Guide to Understanding (Utilitarian) Morality

I have written (and will soon publish) a series of articles that pose ethical dilemmas – for example, on the question of whether it is immoral to eat meat.

Necessarily, the reader must appreciate and accept the kind of ethical framework within which I am evaluating the morality of various actions.

But for the sake of relative brevity, I’m not inclined to re-articulate the intricacies of that moral framework in every piece. So this article will serve not only as a stand-alone exposition of morality (which I hope is interesting and instructive in and of itself), but also as a stepping-stone from which we can jump to an understanding of various complex moral dilemmas, of philosophical and societal importance.

Forewarning: it’s quite a long read – a little over 3000 words, so sit back and settle in.

Understanding Morality

First, let me reject the notion that morals are somehow anchored into the very foundations of the universe, which is a common theistic claim that purports to characterise morality and allow one to comport themselves as a virtuous person.

“Morals are derived from the dictates of God”, goes the claim – and if true, would make relatively simple work of navigating moral dilemmas. One would simply need to consult the book that contains moral rules and imperatives – The Old Testament, for instance, to see that it is morally acceptable to murder in certain circumstances – no strenuous philosophical cerebration required! Easy!

But in the modern, enlightened age, this type of moral framework – the highly arbitrary and oddly specific rules passed down from a benighted past, is offensive to our own ethical sensibilities, and a blight on our aesthetic philosophical intuitions.

What then can we anchor morality to, if not divine religious doctrine? And if we fail to identify any foundational ‘axioms’ of morality, rooted in some indisputable logic of the universe, are we then doomed to accept moral relativism – where your morals are as valid as the ancient Aztecs, and genital mutilation, and human sacrifice are as morally righteous as providing free healthcare to the sick?

In other words, would a failure to find some kind of transcendent, metaphysical ‘moral rules’ thus render ‘morality’ a meaningless idea?

Many philosophers think so – yet many of these would also claim that over the millennia of human cultural evolution, things have gotten ‘better’. And in the very meaning and implication of the word ‘better’ lies the key to something like a foundational moral construct, as I hope to illustrate.


Some form of what is known as ‘utilitarianism’ is the perhaps only coherent philosophy of morality that allows us to make ‘moral progress’ – that is, the progress characterized by cultural revolutions, such as the abolition of slavery, and the bestowal of equal rights to women.

We can loosely define utilitarianism using the terminology of its founder, Jeremy Bentham:

“[There is a sacred truth that] the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals.”

Today most of us find this notion somewhat intuitive – so obvious that we can navigate moral quandaries without even realizing we are doing so. But that’s not to say this is some kind of ubiquitous philosophy, innate in every human. In fact, it is a relatively recent emergence – a profound, gradual shift in perspective that came with the age of enlightenment, and the humanitarian revolution, as chauvinism gave way to humanism.

The Moral Scale

It is important that we are cognizant of the inherent fuzziness of any moral prescription – for example, what does “the greatest happiness” even mean?

Happiness is a rather nebulous term – we have a sense for what it means, sure, but an explicit definition eludes us. How then, could we reliably attribute happiness (or indeed, unhappiness) as a consequence of some moral choice, and thus claim utilitarianism to be a coherent moral framework?

I don’t wish to lay out a painstakingly fine-grained, comprehensive structure here – that would require tedious pages dedicated to defining terms such as ‘conscious beings’, ‘suffering’, ‘flourishing’, and ‘existence’– and also, I don’t think it’s strictly necessary to appreciate the value of utilitarianism.

We will thus satisfy ourselves with the following rough set of definitions:

  • A morally ‘good’ action is one that would result in a ‘positive’ effect for conscious creatures – i.e., where ‘flourishing’/’happiness’/’well-being’ is the net result. For example, killing one of three triplets in order to save the other two would be morally favourable (don’t ask me how such a choice could possibly arise), by a rough kind of ‘moral arithmetic’ (two identical lives are worth more than one).
  • Conversely, a ‘bad’ action is one where the output of this same kind of moral arithmetic is negative – where ‘suffering’ is the net result.
  • An action can be deemed moral or immoral only if it resulted from a conscious choice between various options (more on this later).

