I'm struggling to think of one that doesn't. Utilitarianism obviously does, but even others seem to. Take Kant's categorical imperative for example. What is the point in performing one's perfect duties? For instance, in the example given by wikipedia, theft is immoral because if everyone did it, it couldn't actually exist because it would mean private property didn't exist and so nothing could be stolen. There's clearly a value judgement here; it's implied that private property should exist. The only reason I can see is that a world without private property would have worse pleasure/pain ratios. Theological morality systems have the same problem, why should we care what god wants us to do? The only explanation I can see is that we will suffer the consequences of displeasing him; either punishment or shame or self-inflicted pain. So in a roundabout way, all these systems just seem like utilitarianism with extra steps. What am I missing?

  • 5
    Kant's moral system is based on following Reason only, wherever it takes you (at least that's what he says. Strangely, it leads him to rediscover the moral rules common among Prussian gentlemen of the XVIII century...). It (in)famously does not value pleasure or try to diminish pain. You should not even lie to murderers looking for your friend, not because it will bring a greater pleasure in the end, but because it would be contrary to Reason. The world can turn to complete sh*t as long as this is where reason takes you.
    – armand
    Aug 11, 2021 at 22:29
  • 1
    @armand My point is that this just kind of kicks the can. Instead of asking why one should be moral, now you ask why one should adhere to Reason. What's the point, if not maximizing pleasure or minimizing pain? Not necessarily your own pleasure and/or pain, but in society as a whole.
    – Ryan_L
    Aug 11, 2021 at 22:35
  • 10
    @Ryan_L You ask what's the point of adhering to reason. I'll ask you in turn, what's the point of maximizing pleasure or minimizing pain? And I suspect when you answer my question with something like "it's an end in itself," the same answer can be given to your question about adhering to reason. If pleasure or reason are ends in themselves, what is it about them that makes them so? (Ultimately it does not matter what is an "end in itself" so much as it matters how your brain will physically operate to guide your behavior.)
    – causative
    Aug 11, 2021 at 23:00
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    I don't say Kant is right, I say your mistaken about his views. Basically, what you are claiming is that all moral systems are reducible to a narrow part of utilitarianism, which is simply not the case. There is deontology, virtue ethics, pragmatism, virtue ethics... Even the most well known type of deontological ethics in the western world, christian religious ethics, is not about pain and pleasure but only to do what god wants you to do (ymmv depending on denomination, but that's the general idea).
    – armand
    Aug 12, 2021 at 6:31
  • 2
    Why should we care whether we will be happy or suffer the consequences? Suffering may not be something we would like to live in, but why would it be inherently immoral? Oughts can only be derived from other oughts. The why game can be played against any "ultimate" moral principle, and used to "boil down" utilitarianism to any other doctrine "with extra steps" in exactly the same way. And that just means that the "boiling down" misses the point entirely, that different doctrines take different types of oughts as not warranting any further explanation. "Extra steps" are forbidden.
    – Conifold
    Aug 13, 2021 at 0:44

12 Answers 12


Does every code of behavior you can think of for a robot boil down to maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain?

Clearly not! We can give the robot rules for what to do in certain situations that are independent of any reward signal. We can give it rules like, "When you detect an unauthorized passerby, close the gate." We don't reward the robot for closing the gate, nor do we punish it if it fails to; we just give it a rule, and it follows the rule.

So your idea, if it is right, must be something particular to humans rather than something universal about all intelligent agents.

But humans give other humans rules. A parent or teacher may tell the child that stealing is wrong, or that dying for your country is right. The child believes the parent or teacher. The child is not performing a utilitarian calculus about what would result in the most pleasure for them. They are just believing what they are told, which is what children usually do when a parent or teacher tells them things. And so, when the opportunity comes to steal or to die for their country, the child may do what they were told.

We often voluntarily suffer. An artist suffers for their art. A merchant spends their life accumulating wealth, instead of spending it on pleasures. A parent has children - which, in some countries, do not on average increase the parent's happiness. A parent may sacrifice their life to run through a fire and save their children, not calculating the amount of pleasure or pain beforehand.

There is usually some way to shoehorn what someone is doing into the model of pleasure or pain, because pleasure and pain are pervasive in human psychology and can in theory motivate any behavior. But in doing so, you are failing to quantify the amount of pleasure or pain, and whether the pleasure outweighs the pain - in fact we cannot quantify that. It is only your assumption that the pleasure is greater, or that the pleasure is more important than some other motivating mental mechanism.

If you think of the robot, suppose we give it a little bit of reward signal (as we do in reinforcement learning) when it closes the gate according to the rule. But it still has the rule to close the gate when an unauthorized passerby passes, and this rule is the primary cause of its behavior; the reward signal is only incidental. Is it then motivated by the reward? Only slightly; it is still primarily motivated by the rule. But if you could not quantify the reward, it could seem plausible to you that the reward was responsible, when in fact the rule was responsible.

Imagine you could press a button. This button ablates away your mind, so you are no more intelligent than a cow, and stimulates the pleasure centers of your brain for the rest of your long life. Would you press it - would you destroy your essential "self" in exchange for pleasure? I would not. Many people would not. Human motivation is more complicated than just pleasure and pain.

See also this comic.

  • 3
    Lol. Daniel kahneman defined two happinesses. One from interrupting at random times to ask subjects to rate how they were right then and then averaged. Another from a monthly look at and evaluation of how happy they were with their life. 1. Both could mean happy and dont correlate as well as youd think. Stuff like having kids affects one up and one down. Watching tv does too, other way of course. 2 We remember set periods as being overall much happier if they began and ended well, even if actual average was low.
    – Al Brown
    Aug 12, 2021 at 5:02
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    BTW I think you misunderstood what reinforcement learning typically does, it's unlikely there's a "rule" in there.
    – Passer By
    Aug 12, 2021 at 7:04
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    @PasserBy Animals (including humans) have certain instincts where, if a certain situation occurs, the instinct just makes them behave a certain way. e.g. a woodchuck hibernating. There may be pleasure involved in following the instinct, but this is in addition; the instinctual behavior primarily is driven by a hard-coded rule. This is especially clear the first time the instinct triggers, because at that time the animal had not yet experienced any pleasure from the behavior and therefore could not have acted in anticipation of pleasure.
    – causative
    Aug 12, 2021 at 7:29
  • 3
    @causative There is behaviour driven by instincts, sure. But that's not my point. I'm saying your argument about learnt rules boils down to a pain/pleasure calculus, and isn't grounds for arguing for anything beyond utilitarianism.
    – Passer By
    Aug 12, 2021 at 10:29
  • 2
    Children don't always follow the rules that are given to them. When they don't they get punished, on the theory that this will teach them that it's better for them to follow the rules.
    – Barmar
    Aug 12, 2021 at 15:30

I think the reason you find the connection so strong is that humans tend to embed utilitarianism in their logic. However, this does not mean the system of ethics is maximizing pleasure/minimizing pain.

On a recent question I asked, I came across this phrasing from the Taoist concept of Tao:

[Tao] means a road, path, way; and hence, the way in which one does something; method, doctrine, principle. The Way of Heaven, for example, is ruthless; when autumn comes 'no leaf is spared because of its beauty, no flower because of its fragrance'. The Way of Man means, among other things, procreation; and eunuchs are said to be 'far from the Way of Man'. Chu Tao is 'the way to be a monarch', i.e. the art of ruling. Each school of philosophy has its tao, its doctrine of the way in which life should be ordered. Finally in a particular school of philosophy whose followers came to be called Taoists, tao meant 'the way the universe works'; and ultimately something very like God, in the more abstract and philosophical sense of that term.[

Emphasis is mine. The Taoist philosophy, if distilled (perhaps too far), is to be in harmony with nature. While there may be aspects of maximizing pleasure/minimizing pain which arrive from how people are, that is not an overriding objective of their ethics.

If we do not understand someone else's system of ethics, this pleasure/pain aspect can be an easy to explore common ground. But, in many cases, it is not the fundamental underlying structure of the ethics, but merely a layer built upon it. And, indeed, it is a popular structure. There does appear to be a human universal regarding it, although the exact wording of said universal may be tricky to pin down.

Anecdotally, I would encourage one to look at the cases where we see someone inflict pain "out of love." We quickly see utilitarian phrasings crop up (such as "eternal pleasure" in some religious domains), but, personally, I find that if you really look at those situations, the pain causing individual rarely can hold onto such utilitarian phrasings. I would argue that there is a deeper aspect of their system of ethics coming forward, which is being imperfectly rendered as a utilitarian phrasing due to lack of any other way to communicate that which is truly behind their actions. This imperfection can be seen in philosophical topics such as Pascal's Wager, which have been subject to great scrutiny.


Consider this inexhaustive list of ethical types, (from: Ethics).






Duty-based ethics

Virtue ethics

Situation ethics

On the surface, it may seem as though some of these are explicitly not reducible to the maximisation of pleasure. For example, duty-based ethics seems to be about an externally-imposed ethic - that of duty - to which one subjugates themselves.

Supernaturalism seems to demand an obedience to a god rather than one's own pleasure.

Virtue ethics requires a person to act according to an arbitrary set of virtues nominated by a group/culture/society.

But upon closer examination, we can see that these can indeed be reducible to a maximisation of pleasure by the actor.

The soldier, by performing his/her duty, is maximising pleasure, even if the duty is not something they agree with. When executing such a duty, the soldier has determined that the suffering that would accompany not acting dutifully would outweigh the suffering of doing it against his/her conscience. If the soldier decides to not perform a specified duty, it will again be in order to maximise pleasure; in this instance, the desire to act according to conscience might prove stronger than the fear of consequences.

The theist who acts against his/her desires in order to follow the dictates of a god has concluded that unsatisfied desires are less unpleasurable than the consequences of disobeying a deity (perhaps risking eternity in hell). The theist who prioritises their desires over divine morality, has inevitably concluded that there is somehow more pleasure to be gained from disobeying the god; perhaps via a desire to be punished for sinful behaviour.

The person whose actions are determined by externally-imposed 'virtues' has determined that is more pleasurable to act in accordance to the expectations of the group than to do otherwise and risk peer disapproval/banishment. The person who acts against the same virtues will do so because there is more pleasure to be derived from doing so, again, via the satisfaction of some desire, such as a desire for power, or money, or sex, or revenge.

In relation to the claim that:

"The child is not performing a utilitarian calculus about what would result in the most pleasure for them. They are just believing what they are told, which is what children usually do when a parent or teacher tells them things. And so, when the opportunity comes to steal or to die for their country, the child may do what they were told".

It is arguable that the child is indeed performing a utilitarian calculus, or simply obeying a subconscious desire to maximise pleasure. For to go against what one is told, as a child, is to risk the castigation and/or disappointment of the authority figure. Such chastisement is an enormously powerful motivator. To avoid it is, again, to maximise pleasure.

Consider the instruction to 'not walk on the road'. Even if the child does not comprehend why the instruction exists, they will - via experience - know that to disobey the instruction will invoke a negative consequence. To 'just believe in what one is told', is to believe it is 'right' to do what one is told, and/or to believe that the person doing the telling is to be obeyed. The child calculates whether an act in accordance with or against such authority will maximise pleasure. If the child proves _dis_obedient, it will only be because they have deemed there is some greater pleasure to be derived from doing so. For example; the short-term reward of stealing a lolly will (even if mistakenly) be deemed more pleasurable than the consequences of being punished.

Children do not somehow 'just know' to obey authority. It is something instilled in them, over time (with varying degrees of success). The disobedient act gets punished. The obedient act gets rewarded. The child learns to associate punished acts with suffering and rewarded acts with pleasure. We enter our teens and begin to act against authority precisely because (despite any punitive measures we must endure), we deem that the pleasure to be gained from smoking/swearing/drinking (rebelling) is (even if temporarily) greater than bad breath, hangovers and disapproval.

The fact that most people would not deliberately diminish their intelligence does not contradict this. Most people would not mentally cripple themselves because they cannot conceive such a life as providing them greater pleasure than their current existence. Even if one's existence is miserable, a person who decides to remain intelligent hopes to achieve a maximisation of pleasure from remaining intelligent, whether through a felt obligation towards family/friends for example, or avoidance of the fear of what it might be like to be submoronic. No assurances that anyone provides as to 'how great is is to be stupid and happy', are likely to overcome this.

As for moral absurdism, anyone who behaved according to any dictates/assumptions of such a morality would also be doing so in order to maximise their pleasure, likely that moral absurdism frees the actor philosophically from moral constraints they have come to deem undesirable/ridiculous.

The quantity of pleasure to be derived from acting/not acting (whilst perhaps not calculable according to any specific unit of measure) seems to be always perceived by the actor to be greater than the pleasure of acting otherwise, even in those cases in which they decide to act against their preference.

If anyone can post an example in which our actions are not reducible to a desire to maximise pleasure, it would be very useful, for this is an oft-held conversation and such an example has proven elusive.

  • 3
    "The (unlikely) theist who prioritises their desires over divine morality, has inevitably concluded that there is somehow more pleasure to be gained from disobeying the god" Have you spent much time with religious people? There's plenty of hypocrites in the world, to lesser and greater degrees.
    – nick012000
    Aug 12, 2021 at 15:46
  • @Nick. No argument there. We're all hypocrites to some extent, at least in my experience. Aug 12, 2021 at 15:53
  • "When executing such a duty, the soldier has determined that the suffering that would accompany not acting dutifully would outweigh the suffering of doing it against his/her conscience" - what if a soldier is asked to do something they have moral objections to, that doesn't seem best from a utilitarian perspective and would weigh heavily on their conscience if they do it, yet they believe they can easily get away with not doing it? This would appear to contradict your reasoning that acting dutifully always attempts to minimise suffering.
    – NotThatGuy
    Aug 13, 2021 at 16:16
  • @NotThatGuy. You seem to have provided an example of not acting dutifully, and as I stated, "If the soldier decides to not perform a specified duty, it will again be in order to maximise pleasure". If your soldier had moral objections, and could 'get away' with it, they would not perform the duty unless there was some more powerful - pleasure-rooted - reason for doing so. Aug 14, 2021 at 5:17
  • @Futilitarian No, I provided an example where acting dutifully will not maximise pleasure. You seem to be asserting that anyone in such a scenario will never ever act dutifully, but that seems to rather strongly contradict how I know people act sometimes and their reasons for doing so. People often choose duty or legality above pleasure. Or, at the very least, your definition of "pleasure" would not be too constructive to discussions about ethics and decision-making. Utilitarianism is, by definition, different from other ethical frameworks and it would lead you to making different choices.
    – NotThatGuy
    Aug 14, 2021 at 14:27

Systems of ethics are axiomatic

You can reduce other ethical systems to maximizing pleasure and/or minimizing suffering if and only if you make some assumptions that are essentially utilitarian. However an ethical system generally includes their own set of axioms that would contradict those assumptions. A description of an ethical system would usually make various intuitive arguments why it makes sense, however, they are not the basis of these ethical systems but rather an appeal to convince someone to follow them (i.e. more like an advertisement rather than a proof) and explanations which inevitably assume some core value(s) as axioms (more or less explicit in different systems) on which to base detailed judgements on various specific actions. They simply do not make an "external" justification why that particular ethical system should be followed, they make a self-contained argument about what it is and request that the (potential) follower simply assume that system as valid.

"Take Kant's categorical imperative for example. What is the point in performing one's perfect duties?" - if you follow Kant's categorical imperative, the point of doing so is that it's simply the Right Thing to do, the ethical behavior. If instead you try to maximize pleasure and/or minimize suffering and it contradicts some aspects of the categorical imperative then your behavior is not ethical (or perhaps not "Kant-ethical") by definition; and vice versa - if you believe in utilitarianism, then following the categorical imperative is clearly unethical in many cases.

"Theological morality systems have the same problem, why should we care what god wants us to do?" - because in a theological morality system the values espoused by the God(s) wishes are the axiomatic definition of what's good and what's not. A theological morality system can (and sometimes does) simply assert that some specific kind of suffering is Good and thus should not be minimized - and it can (and does) do that without a justification that somehow in the end it leads to maximizing pleasure, no, it can simply declare as an axiom that this is the proper order of things, and global-pleasure-maximizing behavior that contradicts the wishes of God(s) is morally wrong and unethical, because that system defines what's morally right and what's wrong. Many theological systems do include also some additional "carrot and stick" arguments to nudge people towards desired behavior, however, their definition of ethics is not based on that "carrot and stick" but rather on a simple presumption that the wishes of God(s) are the origin of morality.

As you say, "There's clearly a value judgement here" - exactly that. An ethical system is essentially a huge value judgement of what is right and what type of "why" can justify that. You can logically analyze the outcomes of various ethical systems, but in order to choose a preference, you need to start with at least some value judgement as an essentially arbitrary assumption, and different assumed value judgements will lead you to different ethical systems.


You bring up a good point, but there is a principle at work that is deeper and more fundamental than simple "carrot and stick" type reasoning. Taking monotheistic religion, for instance (though most systems would factor out the same way), we see that it is ethical to obey God's commands. Is this because God would damn us to hell if we did not? That might serve as a motivation for many people, but it is not the fundamental reason why obedience is moral. Indeed, the reasoning is somewhat backward: God gives us commandments because they are right, and we are damned for disobedience not as punishment but because it would be wrong or impossible for God to allow the unclean (or unrepentant) into heaven.

Generalizing, we see that a moral act may minimize suffering or increase pleasure, but it does so as an ancillary benefit. Indeed, it is hard to imagine some moral acts as a min/max calculation at all. Imagine the following scenario. A male professor proctors a female student's test in his office and catches her cheating. She tells him that if he reports her she will tell the police he assaulted her. If the professor reports her dishonesty then everyone suffers: if he successfully defends himself against her charges the student will be expelled, otherwise he will lose his job and may end up in prison. Either way there will be suffering. On the other hand, not reporting the student seems to minimize suffering and perhaps even maximize pleasure if she is also bribing him. Despite this the professor still decides to report the student because it is the moral thing to do. The only way to argue this minimizes suffering is to say that the professor's conscience would have suffered had he not reported the student, however, unless this dishonesty causes the professor severe discomfort for the rest of his life it will likely cause less suffering than losing his job or going to prison will. Now the professor may comfort himself with the knowledge that he did the right thing, but this comforting belief is not the only reason he acted morally. It is instead an ancillary benefit.

We should be careful not to confuse the sometimes selfish but ultimately secondary motivations for doing the right thing with the fundamental reason it is the right thing.

  • Kowtowing to the blackmail might maximize pleasure or minimize pain for the professor and student, but society as a whole suffers. It's also not clear it would be beneficial for them either; a cheating student is likely to not get much out of their studies, a prof who takes bribes is likely to get caught eventually. More generally, this kind of argument misses the point. Why is the right thing the right thing, is the question.
    – Ryan_L
    Aug 12, 2021 at 23:27
  • I'm skeptical of the claim that the harm inflicted on society by this instance of kowtowing to blackmail is greater than the suffering or harm caused by sending the innocent professor to prison. The point of the analogy is to give evidence for the fact that not all ethical systems have to min/max suffering/pleasure, and that including even a relatively simple moral code like "be honest" can cause a deviation away from utilitarianism.
    – sendit
    Aug 12, 2021 at 23:37
  • Allowing cheating puts the whole institution at risk. Maybe she's in a medical program, she doesn't learn her studies, a patient dies because she doesn't know the material, and an investigation is launched as part of a wrongful death suit. As a result of this investigation, it's discovered that the school allowed this cheating and still graduated her.
    – Ryan_L
    Aug 12, 2021 at 23:44
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    The point of your question seemed to me to ask whether these ethical systems are, at their root, utilitarian, and not "why is the right thing the right thing". I don't think you can answer that question from a purely materialistic standpoint.
    – sendit
    Aug 12, 2021 at 23:50
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    @C.Moore. How is it determined that the pleasure the professor receives for acting morally is ancillary rather than a driving force? The scenario seems to provide a clear example of an instance in which a highly principled person derives more pleasure from acting morally than otherwise. The alternative is for him to act against his morals, which - for such a principled person - would be far worse. To capitulate to a fraudulent allegation would be to act contrary to his very sense of self, so even unjust punishment becomes 'maximally pleasurable' in this context. Aug 13, 2021 at 2:57

The very fact that absurdism exists and has a moral position ("Morality is absurd") answers your question: no, not all moral systems boil down to utilitarianism.

Many can be interpreted that way, but all is an extremely heavyweight word that's simply factually incorrect here.


Consider Christianity; I believe there are several reasons that we cannot look at it through the lens of merely minimizing suffering and maximizing pleasure. Our man-made "suffering vs. pleasure" calculations will be very inaccurate if we try. First, as sinful people, we often fail to look at the long term. Many an adulterous couple in an affair would argue that they are increasing their pleasure, but any such pleasure will shortly end and reverse itself (Hebrews 11:25). We also must keep eternity in mind. Paul teaches, "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable. But now is Christ risen from the dead..."

Second, we often fail to understand the wide-spread effects of our actions. The adulterous couple may claim they are not hurting anyone, but what about their spouses, children, and society? An arsonist may have "lots of fun" igniting shops, but what about those inside? A thief might get an adrenaline rush out of bypassing a security system, but what about the cost that society has to pay for him? The truth is, all our sin has drastic, far-reaching effects that we often don't consider in our short-sighted blindness; and "one sinner destroyeth much good" (Ecclesiastes 9:18), which is why we need salvation through Jesus Christ.

