I have been thinking about utilitarianism a lot lately and am trying to find at what point an action goes from being morally good to morally wrong. For example, if it is morally better (according to utilitarianism) to donate $5 to charity rather than to buy a beer with the money, then does that make buying the beer instead of donating the $5 to charity morally wrong or just morally worse?

I'm trying to limit the boundaries for a clear demarcation on a scale of morality where good is at one end and bad at the other. I think that if animal actions are considered morally neutral, then whatever action is instinctive would bound that demarcation - i.e. any action that creates more utility would thus be good and actions diminishing utility would thus be bad.

Curious what other people might think on the topic. Are there any relevant papers about it?

  • Not so fast, I am afraid. Instinctive action by animals may be morally neutral, but that does not necessarily mean that instinctive human action is. Humans presumably have the ability to override their instincts, and sometimes ethics dictates that they ought, e.g. for enlightened self-interest or deferred gratification.
    – Conifold
    Commented Mar 9, 2017 at 22:36
  • @Conifold I agree, this does seem to set the bar quite low, but I don't really know what other benchmark would be reasonable to call actions morally good or bad by utilitarian definition
    – Curtis
    Commented Mar 10, 2017 at 13:09
  • You might like this video on utilitarianism
    – MmmHmm
    Commented Mar 11, 2017 at 21:46
  • Why do you need to classify actions as either good or bad ? Utilitarianism gives you a scale to sort your actions from the one that hurts the most to the one that increases happiness the most (provided you have a clear metric to evaluate each action). Isn't using that scale to recreate the naive concepts of good and evil missing the point ?
    – armand
    Commented Mar 31, 2021 at 21:23
  • @armand I think I that since some other moral systems have "wrong and right" actions and utilitarianism only has "better and worse" on a more or less 1D scale, I was trying to harmonize the two by finding at what point on the 1D scale at which we call an action good or bad (proposing that if we're doing better than what is natural/expected that it's on the "good" side of the scale and worse is on the "bad" side) but yes utilitarianism as it's defined only tells us if something is morally better or worse than something else not what's good or bad.
    – Curtis
    Commented Apr 3, 2021 at 21:20

6 Answers 6


OP: I think that if animal actions are considered morally neutral, then whatever action is instinctive would bound that demarcation

Animals and primitives are held back from morality not merely because they act instinctively but because they are not stirred to imagination. As described further in the following quotes from Jacques Derrida's Of Grammatology (1967).

The Economy of Pity

Ferocity is thus not bellicose but fearful. Above all, it is incapable of declaring war. It is the animal's characteristic ("ferocious animal"), the characteristic of the isolated being who, not having been awakened to pity by the imagination, does not yet participate in sociality or in humankind.


How in fact does Rousseau describe that moment (here at least it does not matter if it is real or mythic), the structural instance of slumbering pity? What, according to him, is that moment when language, imagination, relation to death, etc., are still reserved?

At that moment, he says, "he who has never been reflective is incapable of being merciful or just or pitying" [p. 32]. To be sure. But that is not to say that he would be unjust and pitiless. He is simply held short of that opposition of values. For Rousseau follows up immediately: "He is just as incapable of being malicious and vindictive. He who imagines nothing is aware only of himself; he is isolated in the midst of mankind" (Essay on the Origin of Languages).

In that "state," the oppositions available in Hobbes have neither sense nor value. The system of appreciation within which political philosophy moves, has as yet no chance to function. And one thus sees more clearly within what (neutral, naked, and bare) element that system enters into play. Here one may speak with indifference of goodness or badness, of peace or war: each time it will be as true as false, always irrelevant.

  • Thank you for the reference! That's a really interesting point about the morality of animals. Any thoughts on where a dividing line between morally good and bad actions should be drawn (for utilitarianism)?
    – Curtis
    Commented Mar 10, 2017 at 17:06

There is a point in ethics where the question stops being about "morally right" and "morally wrong" and it turns into "morally obligatory" "morally permissible" and "morally impermissible." Its not that "right and wrong" or "good and bad" don't mean anything, it's more so that they don't encapsulate the entire story just on their own.

Morally obligatory means that the action is good and you, as a moral agent, are under an obligation to do that action. Remember that a moral agent is someone who has the ability to make decisions based off of moral reasoning and they can be held accountable for those actions. If someone is trapped under a car and you have the ability to assist them without causing any inconvenience or harm to yourself, many ethicists would agree that you are morally obligated to help that person.

