I was wondering whether it is possible to boil down ethics to a simple formula.

I ended up with the formula

A decision is ethical if and only if it promotes ultimately the survival of humanity.

I would be interested if there is a flaw in the formula. A counter example (i.e., an ethical decision that cannot be explained by the formula) would be sufficient.

  • 1
    How would you apply such a formula to decisions that will likely have no (positive or negative) effect at all on the survival of humanity?
    – Flo
    Aug 13, 2018 at 5:59
  • 1
    This is act utilitarianism and it is known to be unworkable because "ultimately" is unknowable. Many ethical positions contradict it on principle, e.g. "let the world die but the justice prevail" was a Roman maxim, Dostoevsky wrote that "happiness of the whole world is not worth the tears of one tortured child", and Kant that "every rational being exists as an end in itself, not merely as a means to be used by this or that will at its discretion". To them, killing an innocent would never be ethical, not even for the survival of humanity
    – Conifold
    Aug 13, 2018 at 6:11
  • I agree to both of you it is difficult to know "ultimately". Perhaps the role of us and philosophers is to find out and convince others what this "ultimately" is. However, I don't think the example that @Conifo
    – Jae
    Aug 13, 2018 at 8:25
  • Well, philosophers were instead successful at convincing themselves and others that act utilitarianism is hopeless, which is why it is largely abandoned today. It is also broadly accepted that workable ethics does not distill into simple formulas like a single utility, be it survival of humanity or something else, hence the general decline of utilitarianism. Its more viable heirs are grouped under the label of consequentialism.
    – Conifold
    Aug 13, 2018 at 8:37
  • (Sorry, my last comment was only partly posted) I agree to Conifold (and to Flo) that it is difficult to know "ultimately". Perhaps the role of us is to find out and convince ourselves and others what this "ultimately" is. In that sense I don't think the examples that @Conifold gave necessarily contradict the formula, because preserving justice and not killing innocent people can ultimately lead to the survival of humanity, even this does not seem so in the near future. For example, if people start killing innocent people, then the society can ultimately collapse.
    – Jae
    Aug 13, 2018 at 8:42

4 Answers 4


Here is a Gedankenexperiment that might serve as your desired counterexample:

Let us assume a group of people living on an isolated volcanic island. The volcano will erupt soonish, and destroy every being and artefact on the island. The group has no means to sent persons, artefacts or even messages away from the island. This setup ensures that nothing these people do has any impact whatsoever on the medium- or even long term development of humanity.

Does this mean that we cannot discriminate between possible actions of them based on ethical grounds alone?

I am sure that there is an overwhelming consensus that ethical considerations still apply to our group. I, for example, would just it significant preferable from an ethical perspective if they'd live in a harmonious liberal society until the end of the days, compared to torturing each other to death.

Of course, there are other issues with the suggested ethical maxime.

  • I would also wish that the people on the island lived harmoniously. But where does this wish come from? Perhaps it is because our idea of ethics has been already shaped by our experience in the world, which allows for promoting the survival of humanity and is not like the island in the Gedankenexperiment?
    – Jae
    Aug 13, 2018 at 12:36

Individually? Yes. Collectively? Most likely no. Without giving up some ethics? Heck no.

Your question is very fuzzy. When you ask...

I was wondering whether it is possible to boil down ethics to a simple formula.

...we get stuck on the following: "[is it] possible". That expression is very imprecise and leads us to several different answers, or more precisely: to several different questions that — if expressed sloppily — leads to the phrasing in your question.

So let us examine a few of those questions:

Q: Is it possible for one person to adopt this as their personal ethics?

A: Sure you can. There is nothing to stop you from doing it.

Q: It it possible to get the whole of humanity to adopt this as everyone's personal ethics?

A: Well that depends... how good are you at persuading people? Ethics are decided on consensus. So if you can reach consensus, then this ethic could be adopted. Is it practically possible to achieve consensus on this? Most likely not because... see next paragraph.

Q: It is possible to replace all our present ethics with this one formula, and arrive at the same moral code as we have now?

A: That is resounding no. Looking at for instance the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; there are many rights in there that do not "promote the survival of humanity". They to not work against the survival of humanity either, they simply do not affect that and are aimed at making this survival more palatable and pleasant (or at least prevent grief that makes the survival unpleasant).

For example:

Article 23.

  1. Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
  2. Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
  3. Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
  4. Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Now the right to equal pay for equal work is a rather ubiquitous ethic, and even animals exhibit outrage if this ethic is not followed.

But there is nothing in the Equal Pay For Equal Work ethic that "promotes the survival of humanity". Humanity has had unequal pay for equal work well over 90% of if the time we have been civilised, and it was not until this past century that we codified Equal Pay For Equal Work. And yet humanity has survived quite well during all of that time.

The issue with your formula is that it lacks coverage for many of the ethics we have employed today, such as for instance equality in rights and duties. So it cannot replace our current ethics and achieve the same results; we would have to give some of them up and start accepting behaviour we today feel is unethical, simply because your formula does not ban that sort of behaviour.