It might help to imagine the consequences of a moral action as having a value on a kind of moral scale, with neutral, amoral acts in the middle, as shown below:

Now, clearly this is not mathematics – it is rather more vague and imprecise – but there are nonetheless instances where moral calculations can be made with reasonable confidence. Killing one triplet to save the other two is one such instance – but where the fuzziness rears its head is when you have situations like; a choice between killing one innocent person to save two violent criminals. Or when the consequences are far from clear cut – and cannot be quantified in terms of lives – for example, when trying to gauge precise levels of suffering or flourishing for various individuals.

Clearly this imprecision makes the application of moral arithmetic somewhat, well, imprecise.

The best we can do is to make rough approximations, based on the best evidence, and the most reliable metrics available to us – which may be little more than intuition and abstractly derived syllogisms.

But regardless, it is clear that we need more detail in our moral framework, in order to more effectively evaluate such dilemmas.

Suffering and Flourishing

Our ascription of morals to a particular outcome depends on our conception of ‘suffering’ and ‘flourishing’, and how these respective qualities change.

If an action causes suffering without producing flourishing, it is necessarily immoral, and the converse would seem to be true also, yet consider the following:

If one were to murder a man in his sleep and hence circumvent the man’s suffering, would the act still be immoral?

Well first, the murdered man would likely have had a family, who would indeed suffer for their loss, therefore rendering the action immoral as per our definition.

But what about the case of a murdered homeless man, or a hermit – someone with no friends or family – no one even to notice his absence?

Would killing such a man be a morally neutral act, or even – if the murderer was sadistic and thus derived pleasure from the act – morally favourable?

Clearly we are missing something from our definition – namely, the consideration of a reduction in flourishing.

The murdered hermit would presumably, had he not been killed prematurely, have lived out his days in a state of relative comfort and pleasure; he would have flourished.

So we can still condemn his murder as morally wrong, since it served to reduce the total amount of flourishing in the world – namely, the hermit’s.

Similarly, any act that reduces suffering, could also be considered morally good.

So we can here refine our definition of moral good and bad:

An action is morally ‘good’ if it serves to either:*1

  • Increase net flourishing
  • Decrease net suffering

An act is morally ‘bad’ if it serves to either:

  • Increase net suffering
  • Decrease net flourishing

Perfect! Have we now produced a perfectly satisfying conception of morality, such that we can utilize it in any and all cases to make a moral evaluation?

If you think so, then consider how you might evaluate the following cases:

  • Person A kills person B in a premeditated, perfectly lucid attack in which he is aware of the consequences
  • Person A kills person B in a fit of rage, in which the tumult of his emotions cloud his ability to reason
  • Person A kills person B accidentally

Let’s suppose that in each case, the cause of death was approximately the same, so that the suffering of person B was uniform across all three. Further suppose that the resulting suffering of person B’s friends and family is the same in each case, despite the different natures of his death.

Now then, the net result in each case is identical – the position on the moral scale is precisely the same – thus, from our definitions, the accidental killing is as immoral as the premeditated killing.

Again, our moral sensibilities cry out in protest – clearly we require further clarification.

Moral Culpability

For an act to be considered moral or immoral, it must have eventuated from a conscious decision, in which the consequences were represented to the ‘moral actor’, such that their actions were motivated by the knowledge of these consequences.

So moral ascription requires conscious agency. With this definition, we prevent the attribution of moral quality to a death caused by ‘nature’.

A tornado or a tsunami, then, are exonerated of moral culpability for having caused death; in neither case were the consequences of suffering and flourishing represented – and so any such deaths are considered amoral, or morally neutral.

Case 3) above is similarly classified as amoral – the consequence of person B’s death was never represented to person A. Moreover, person A’s intention was not to kill person B – and obviously intentionality is a necessary factor for the execution of a conscious moral decision.

But what about cases 1) and 2) above? Both were intentional, and one can imagine that even in the case of the enraged murder, the consequences were, at least to a certain degree, represented to the murderer. The act was intentional, thus the consequences must have been understood – on some level.

Here it turns out, the idea of degree or level of understanding of moral consequences is crucial.

Consider two extremes that involve the killing of a person – one: carried out by a grizzly bear, the other: carried out as premeditated murder by another person.