Third, we often look only at the physical, forgetting the emotional, mental, and spiritual. While it is somewhat easy to quantify physical "ease" and "pain," how often do we overlook spiritual turmoil, or neglect the joy and spiritual peace that comes only through Jesus Christ? How can we even know what life is supposed to be like without divine revelation and guidance? Otherwise, we are like blind cave fish deciding on one slightly better spot over another, never realizing what we are missing. For these reasons, we can expect our scientific "pleasure vs. suffering" calculations for morality to be wildly off base.

And beyond all this, we must consider our motivation for living for Jesus Christ. Yes, heaven gives us wonderful hope, but we also serve Jesus from immense gratitude for saving us from hell, and because He is our rightful King as our Creator. True, living for Him increases our eternal happiness; but it's just not something that can be "boiled down" to simply that. :)


Religious morality is a lot more than pleasure/pain maximization/minimization. Salvation cult theologians have influenced you with the notions of "god's punishment", but the Truth is far more interesting and sophisticated.

The Creator's ethics involve the protection of Life/Creation itself. To reduce it to something about personal punishment is arrogantance. Life isn't free. Without giving back to YHVH, the entropy of thermodynamics is inevitable. This is why there are commandments for the Sabbath and commandment 1-3. They are the ethics of Creation -- not for the personal ego of the Creator, without which LIFE DIES.

The notion and etymology of evil, once you eliminate christians, is e-vil. The last syllable hold's the name of YHVH, while the first once negates the notion. So, it is literally a definition in the word of what is evil -- that which goes against the perfection of GOD.


I think the Spartans had other priorities than pleasure, except for fairly kinky concepts of pleasure.

If you want something more mainstream: The Sermon of the Mount, Matthew 7:13-14, contains the famous description of the two roads:

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

This can be read as a suggestion to make hard choices if the religion requires it and avoid easier alternatives that would violate the faith. It clearly has other, higher priorities than maximizing pleasure.

One could argue that the narrow road eventually brings you to a better destination, certainly when you go to heaven and not to hell. But even if we consider heaven full of boring people (Nietzsche) desirable, the end of our life is the end of the validity of our mortal ethics, so this objection is doubtful. Apart from the doubtful premise to begin with.


Ethics is the systematic application of game theory to personal advantage in the game of life. Sometimes described as enlightened self-interest, it is an expansion of "do unto others as you would have them do unto you".

Note that pleasure is not the driver. Reproduction is the driver. Pleasure and pain are implementation details.


The short answer is that there is category of ethics “consequentialism” (of which “utilitarianism” — maximising pleasure etc. — is a subspecies)… and there are other categories. (Futilitarian gives a list of some of those.) The proponents of those other systems would very much take exception to the claim that their system is just utilitarianism in disguise. (Note that arguing that a system is wrong is different from arguing that its core tenets are not what it holds that they are.)

The other main point is that the core problem with an ethic built around pleasure and pain, or the like, is that it fails completely (or at least is heavily compromised) if evil exists — that is, if anyone ever wants to do evil. [“No, I really do want to kill him!”]

The obvious way to rescue such a system is to appeal to what individuals (or a representative ideal individual) should want… which is (at least at face value) obviously a completely different system.


No, they boil down to "greater good" and value of each act

Formally speaking, you have a set of acts available(possible) for a certain subject, i.e. subject could perform those acts. For example, average US citizen could kick his neighbor's dog, but could not start a nuclear war. Therefore first act is possible for him, while second is not.

System of ethics is simply assigning a value to each possible act. For example, kicking a dog could be considered a lesser evil compared to killing a human. You could even assign numerical values to these acts (for example kicking a dog would be -2, and killing someone -10). Similarly, you could talk about greater good. Again, for example saving one person could be +5, and saving whole country +100.

Idea of ethics system is simply to maximize your final score, i.e. to perform act that would yield greatest sum in the end. This means that sometimes you could perform "lesser evil" in order to do "greater good" . For example, in our system you could kill someone ( -10 ) in order to save country (+100 ) . Your final score would be +90.

You note that this system of ours is arbitrary in its nature, i.e. we assigned values for each act according to our own worldview, which is not the only one. Kant has his own criteria, utilitarians their own etc ... In some of these systems pleasure could be considered as greatest good, therefore acts that bring pleasure would have high score. In some other systems (like Christianity) pain could be considered as valuable etc ... What is important and practically same in all of these system is "keeping the score" of performed acts.

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