Over the past few centuries a shift has been seen, from the likes of strict adherence to Christianity (at least, in Europe) to greater reliance on science, etc. as observed by Friedrich Nietzsche. With this, however, Nietzsche predicted that a great helplessness and feeling of desperation would emerge in the masses because of a lack of defined purpose/meaning (exemplified in the quote, "God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers or all murderers?"). While the likes of science can give us detailed descriptions of how things are, they do not have anything to say on how one ought to act, for example, the statement that:

childhood corporal punishment, such as spanking and beating, has negative psychological effects in the development of children and contributes to adult anxiety and depression

...does not necessarily mean that for someone who "relies on science" childhood corporal punishment is bad - it merely states that childhood corporal punishment has negative side effects later in life.

Most people seem to intuitively remedy this problem by living by (or at least trying to live by) the precepts:

the "Golden Rule"
doing the greatest good to the most number of people

These precepts are ubiquitous in both Western and Eastern philosophy, and to most people come as common sense and basic reason (not to disparage the philosophers who first wrote about it). The aforementioned precepts lend themselves to utilitarianism, a family of ethical theories only really developed in the 1700s and 1800s.

My question is, is there a reason that this way of thinking, in the absence of religious dogma, is so widespread? Is there a reason that other moral systems aren't more intuitive to us (of course, this could just be because the basic ideas behind utilitarianism are so straightforward and easy to grasp) and that "the Golden Rule" became ubiquitous? Perhaps a writer or philosopher that was highly influential in his/her time? If not that, what does the intuitiveness of "the Golden Rule" and utilitarianism say about how humans, on a biological/sociological level, perceive social systems and the ways in which to interact with and treat the people around them?

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    Has there ever been an ethical system that is completely oblivious to suffering? Jun 12, 2021 at 12:28

4 Answers 4


Classical utilitarians define moral acts as ones that maximise total pleasure or happiness. Ideal utilitaians, eg GE Moore, argued for a wider set of criteria. Act utilitarians say an act is moral if it produces the best possible results. Rule utilitarians accumulate a set of rules which will maximise well-being. Preference utilitarians, eg Peter Singer, allow a personal or community derivation of what should be maximised. Negative utilitarians, eg Popper, seek to minimise pain & suffering. Motive utilitarianism directs actions to concord effects with our motives. So, the 'golden rule' is not utilitarianism, as it does not seek to maximise anything, or to quantify best actions.

I would argue what you are talking about is intersubjectivity, a mutual willingness to treat other's as like ourselves. I've related that to Rawl's theory of justice, and contrasted it racist depersonalising of other groups here How would you apply John Rawls "Theory of justice" to everyday decisions?

We can note disagreement about moral concern for wellbeing of animals, and consequences of widespread inequality: If virtue is determined by the golden rule, doesn't it need to add the clause "unless you absolutely have to"?

We can look at uniquely human intelligence, as founded on our extended intersubjectivity - from mirror neurons, through creche-rearing, language, technology-sharing, and trade networks: What's the importance of self-awareness?

Being able to mentally put ourselves into the perspective of objects and people, defines our extended intelligence (ie, beyond the problem solving of octopuses, corvids, bears & other solitary intelligent creatures). It emerged to help us navigate our social environment (Dunbar number). So intelligence & communication skill converge with moral issues, in that engaging with others as far as we can as like ourselves, elevates everyone (see Peter Singer on expanding the circle of moral concern as defining moral progress).


Once you discard Divine imperative, what choice have you got?

Buddhism is a "religion" without a God. It teaches that we all want to end our suffering. In travelling the eightfold path to that end, we inevitably develop compassion for our fellow beings.

Any democratic society must form a consensus view of what it is for. What else can that purpose be but "the benefit of its citizens"? And how do you crystallise that?

And so on.

  • Right, but you can end up with more than one sub-consensus, and groups defining 'benefit' differently.
    – Scott Rowe
    Oct 12, 2022 at 16:09

When the term utilitarianism is assumed, interaction is also assumed. That is, an individual A performing an utilitarian behavior implies an interaction between A and B (independently of B being another individual, an animal, an object, the environment, etc.). Only in such case utilitarianism has sense.

Ok. Forget B for a minute.

Utilitarianism and the self

If actions were not causally tied to consequences, an individual (A) could do anything, and nothing would impact his future. Utilitarianism would not be an consideration.

But actions are causally tied to consequences. So, if an individual jumps off of a bridge, he risks destroying himself.

In this case, utilitarianism is related to the personal benefit, or utility of the consequences resulting from an action. In consequence, considering only an individual outcome, an utilitarian behavior is imperative in order for the individual to survive.

Utilitarianism and the group

Now, consider the same case, but with the whole group({A, B, ...}): the whole group jumps off of a bridge. If it occurs, the group will probably perish. So, it is in the interest of the group to perform an utilitarian behavior.

In this case, utilitarianism is related to the groupal benefit, or utility of the consequences resulting from actions. In consequence, considering only a group outcome, an utilitarian behavior is imperative in order for the group to survive.

Utilitarianism and interaction

Now, consider an interaction between A and B. And also consider this rule: the existence of a group improves the probabilities for individuals to survive. This is kind of obvious. An individual can survive (imagine you, alone, in a mountain), but he has a lot more probabilities to survive if he is in a group. This is why we tend to live in groups. In the long term, the probabilities of survival of a single individual tend to zero (consider separating the few elephants that still survive). Not in the short term, no problem in the short term.

So, if A pushing off of the cliff to B provides a benefit to A, he would do so, from an utilitarian perspective. But this weakens the group. If all individuals act the same way, only one will survive at the end. Ok, in the short term. But terrible in the long term.

So, you ask, why do we still survive? Because we act utilitarian, but from a personal (first priority) and a group perspective (second priority). When I do something, I do for myself... and the group. That's the only way to survive: to keep the group alive in order for me to survive.

In consequence, considering the individual and group outcomes, an utilitarian behavior is imperative in order for the individual and the group to survive.

You see, just with logic, utilitarianism is justified, but always within this consideration: utilitarianism does not mean to act against the group or its members.

One more thing to consider: the group prevails over the individual. So, a murderer acts utilitarian when he kills and refuses to die. But the group acts utilitarian when the group kills the murderer. Killing (or locking) a murderer seems to provide benefits (utility) to the group.

  • It is wonderful, until you have 2 groups.
    – Scott Rowe
    Oct 12, 2022 at 16:04

With the lack of an explicit moral framework (religion) people then focus more on themselves and by extension, those closest to them which manifests as being utilitarian. I completely agree with your observation about science. It has displaced religion for the most part when it comes to explaining the world and our place in it. But, science is cold hard facts, it has no feeling, it attempts to explain reality but it gives no guidance on how you should conduct yourself in that reality.

  • Facts are fine, I can decide for myself what to do about them.
    – Scott Rowe
    Oct 12, 2022 at 16:10

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