In both cases the consequences were, to some degree, represented to the conscious perpetrator of the act.

One act – that of the bear, we do not wish to morally condemn, and the other, we do – but why? Clearly the degree of representation matters.

What we have is some kind of spectrum of representation – from the basal, animalistic conception within the bear’s mind – devoid of a moral compass – to the rather more intricate and burgeoning representation of the cold-blooded killer – who appreciates the concept of life and death, suffering and flourishing, choices and consequences.

Somewhere on this spectrum, closer to the human killer, sits person B from case 2) above. In a dispassionate state the person is undoubtedly possessed of an appreciation of suffering and flourishing, and thus better able to comport himself to an acceptable moral standard. But as roiling flames of rage overpower his higher cognitive faculties, he becomes more like the bear – with no higher level representation of his actions – simply the emotional, instinctual drive to satisfy an urge to kill.

So, the attribution of moral quality depends on the degree to which the consequences have been represented to the conscious choice-maker, and also their capacity to have exercised different choices.*2

Here we have alighted upon a thoroughly interesting philosophical notion, that is inextricably tied to questions of moral agency – the idea of free will.

Free Will

I will not provide a comprehensive outline of the nuances involved in thinking about free will, nor shall I touch on the controversial dichotomy between the primary competing philosophies of free will – namely, compatibilism and incompatibilism. I have planned a future article in which to discuss these matters.

But for now let me simply claim (albeit, perhaps tendentiously) that in order to formulate a satisfying conception of morality, we require at least partial acceptance of compatibilism, which, put simply, appreciates ‘agency’, and describes free will as a kind of ‘degree of freedom’ – in a computational sense.

As we discovered above, the ascription of moral quality to an action is highly dependent on agency, and representation of moral consequences.

The cold-blooded killer has more ‘freedom of will’ than the passion-driven killer, in the sense that he has the cognitive capacity to represent consequences to himself more completely and deliberately, with more opportunity to exercise his brain’s ‘executive function’ to guide his actions – a function which is largely suppressed in a state of high emotion.

Yes, I have omitted much of the detail that would befit a satisfying exposition of compatibilist free will – but you need only take away the idea of degrees of representation and higher-order executive control, which are important in clarifying the differences between the actions of murderous humans and bloodthirsty grizzly bears.

Moral compasses

So, this is all very well and good – we can condemn a moral agent who has represented the consequences of his actions somewhat exhaustively to himself, while encouraging some measure of leniency on the hot-blooded killer who has not.

But we have invoked an idea that needs cashing out, lest we find ourselves smack bang in the middle of yet another irreconcilable quandary.

Consider the case of a religious fundamentalist – perhaps an Islamic zealot, who commits an act – the murder of an apostate or infidel, say, which, within our moral judgment is reprehensible.

But from the murderer’s own perspective, what he is doing is morally righteous – carrying out an act decreed by Allah, and by definition, what Allah commands is, in his eyes, righteous.

So, he has represented the act to himself completely, and after exhaustive conscious analysis, has concluded that this particular action is a ‘good’ one.

Within our own moral framework the act is condemnable, but within his own, it is celebrated.

This then begs the question of which is the ‘correct’ moral framework– if indeed there is a correct framework. If not, moral relativism prevails, and we cannot condemn jihadist suicide bombings on any level.

But in fact, there is a crucial, non-arbitrary means of evaluating a particular moral framework; a question we can ask of it:

Does it accurately reflect reality?

Scientific reasoning and observation is the only reliable tool with which to evaluate this question – and fortunately it is overwhelmingly effective.

The idea of a god who promotes the killing of apostates is not a robust scientific theory – for many reasons, which I won’t bother to detail. The theory does not track reality, and as such, can be discarded as a monstrously errant philosophy.

On the other hand, the idea that conscious creatures can suffer and thrive, that this is the fundamental criteria by which actions can be morally evaluated, and that in general, killing a conscious creature promotes suffering and reduces thriving – is a scientific and philosophical theory that can be derived from observation and reason. It is a sound theory, in that it appears to strongly map onto reality.

Thus, the most correct moral framework – the one I have been trying to elucidate and encourage that we work within, is the one begotten by modern science and reason.

