Is it true that Utilitarianism is not falsifiable in principle?

What would be an example of falsifiable ethics?

  • I made an edit which you may roll back or continue editing. You can see the versions by clicking on the "edited" link above. I wonder where you heard that Utilitarianism is not falsifiable? That would help provide context for an answer. Welcome to this SE! Sep 9, 2018 at 6:09
  • 4
    It'd help a lot if you could tell us where you're getting the idea from. "unfalsifiable" is not a main category in metaethics or normative ethics.
    – virmaior
    Sep 9, 2018 at 6:47
  • If we agree with Hume that an ought can not be derived from an is then any ethics is unfalsifiable in principle. If is and ought are logically cut off from each other nothing about what is can tell us anything about what ought to be.
    – Conifold
    Sep 10, 2018 at 0:07
  • @Conifold According to this logic categorical imperative is not falsifiable as well. One of its applications tells otherwise. Namely, "do not lie" is easily refuted by evidence. Because it actually is possible to live in the world where everyone lies.
    – rus9384
    Oct 14, 2018 at 23:09

4 Answers 4


John : welcome to PSE.

I think your question connects with the older form of utilitarianism, closely associated with Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), which assumed a form of deterministic psychological hedonism (from Greek hedone, pleasure).

Take this quote from Bentham :

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think: every effort we can make to throw off our subjection, will serve but to demonstrate and confirm it. In words a man may pretend to abjure their empire: but in reality he will remain subject to it all the while. (Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1781, ch. 1, 'Of the Principle of Utility' : https://www.utilitarianism.com/jeremy-bentham/index.html.)

In the way Bentham formulates psychological hedonism it does appear to be insulated - immune - from falsification. How could one disprove Bentham's claim ? Anything I do can be interpreted as the pursuit of pleasure or the avoidance of pain. I dive into a freezing river to save a drowning child. Well, the pleasure of rescuing the child exceeded the pain of watching the child drown. I do not dive into a freezing river to save a drowning child. Well, the pain of diving into a freezing river exceeded the pleasure of saving the child.

Whatever I do or don't do can be read consistently with - interpreted as an expression of - psychological hedonism. Hence the charge of 'not falsifiable in principle'. Nothing could count as evidence against it since it can intepret all evidence in its own favour.

  • Thanks for the answer. Can you please also tell some example of falsifiable ethic?
    – VRS
    Sep 10, 2018 at 7:38
  • Thank you. I will think it over and add the material to my answer. Best - Geoffrey
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Sep 10, 2018 at 8:52
  • This answer has some telling and worthwhile details, but I believe it doesn't get to the crux.
    – user26700
    Sep 10, 2018 at 20:47
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    So the answer is really irrelevant because it does not get to the (unstated) crux. Thank you.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Sep 10, 2018 at 22:46

Falsifiability is normally a scientific concept. If a theory makes predictions, and the predictions can be tested objectively, it's falsifiable. If a theory isn't falsifiable, it's not normally considered scientific. This is mostly due to the influence of Karl Popper and his work in the philosophy of science.

It's essential to falsifiability that we can make true objective statements of fact, and "objective" here means that people can agree that the statements are definitely true or false. If we can't make objective statements and make objective measurements about the subject of a theory, then the theory can't make falsifiable predictions.

For any theory of ethics to be falsifiable, it would have to make predictions about ethical values that can be falsified. To be falsified, we'd need to be able to tell the moral values of particular actions and agree on them, and that doesn't happen. We can all agree on whether an object is broken or whole, for example, but not whether (for example) strict interpretation of a particular contract is good or bad.

Therefore, no ethical theories are falsifiable, using the definitions of falsifiability I've encountered or was able to find with a Google search.

  • I basically agree with this, but attempted to add some precisions, which seem key to me, in my answer. Given the usual stupidity, of course, an inferior answer was preferred...
    – user26700
    Sep 10, 2018 at 20:45

"Is it true that Utilitarianism is not falsifiable in principle?"

This question requires a clarification of terms. If we accept the stricter form of the notion of un-falsifiability, that which is in keeping with all experiential data, it follows that all "ethics" are not falsifiable. This is because "ethics" is understood as the theorizing activity, rather than what happens empirically. So, if one uses the modern, the current most powerful understanding of what ethics is, i.e., ethics rather than morals (mores, behavior) the issue is assumed to be settled in advance.

"What would be an example of falsifiable ethics?"

Such an ethics would have to understand ethics in another way than according to the fact value distinction as it came in through Max Weber and Georg Simmel (one can just as well point to Hume-Kant "is / ought"), and is now largely taken for granted. In other words, only an understanding of ethics that challenged the fact value distinction could overcome that objection. Since an observation of mores, of the way a group does act, can never tell us what the right way to act is. Only false claims concerning how people will act can be falsified. Not false claims about what the right way of life is.

  • Why do you write: "Since an observation of mores, of the way a group does act, can never tell us what the right way to act is." The actions of groups territorially and the results, show in the long term what evil should be not-done, when considering the rise and fall of nations. Creativity is a result of a certain way of living. Creativity can be distinguished from development. Oct 15, 2018 at 3:31

According to Intequinism utilitarianism is a false ethic, because of idolatry and sacrificing "the other". The fallaciousness relates to "ethos" ("ethics") and "theos" ("god"). "Ethos" is a fault of utilitarianism, not many people regard consciously because of indoctrination by, for example, the Eucharist and group pressure. Discussion about it is usually limited by the powerful. Buddha and Jesus opposed idolatry and idols were made of them. Most people who enrich themselves with utilities; being part of utilitarian run societies, go along for the ride. They accept the luxuries of an evil system because the sacrificing of "the Other" is a kind of game it seems, that partly causes unreasonable development of new utilities (technologies). It is better understood when realising Socrates said in the Republic "gods" and "goddesses" have good ideas. Utilitarianism is a system controlled via causing fear. "The other" ("the profane") who oppose utilitarianism are ostracised, outlawed and excommunicated, basically the same methodology. The ideas of isolated people are "imparted" and developed via gathering "intelligence" and printing money, because their ideas are good; due to their honesty. Utilitarians usually suffer from Caiaphas Syndrome, which can be identified, for example, when they accuse "the profane" of thinking they each is "God/god like Jesus". Utilitarians sacrifice people from their own communities by isolating them for the good of "the group". These days it goes further than isolation. Murdering people who oppose the status quo of territories is becoming common occurrences, as reported by the international news. I can go on for much longer, about the evils of utilitarian societies. It should however be considered, currently it is much better than in the past, when people were fed to lions, crucified and burned alive. John Stuart-Mill gave hope for utilitarian societies. He argued societies should not force individuals to do things. He argued laws should only force people to not-do evil things, which can be not-done to all people. Not-doing evil to all is the root of Love. Unfortunately his good advice was not implemented by most utilitarian societies in the West, according to my comprehension of reality. Gang Stalking, which is in my opinion, a modern form of ostracism, excommunication and outlawing "the individual", is proof of that. In utilitarian societies, people who did not break the law, are sometimes ostracised and punished, because they are honest, and because Truth is regarded inimical. By ostracising "the individual", the powerful are trying to say, they the powerful each, is not "the returned god". According to philosophy and religion "God is honest". Thomas Aquinas, for example, wrote about "God Himself Who cannot lie".

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