  • Thanks. I asked the question in the sense of the third formulation, i.e., "It is possible to replace all our present ethics with this one formula, and arrive at the same moral code as we have now?" (I thought this was clear). Anyway, if I understand your answer correctly, it seems that you believe that there is no correlation between promoting the survival and making the survival more palatable and pleasant. If living in a society is not enjoyable, I can imagine less people would like to continue to live in that society and may commit more suicides than in a livable society.
    – Jae
    Aug 13, 2018 at 14:18
  • @Jae Well that still does not promote the survival of humanity. The UDHR was codified less than 100 years ago while humanity has been around for 100 000 years (at least). And we clearly do not need to codify or otherwise establish these ethics we have today in order to survive as a species. Still, we do not want to give up these ethics. We want them to remain. If we then replace it with something that allows people to be unethical compared to the previous set of ethics we had, then the new set — your formula — is inadequate; it does not cover enough.
    – MichaelK
    Aug 13, 2018 at 14:22
  • But if UDHR (and other moral codes) were codified at least 100 000 years ago, then we cannot exclude the possibility that we would be healthier and live longer now and that less people would like to wage war against each other and commit suicides, right? I think the claim that humanity has been around at least for 100 000 years does not necessarily disprove that there is a relation between "the survival of humanity" and "making the survival more pleasant", does it? Perhaps having at least some (not necessarily perfect) moral codes helped us to survive?
    – Jae
    Aug 13, 2018 at 14:41
  • @Jae Now you are changing the parameters of the question. And in any case(!) it does not alter the answer... all I did was to show that we have plenty of ethics that are not necessary for the survival of humanity. Had we had the UDHR 100 000 years ago, the only thing this would have changed is that I would have had to find another way to demonstrate that our current ethics are not necessary for survival of humanity. The fact that the UDHR is very new just provides me with a shortcut to make that argument.
    – MichaelK
    Aug 13, 2018 at 14:44
  • Alternately, lots of people have argued that there are too many people on the planet, and that having considerably fewer would be good for continued human existence. I know of no other theory of ethics that would favor exterminating several billion people. Aug 14, 2018 at 22:01

I think some of the counterexamples given in other answers convincingly establish that this cannot be a complete theory of ethics. Perhaps a more interesting question is whether it is a reasonable first approximation. That is, perhaps, in most cases, a decision's effect on humanity's survival odds is the primary determinant of whether it is the right thing to do. If the decision doesn't affect these odds, then other issues come into play.

Here's how someone might argue for that in a very futurist way, perhaps a bit along the lines of Max Tegmark's Life 3.0. (I don't mean to endorse this theory or these arguments, I just want to explore it and figure out what assumptions would be needed.) In the below, "humanity" should probably be replaced by "humanity and any of its highly intelligent descendants" but for simplicity I'll just say "humanity".

1) If humanity survives long-term, life will likely expand into space. The resources available in space are mind-boggling. It will likely also discover many other things (scientific theories, etc.). These resources could be used to create mind-bogglingly many lives. E.g., entire planets could be transformed into ideal wildlife resorts for many creatures, including perhaps resurrected extinct species. If humanity goes extinct, all this is much less likely.

2) The outcomes are indeed likely to be good; as more resources are available, there will be less strife, etc.

3) Due to the number of creatures involved, maximizing the chances of this happening indeed outweighs short-term considerations. In particular, we shouldn't discount the future too much.

  • 1
    I think in 2) we may need to define what "good" means (why is less strife good?) to avoid circular reasoning.
    – Jae
    Aug 15, 2018 at 15:55
  • I agree; what I've provided is at best an outline of an argument, and many details would need to be filled in.
    – present
    Aug 15, 2018 at 16:39

What you describe is an argument in the vein of "the ends justify the means." Not everyone agrees that this is a valid way of thinking, though those like Machiavelli would make good arguments for it.

The more interesting question is "what is humanity?" We tend to think of this as an obvious thing, but when you really stretch it out in time, it gets more nuanced. If silicon based bodies are a better long term format, can one be human with a silicon based body?

Nietzsche wrote to this end in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In it, there is "The Last Man," a group whose primary goal is to promote the survival of themselves. But it is not clear if promoting the survival of a few H. sapiens bodies is the same as promoting the survival of "humanity."

There is also the question of whether it is reasonable to measure the difference in how well two actions promote the survival of humanity. In some cases, it's easy: if H. sapiens doesn't reproduce for the next 50 years, humanity ends. For smaller decisions, it is less obvious how to propagate the side effects of these actions out several millinia, or even the millions of years that might be needed to weave these actions into "the survival of humanity."

  • Regarding the last paragraph, I think we could choose the action that is to the best of our knowledge in line with higher moral codes, which promote the survival of humanity. Indeed, the system we live in can be seen as a dynamical process whose future is not precisely predictable. Our role could be then to make the best (sustainable) guess and convince ourselves and others that our guess is the best.
    – Jae
    Aug 15, 2018 at 15:31
  • @Jae You can, but now you have a circular logic. Your ethics are tied to a higher moral code, which has to have a foundation in something. However, you bring up a good point. As far as codes of ethics go, all that I have seen come in the from of "do your best" coupled with "here's some knowledge about what your best is."
    – Cort Ammon
    Aug 15, 2018 at 15:35

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