally' is rewarded by getting your own way.) So I will answer from a different context.

Given the assumptions about Categories, in Kant, maxims can always be positive. I would argue that they should always be so.

Negation has problems of its own. We could follow down the Cretan paradox, etc. But enough thought has been invested here for us to realize that negation is a very unstable operation in general. Real things have real opposites, instead of vague lacunae. Whereas negative statements can be absolute nonsense. There is no call to depend upon the less certain form.

But more relevantly, it is obvious that moral distinctions are not generally clear. Negation introduces to morality a notion of dichotomy that is basically alien to it in most forms. Maxims like "Don't lie." are not always meaningful. It is often difficult to know when you are lying, and, to my mind, that means the rule itself needs improving.

The problem you ascribe to negation is actually not about negation, and it is a supporting motive to avoid negation. The question is what is expected, permitted or compelled and to what degree. And there are places in morality that call for each. "Do not kill" only seems to clarify whether this should be expected, permitted or compelled. Am I obligated, permitted or expected to stop someone from killing to save other lives? So how does the negative form do anything but hide the real need for clarification?

Considering that, positive maxims generally have more content and less ambiguity. "Allow any other the freedom to live" works better than "Don't kill" because it is about the freedom to live, and gives more handhold to the reasons for euthanasia, suicide, etc. It naturally raises the questions 'is insanity freedom?', 'can one choose to relinquish choice?' The closed form given by negation loses the motivation.

Likewise for lying "Don't lie" is nice, and as far as it goes I respect Kant's reasoning relative to it. But the maxim can be improved by the work needed to put it into a positive form. This requires considering motivations for lying and can disambiguate 'lies' like promises and mythology. "When you speak, convey what you believe." means a great deal more, and is less ambiguous at the point of application.

  • What does "encourages too much intelligence (therefore elitism and lawyering)" mean? If intelligence is something Util. promotes, it's because intelligence is generally a good, right? Nov 5, 2016 at 11:50
  • Also, Kant's example of a maxim about lying (in the Groundwork, and more fully realized in the Second Critique) is of course not "don't lie" but something closer to what you describe as the less ambiguous version. It includes circumstances and goals. Nov 5, 2016 at 11:59
  • @ChristopherE Intelligence is great for a lot of things, but if you want a moral system to work, your regular Joe has to be able to play along with the rest of us, or he will become dependent upon authorities and get manipulated. So requiring too much intelligence or too much capacity for detail to understand moral arguments is a flaw in any ethical system, and utilitarianism has that flaw in spades.
    – user9166
    Nov 5, 2016 at 15:15
  • @ChristopherE He elaborates conditions of application, but the overall duty is not to lie. It retains its negative character. I think it needs to do so in order to accommodate our inability to really understand the truth. I am less attached to the objectivity of truth, and would trade it for a more positive, directive maxim.
    – user9166
    Nov 5, 2016 at 15:27
  • Ah, thanks. Since I've never heard that objection to Utilitarianism, and it seems to me counterintuitive, do you have a citation for who has developed it? Nov 5, 2016 at 19:47

The problem is with "express". You can easily write "Thou shalt not not-give to charity every day" or even replace "not-give" with a synonym like "shun", from mathematical/logical point of view there is no difference between positives and negatives. What you need is a more robust notion of "positive action" to distinguish between command and prohibition, e.g. a system where rejection is not expressed by logical negation, and "negative facts" are established independently. Bremer discusses such frameworks in Assertion and Rejection:

"Rejection concerns the conviction that some fact is absent. Assertion of the opposite in distinction claims some fact to be present, namely a negative fact."

Religious ethics, Christian or Islamic, employs both God's commands and prohibitions, so presumably they do envision commands that can not be cogently expressed by their negations, see Divine Command Theory. Note that once we have means of establishing negatives directly, just as positives, the issue shifts to the more practical problem of making judgement calls on various kinds of facts.

Going back to the charity example, "Thou shalt not shun charity" has perhaps enough flexibility to preclude the gut reaction against intrusiveness and restrictiveness, and at the same time "shun" can be constructively interpreted as a practically establishable "negative fact". Of course, not by strict logic modeled on scientific observations and experiments, but ethics is not science. Outside of classical logic it may not be necessary to "express every possible scenario". Establishing whether someone shunned charity or not will require judgement calls based on some, perhaps vague, communal norms. They may or may not involve frequency and amounts in a context dependent way, with the context including giver's means, price levels, inflation rate, etc. But presumably it can be reasonably accomplished in most cases, and hence can be ethically functional. Similarly, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor" can be made contextually meaningful. The problem of indefinite scope only arises when one tries to come up with absolutist descriptions valid for all times and places, which is typically unworkable.

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