Recently, I advocated here the idea that moral rules need to be universal in order to be coherent - we should be able to formalize our principles into a decision tree - a moral algorithm.

The idea could encompass both hedonism formulated as "doing everything for your own good" and utilitarianism formulated as "doing everything for the maximum good". The important thing is, the premises should be explicit - so that given the premises, we are able to infer the moral conclusions.

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    I suppose there are a lot; many philosophers argued for a universal moral rules. I think one that might interest you is Kant, specifically his Critique of Practical Reason, though it is recommended to read all of his Critiques to gain the whole picture of his philosophy. If you're asking for the name of the branch, I think it's called Moral Universalism. Feb 13, 2018 at 16:26
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    Don't many religions axiomatize morality? "Thou shalt not..." for example?
    – user935
    Feb 13, 2018 at 16:42
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    I don't know about "algorithm", but some form of universalizability is a common condition on viable ethical systems, see What are some examples of categorical imperatives/universalizable maxims relevant to modern ethics? for review and challenges.
    – Conifold
    Feb 13, 2018 at 20:47
  • I see philosophy as the search for such a universal algorithm, among other things. I doubt anyone would argue with your view that this is what we need.
    – user20253
    Mar 27, 2019 at 10:46

4 Answers 4


Spinoza offers a quite revolutionary departure from the notion of a universal or 'prescriptive' moral coda.

For him most of what we term universals are in fact abstractions formulated from generalizations. Generalizations like; people tend to... or men always... or given a choice most people... all share a common feature; because the human mind, Spinoza says, can only effectively hold before its minds-eye a limited number of examples. Once that number is exceeded, all meaning connected with it becomes dissolved into useless abstraction, with no truth value or practical applicability.

What he recognized was that a function in the human mind as a natural/organic/innate function performs the equivalent of a universal dictum. Each of us, when faced with making a choice with important consequences, has 'heard' an inner voice telling us not to self-deceive but rather to do the right thing. Spinoza termed this 'the natural dictate of reason'.

Because this mechanism is present, though not always active in everyone, in all people who 'act in obedience to reason' those with this orientation will automatically conform in moral choices which will serve the needs of the community.

Read Spinoza's TTP Tractatus Theologico Politicus and his Political Treatise for detail on this powerfully revolutionary approach to Ethics and Morality.

Charles M. Saunders


Immanuel Kant argues for universality. "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction." The Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals.

The next question is whether one would call that principle an algorithm: a series of steps to produce a given result. Perhaps this idea can be seen as the root principle that implies many, more specific, rules of conduct, and together these become the content of an algorithm.


An obvious candidate is act utilitarianism, if we take an algorithm as a procedural framework for accomplishing a particular task. The desiderated end-state or task) is the greatest benefit of the greatest number. Each and every intentional action proceeds step-wise towards this goal. An action is right if and only if it benefits the greatest number. Constant iteration of this step-wise requirement will produce the desiderated end-state.

What counts as benefit - pleasure, happiness, knowledge, love, beauty, freedom - and how benefits such as these can be quantified so as to count towards maximisation are separate questions. The form of act utilitarianism is still algorithmic, however.


Throughout much of human history, moral judgements were universalized by reference to an object of faith, a universal and omniscient deity, which today is called the Almighty Algorithm.

The idea of universalized "logical" mortality has been pursued at least since the Enlightenment, and I have no doubt some 19th century thinkers proposed machines for this purpose, great mechanical Ouija Boards that can decide for us. And 20th century thinkers no doubt came up with decision trees and PowerPoint slides.

The problems involved become quickly apparent. Kant's categorical imperative is probably as close as you can get to a universal, internally coherent moral principle. Yet it was nearly devoid of useful particulars in given ethical situations. Confronted with a real moral problem, the Categorical Algorithm would probably burn itself out in an infinite regress towards the "noumenal."

Bentham's "felicitous calculus" meanwhile foundered on its empirical concept of utility. By his definitions, critics pointed out, any pig is happier than Socrates. Mill attempted to save utilitarianism by adding in "higher" and "lower" human values, which today look like the very definition of elitist cultural hegemony.

The reason we use twelve person juries rather that decision trees in court cases is that moral judgements are infinitely complex and situational, both always contingent and always striving for universality. The essence of our moral capacity, as Kant shows, is freedom, our internal "causality" that is autonomous and thus set apart from heteronomous or logically precise forces, such as algorithms.

I do believe the effort to universalize morals is essential but always imperfect. However, if you succeed in devising this algorithm, I might point out that it could easily be turned into a chip capable of inputting "sanctions" and implanted in newborns. Problem of evil, solved!

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