But nonetheless, the distinction between different moral frameworks is important, because it allows us to treat agents working within different moral frameworks sympathetically.

The jihadist Muslim is not an evil person – he is a righteous one, within his own moral framework. From within our own moral structure he is evil, but if we can step outside of that, and understand the true nature of his beliefs and thus his motivations, we can grant that he is not.

But, if we also accept that our moral framework more accurately mirrors reality, and we realize that his one is fraught with folly and parochial absurdity, then we can understand that the path forward is not to condemn him as evil and seek retribution, but to try to shake him from his moral framework, into one that more accurately reflects an objective reality.

Is all of this simply an exercise in pointless philosophical pondering?

Let’s take a step back for a second and consider the moral framework we have constructed. With all of these subtleties – these qualifiers and caveats tacked on: degrees of representation, for example – is our construct not woefully artificial – designed merely so that it comports with our own intuitions?

Well, yes – but this is the whole idea. Morality is not a transcendent feature of the universe, it is an emergent property of conscious beings that can suffer or flourish. The morality outlined in this article might be considered ‘anthropocentric’, or even, ‘earth-centric’ morality, because it is specific to innate human morals – but that is absolutely fine – it is still a type of morality that exists, and one that we care about. In fact, it exists because we care about it – it is an emergent property of, among other things, our ability to care.

The fact is, we humans do have an innate sense of morality. This is why our justice system has continually refined its practices as our ability to reason, and our worldview (and thus our moral judgments) have evolved – so that it now distinguishes between premeditated crimes, and crimes of passion, and prescribes leniency to perpetrators who are not sound of mind.

Over time we have chipped away to create some kind of moral sculpture – but are we creating it out of blind whim? Or are we revealing it – hewing the extraneous marble away to reveal an underlying structure that already existed somewhere, in some form, within our minds?

I would posit that we are. This very structure is what we have been attempting to capture with our rigorous definitions above, but more importantly, it is the structure that has been programmed into the collective human consciousness over millennia of natural and cultural evolution.

At the beginning of this article I mentioned that the kind of moral philosophy thus far described is not ubiquitous among all people – yet here I seem to be saying the opposite.

What’s not innate, are the specific moral doctrines; ‘treat all peoples equally’; ‘maximize flourishing’ etc.

But what is innate are particular values that we all hold sacrosanct; we value our own well-being, and that of those around us; we value reason and logic; we value truth. Our moral framework is a product of these values.

So the kind of moral philosophy that we have eventually stumbled upon was almost inevitable. As our ability to reason improved, and our worldview became more accurate – more aligned with truth, or reality – our moral philosophy has been continually updated concomitant with this progress, always in harmonious accord with these core values we share.

So how is any of this useful?

I can assure you that all of this characterization of a moral framework is no mere trifle of superficial and meaningless philosophical straw clutching. Rather, it is monumentally important in guiding real world understandings and decisions.

For example, it allows us to empathetically consider a person’s motivations for a moral act, with regard to his beliefs – his personal moral framework.

We can thus moderate the use of retributive justice in favour of functional justice – reforming, if possible, as opposed to perpetuating the kind of punitive outrage that serves only to encourage recidivism, and ultimately causes more suffering.

Further, it can inform technological and social improvements – allowing us to reflect on the net benefits and detriments of a particular legal policy, or research project.

With a detailed, comprehensive structuring of our morals that accurately reflect reality, we have the tools to guide future social and political behaviours such that the greatest number can experience the greatest happiness.


*1of course, we can have more complicated cases, such as those which both decrease flourishing and decrease suffering, in which case, finer-grained assessment would be needed

*2What about the case of someone who is well aware of the moral bankruptcy of a particular action – but is dispossessed of a propensity to care, and so simply does it anyway? Does this make them less morally culpable?

I suspect this is intimately tied into a characterisation of compatibilist ‘free will’, and I will discuss it in my free will article.