Morally permissible means that an action is not outright wrong. Some people make the argument that abortion is morally permissible, that is, it is not necessarily a "morally good" action to have an abortion but it is also not "morally bad". A large amount of people say that abortion in the case of incest or rape, or when having the child would have serious medical ramifications for the child or mother, is morally permissible.

Morally impermissible is something that is not obligatory or permissible. Many people would make the argument that as a moral agent, if you went and murdered somebody with no provocation or any sort of rational reasoning behind it, that would be a morally impermissible act. They would argue that you, as a moral agent who is capable of reasoning about the ethical implications of actions, have done something that is not allowed by any rational thought about ethics. You took somebody's rights to their life away, you committed a horrible act and you understood the harm in doing so, so that act is obviously impermissible.

There are obvious cases where it would be easy to say "you committed a morally impermissible act and that was morally wrong of you" but there are other cases, like your example with buying alcohol, where the act wasn't outright morally right or wrong, it was just a morally permissible action.

As for animals, especially before contemporary thoughts on this subject, most people argued that animals are not rational moral agents. They argued that the animals don't understand what it means to be ethical, they can't reason within an ethical system, so their actions are not made as a moral agent. As such, we can't assign ethical values to their actions. An animal might kill to eat another animal, but most people would argue that the animal doesn't understand the concept of "murder" or "right vs. wrong" so its not that their actions are neutral, its that they aren't acting with moral agency, they aren't a rational agent. We are moral agents, we understand ethical reasoning and we understand, to a large extent at least, what is morally impermissible and what is morally permissible, therefore acting like an animal isn't an excuse to commit morally impermissible actions.

A strict Utilitarian view is that we are morally obligated in every situation to do the action that maximizes utility (happiness, well being, or however else it is specifically defined). Again, a strict view would be that if you are given two options and one of them is morally obligatory, it increases utility more than the other action, it would be morally impermissible to do that action. Not all Utilitarians believe in the strictest view and some might see your example of buying beer as a morally obligatory vs a morally permissible action.


Animal behavior is not necessarily morally neutral. Some animals appear to act in a more moral way than other animals. Simply put, there are nice dogs and there are mean dogs. Animal behavior can not be used as a measure because it is not neutral, nor static. Also, it depends on which animal is being used as an example. For instance, is the animal a carnivore or an herbivore? Here is a TED talk by Fans de Waal about moral behavior in animals.


The question of whether something is definetely bad and definetley good may be represented with a metaphor. In the interval [0,1], every real number n is lesser relative to something if n isn't 1. It will also always be greater than something if n isn't 0.

Absolute goodness would rely on 1. Absolute badness would rely on 0. Doing anything other than the best (1) is bad at least in relation to 1, and good in relation to 0. So there's no turning point and everything in between has moral value.

Another question is asking whether we should apply this to anything that we consider to have agency, since agency is required for choices and for moral choices. This specifically has nothing to do with utilitarism, but simply puts the question of how someone defines moral agency.


There is no good or evil, morals are taught along with religion or laws in order to allow civilization to exist without anarchy, but animals do not consider their actions good or evil.

Humans will project their own views of good or evil, or morality onto different animals. For example in the movie inglorious bastards the ss man describes jews as rats and germans as eagles. Because in some way people view rats universally in a worse light than squirrels or eagles.

An analogy I like to use to show there is no such thing as good or evil, or that its all relative is: a wolf and a deer, a wolf kills and eats a deer, so its bad for the deer or evil, and its good for the wolf.

You may be able to come up with a situation that doesn't benefit any party, and is to the detriment of one or more parties. But that still wouldn't really be evil, its just what happened. Even If someone dies, there are those who benefit. Such as the coroner/medical examiner, undertaker, anyone left in the will, even the worms that eat the body.

In the example you used, donating $5 to charity or buying a beer, neither of those could be considered an animal type behavior. Also keep in mind that many times over half the money donated to charities goes to managing the charity and doesn't make it to those who need the help. Also buying a beer benefits all the people who brought that beer to you, the manufacturer, distributer, retailer/waitress and you yourself get a beer.

There have been studies that show almost universally that when a baby is exposed to a spiders presence the baby will get upset. This doesn't mean that spiders are evil, without spiders there would be a lot more bugs flying around than you would like.

  • I have to disagree with you. There is good and evil, as all known human cultures have many points of agreement in this regard (look for Donald Brown's "Human Universals"). You cannot judge good and evil of one species from the perspective of another, but each species (including our own) have its own definition (or more than one) of good and evil. But I like your last paragraphs.
    – Rodrigo
    Commented Mar 11, 2017 at 23:28
  • All laws, religion, education, government all dictate "morals". If you do not follow the moral codes/laws then society breaks down. So theft, rape, murder, telling lies (false testimony), and other things become taboo because if they were allowed then people couldn't exist in a civilization. If you left people to their own devices you would have family feuds like the hatfield and mcoys. But nothing is universally evil or good, people are just forced to do, or not do certain things.
    – M. Aykens
    Commented Mar 12, 2017 at 1:03
  • That's not the daoist/taoist worldview. It's been said that, after a great war in divided China, those kings counseled by daoist sages recovered much faster, exactly because they didn't dictated morals. "The more regulations there are, the poorer people become (...) The more picky the laws are, the more thieves and gangsters there are (...) Therefore the sages say: (...) I enjoy my serenity and the people correct themselves. I do not interfere and the people enrich themselves." (acmuller.net/con-dao/daodejing.html#div-58) That's natural: social animals prefer peace inside the group.
    – Rodrigo
    Commented Mar 12, 2017 at 1:20
  • Zoologists have long noticed how violence is highly ritualized in all animal species. It was necessary a deep understanding of natural selection to know how this could be. Richard Dawkins explained this very well in his famous "The Selfish Gene".
    – Rodrigo
    Commented Mar 12, 2017 at 1:23
  • I would have to disagree, I think that morals are universal (in the absence of ignorance). If an action causes more suffering than another action and both actions are viable options (e.g. murdering someone for no real reason vs. not doing that), then the net impact on the universe is negative, so I think it's pretty objectively morally wrong whether you're from Canada or Mars. Also the point about half the money going to charity is nit-picky so I'm not going to address it, I think it would take a very compelling argument to prove that buying a beer creates more utility than a donation.
    – Curtis
    Commented Mar 13, 2017 at 12:54

It seems some ethology could help you here. I suggest reading Through a Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe, by Jane Goodall, where she describes how an old female chimpanzee, who have never had any child of her own, once attacked and killed the young child of a young female from her own group. The other members of the group ignored her from that point on, I don't remember if she ended up being expelled from the group or what. To me it's obvious that morality is not merely cultural, and the behavior of that chimpanzee group was based on their natural morality, which is quite similar to our own.

Now, what to do with your $5? I consider the following passage from the Dao De Jing (54) enlightening:

Cultivate it in yourself and virtue will be real.
Cultivate it in the family and virtue will overflow.
Cultivate it in the town and virtue will be great.
Cultivate it in the country and virtue will abundant.
Cultivate it in the world and virtue will be everywhere.

So, you could give it to charity (to unknown people) if you don't need it, and if your family don't need it, and if your town don't need it, etc. But if you give everything to unknown people to the point where you have no happiness of your own, then your family will be the first to notice (and miss it). So to reach an equilibrium one must first have it in itself. Sometimes it needs a beer or something, but probably never need expensive clothes, cars and so on (DDJ 53).

Yet, you may want to read Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil, which will show you there's more than one way of measuring "good" and "bad"

I hope I've been of any help.

  • Interesting point about the chimps (I had actually thought about the example of Coco the gorilla lying about destroying her sink and blaming someone else). As for the passage, I find that mentality troubling, since it prioritizes the well-being of yourself and ones you know over overall wellbeing. I think I understand your point though, for example Bill Gates probably wouldn't have tons of money to donate if he hadn't first been motivated by personal financial gains.As for the Nietzshche book,I look forward to checking it out, I've read a few excerpts from it and found them interesting.Thanks!
    – Curtis
    Commented Mar 13, 2017 at 12:45
  • @Curtis You're welcome! The point in that Daoist passage is exactly that, if you're not well yourself, you'll be less able to help others. But of course, this shouldn't go to such heights as you becoming a millionaire/billionaire (I personally don't like Bill Gates, his monopoly of informatics has rendered billions of older PCs useless, which could serve the poorer people all over the world).
    – Rodrigo
    Commented Mar 13, 2017 at 15:15

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