Let's consider a game with a large number of players for which I discovered an undetectable cheating technique that makes me win (i.e. top the leaderboard) every time I use it (while my real skill is low).

Using this technique will greatly increase my personal happiness, but I expect that all the other players (who each move down one place) won't feel a big difference. To give values, I can gain 10 happiness points (HP), the three players who should have been on the podium will lose 2 or 3 HP each and the other 0.

So cheating increases the total amount of happiness, am I morally obliged, as a utilitarian, to do so?

  • Seat? Podium? Top players? Maybe you can explain some more. Thx. – Mr. White Jul 28 '20 at 20:17
  • Just consider that the players are ranked at the end of the game, by podium I mean top3, by seat I mean place, position is the list – user47073 Jul 28 '20 at 20:23
  • No, and typically it is not even permissible. Classical utilitarianism is about "the greatest amount of good for the greatest number", not personal happiness of a single individual. What if somebody else cheating instead increases total utility, and what happens when most or everybody try to cheat, since we can not be sure that only one person knows how? It is expected utility averaged over all unknowns that should be maximized, and that typically rules out options that benefit some significantly more than others (especially when unhappiness over cheating is taken into account). – Conifold Jul 28 '20 at 20:46
  • What if I add the hypothesis that I am sure to be the only one able to discover the cheating technique ? – user47073 Jul 28 '20 at 20:50
  • 2
    You are still obliged to consider relative advantages of communicating it to others rather than using it for personal gain. – Conifold Jul 28 '20 at 22:43

The answer depends on the type of utilitarianism involved. It is possible for cheating to be mandatory for an act utilitarian.

For act utilitarianism an agent is required to do the action that maximises the general welfare, where the general welfare is construed in terms of aggregate or average welfare. Or on an alternative approach, an act utilitarianism requires an agent - any agent, all agents - to do whatever action, in a particular situation for action, maximises the benefit of the greatest number.

The key is that act utilitarianism takes feasible actions one by one, and regardless of their nature or description (cheating, returning a favour, breaking a contract, supporting a charity ... whatever) takes moral account purely of their(probable) consequences, and requires the agent to do that action which produces (or is most likely to produce) maximally beneficial consequences. There is nothing in the logical form of act utilitarianism, concentrating as it does solely on the consequences of a particular action, that prevents cheating from being the action which produces (or is most likely to produce) maximally beneficial consequences in a particular situation for action. Depending on its consequences, which alone are relevant for act utilitarianism, cheating could be mandatory. Could be - and in a different situation for action, with different (probable) consequences, cheating could be wrong. There is (by definition) no generalising for act utilitarianism.

In contrast, rule utilitarianism requires an agent to act on that rule of action which, if generally acted on, produces (or is most likely to produce) maximally beneficial consequences. Alternatively, maximises the benefit of the greatest number. A 'rule of action' here identifies a particular type of action, e.g. cheating, lying, promise-breaking, giving to charity, returning a favour. There is extensive agreement among rule utilitarians that cheating is not such a type of action, if generally acted on, and so rule utilitarianism normally proscribes lying.

Note: the different formulas ('if generally acted on, produces (or is most likely to produce) maximally beneficial consequences', or 'maximises the benefit of the greatest number', and others besides) are not the key point. The key point is whether it is individual actions (act utilitarianism) or types of action (rule utilitarianism) that are morally mandatory.


Harry J. Gensler, Ethics, London: Routledge, 1998: 150-2.

Bernard Rosen, Ethical Theory, London: Mayfield, 1993: 99-101.

Geoffrey Thomas, An Introduction to Ethics, London: Duckworth, 1997: 72-4.


If the only thing of value that existed in that world were happiness, and the only event that happened in that world was that one game, then yes, as a utilitarian you are obliged to cheat

But in the real world, you have to consider that cheating will set an example for other people to cheat contrary to maximum good. Or maybe some of the players have decided that if they lost 2 happiness points, they’d commit suicide after the game.

General rules like “never cheat” are utilitarian, in a certain sense. Sure, there are times where cheating will actually result in greater good, but we as humans will never know if such situations exist.

Most murderers believe that they’re in the right while committing a crime, but very few are actually “right.” And not even the jury can determine whether the murder was right or not, it is near impossible to predict whether a murder results in greater “good.” And such predictions will always be subject to bias. But one fact we know is that murder is in general wrong.

So murder is in general wrong, and we generally think murder is right when we are the ones committing murder when we are in actuality most likely wrong. And finally, we can never know when murder is right. So we have 3 options here:

  1. Ban murder completely
  2. Allow murder for certain cases(in which murder is right)
  3. Allow murder completely

If murder is in general wrong, then 3. is obviously not utilitarian.

We only allow murder if it is right. But we can never know if it is right. Hence 2. is impossible.

We are only left with choice 1.

There are also different standards of what “good” is. Some people say maximum people living is “good,” but maximum amount of people living might be contradictory to maximum happiness.

  • As I understand it, you're defending the rule utilitarianism? – user47073 Jul 29 '20 at 7:46
  • 1
    @Blincer well, not exactly defending, but putting an emphasis on rule utilitarianism. Since your original thought process resembled what an act utilitarian would think, I decided to show you what another type of utilitarian would think. – Gunog Selrack Jul 29 '20 at 15:23

The precise answer is suggested, but not explicit in the previous posts: utilitarianism does not imply short-term results. A good utilitarian thinks in the future as well as in the present. The OP would suggest that cheating is good, but that's not what an utilitarian would do.

Cheating (as multiple other commonly undesirable behaviors) is not good in utilitarianism. Simply because it produces short-term positive results, but horrible results in the long term. Same for stealing a cent from all bank accounts, or selling a bad product. In essence, we don't steal wallets due to utilitarian reasons, more than due to ethical reasons. We don't want to be caught, more than we want the money.

For such reason, utilitarianism is compatible in multiple aspects with deontology. Only the perspective about how decisions would be taken changes, but decisions would be probably identical, if the analysis is coherent in each case.


According to Wikipedia https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Utilitarianism :

Proponents of utilitarianism have disagreed on a number of points, such as whether actions should be chosen based on their likely results (act utilitarianism), or whether agents should conform to rules that maximize utility (rule utilitarianism). There is also disagreement as to whether total (total utilitarianism), average (average utilitarianism) or minimum utility should be maximized.

So already you can see your question can have different answers based on such choices. There are many other further known variants and criticism explained in Wikipedia.

The most basic answer is "No, to cheat in that situation is not following utilitarian ideals". Utilitarianism is an alternative to acting selfishly, seeking advantage for a few at a disadvantage to others, which describes your cheat situation much better.

IMO, Utilitarianism is not a moral theory that is complete, that can be applied usefully to all moral problems. It seems more like a specialized tool useful only to argue morality of decisions in specific contexts, such as in decisions involving masses of people where individual happiness values are not predictable (politics). For simpler cases involving fewer people, it has no significant advantage over other moral guidelines, but many criticisms and to many variants to choose from.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy