It seems like a relation like '<' exists in morality, as most ethical systems view moral actions as more evil/good than other actions.

Has any philosopher tried to quantify this, e.g. how much better a moral choice is to an immoral one?

  • i may up-vote, but feel you need more context. in deciding on a course of action we do seem condemned to weighting alternatives, and not just in utilitarianism. so, i'd be interested in whether perfect duties can conflict in any sense whatsoever. e.g. if we imagine that we don't have one duty (not to lie) in order to work out the situation we face (the fugitive will be murdered) do other duties appear (the duty to save their life)? if so then aren't we saying that the not lying course of action is preferable, more valuable, than the alternative (of saving their life)?
    – user38026
    Commented Mar 29, 2019 at 13:39
  • i just mean that in that sense performing a perfect duty is not incomparably better than immorality. in deciding to perform it we decide it is more valuable
    – user38026
    Commented Mar 29, 2019 at 13:48
  • 3
    Single utility utilitarianism tried to rank moral choices by their utility, it did not go well. An important lesson from it is that the relation < is only a partial order, i.e. many choices are morally incomparable, so it can not be "quantified", see moral dilemmas. The best we can do is "moral balancing" to rule out improvable choices, see e.g. part 5 of Nozick's Philosophical Explanations
    – Conifold
    Commented Mar 30, 2019 at 0:30

1 Answer 1


It seems to me this question confuses prescription and description. Clearly, the idea of morality and ethics presumes that there is a value-ordering to acts — some acts are more moral, some are less — but the intent is to prescribe acts that are more moral, not merely describe the morality of acts in some quasi-objective sense. Description is by its nature value-neutral, and taking a value-neutral approach to an intrinsically value-laden topic like morality merely leads to moral relativism.

I mean, we generally have a loose (ordinal) quantification of moral acts. We know that it is generally more moral not to kill than to kill, and generally more moral not to steal than to steal. Part of Kohlberg's body of work involved tracing out the subtleties of moral evaluation (see the Heinz dilemma, in which people's understanding of the morality of theft is mapped out by changing the contexts and conditions of a given situation). Creating an exact (interval-level) system of quantification is pragmatically impossible, given the complexity of the evaluation and the limitations of subjective self-reporting. A number of different philosophers in Critical Theory have tried to analyze the cultural, linguistic, or systemic aspects of moral evaluation (Bourdieu's habitus and Habermas' lifeworld spring to mind), but such do not generally try to drill down to the quantification of individual moral decision-making. There's also a burgeoning effort to examine morality from a biological perspective through sociobiology or neuropsychology, but as of yet those fields are highly speculative. Thus far the only approaches that have tried to reach for explicit quantification stem from 'economic' presumptions — rational actor theory, game theory, and the like — but those approaches are riddled with problematic assumptions, and have proven difficult to apply in anything except tightly controlled and artificial environments.

The problem with quantification in this context is that it leads to utility maximization, and utility maximization is decidedly amoral. If a person ran the numbers and decided (for instance) that they could only be 72% moral without impacting their selfish profit margin, well... That's certainly better than being 54% moral, but it ins't exactly moral in the prescriptive sense of the word. Morality is meant to be an effort towards an idealized state; it is not meant to be a 'minimum effort for maximum gain' scenario.

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