Key points in framework

  • Suffering and flourishing of conscious (or experiencing) creatures.
  • The moral scale
  • Representation and choice – an event only has a moral quality if the consequences were represented to the conscious choice-maker.
  • Agency (free will)
  • Different moral frameworks




  1. There are a couple of problems with “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”:

    (1) Pleasure and pain are feelings. Because feelings are malleable, they are not reliable guides to what is actually good or bad for us. In America we traded in black slaves for several hundred years. When we ended slavery we had another hundred years of discrimination and segregation. White folk did not feel good sitting next to black folk. So blacks were forced to the back of the bus, given separate bathrooms, separate water fountains, and sent to separate schools. When required to integrate their schools, some counties simply shut down their public school system. After integration, most of this attitude corrected itself as kids grew up knowing each other as people. But there was a lot of unhappiness about integration at the start.

    So there must be some more objective criteria as to what is good for us and what is bad for us. The correct sequence should be to, first, discover what is objectively good for us, and, second, choose to feel good about it.

    We call something “good” if it meets a real need that we have as an individual, as a society, or as a species. At the base of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs are some truly objective goods, those things needed for survival: air, food, water, shelter, and so on. And we can make objective moral statements such as, “It is morally good to give a glass of water to the man in the desert dying of thirst”, or, “It is morally bad to give that same glass of water to a man drowning in a swimming pool”.

    As you move up the Hierarchy things get a little fuzzier and a lot less obvious.

    (2) The “greatest number” is not enough. The correct formulation of the basic guideline should be “the best possible good and least possible harm for everyone”. That is the only formula that everyone can agree to.

    Moral judgment basically works like this: There are two (or more) rules or courses of action to be compared. Each is evaluated according the benefits and harms that we estimate will result from implementing each rule. The one with the best good and least harm for everyone is selected.

    And that is what we all ultimately go to as the deciding criteria. Because it is the only criteria that everyone can or will agree to.


  2. If I may address one more thing. Moral culpability is primarily related to corrections, and correction is related to the nature of the cause. In your example, you have three causes of harm. (A) A person acting coldly and deliberately to kill someone. (B) A person acting irrationally and emotionally to kill someone. (C) A person accidentally killing someone.

    In the case where the harm is done deliberately (after deliberating upon the choice) we will need to address that process of deliberation (free will). The person would likely be imprisoned to prevent further harm until his behavior can be corrected. The correction would address his thoughts and feelings through rehabilitation programs like counseling, addiction treatment, education, job training and other means to provide him with better choices the next time he considers committing the crime. The penalty of incarceration and the possibility of early release would induce him to take advantage of rehab programs.

    In the case where the harm is done irrationally or emotionally, his irrational thinking and/or emotional illness would be addressed in a secure mental hospital through medical treatment. A different kind of counseling and perhaps drugs that specifically address his thinking or emotions would be used to correct his behavior is possible.

    In both of these cases, the practical problem is not about “leniency”, but rather about what corrective measures will actually work. The distinction between an act freely willed by a normal mind and the act of a deranged mind is significant in very practical terms.

    There may also be practical ways to address the third scenario, the accidental killing. Was the harm due to negligence? If so then we need to take steps to prevent repeated negligence in the future. This may involve penalties and rehabilitation as required to effectively correct the behavior.

    In ALL cases, we are concerned with the harm done by the criminal act and how to prevent future harm through similar acts in the future.

    The context of justice is one of protecting everyone’s rights. Thus a just penalty will seek to (a) repair the harm to the victim when possible, (b) correct the offender’s future behavior if possible, (c) protect society from the offender until his behavior is corrected, and (d) do no more harm to the offender than is reasonably required to accomplish (a), (b), and (c).


    1. Thanks for your comments Marvin. I completely agree with everything you said – and if you have interpreted my own views as contradictory of what you have outlined, then that is probably a failure on my part to be sufficiently comprehensive. I have also probably provided more emphasis to certain aspects of morality, while neglecting to go too in depth on others – the fact is, there is just so much of relevance to talk about!

      Your first comment I also agree with 100% – again, the fact that you have perceived my article to have disputed any of the points you made, probably just reflects a lack of emphasis or clarity, on my part. I did mention the difficulty in ‘quantifying’ well-being/happiness – but I didn’t explore this too exhaustively.

      Regardless, it’s great to see your well constructed, thoughtful comments! I also just published an article that explores the ethics of abortion, and I would be thoroughly interested to know whether you agree with my arguments – if you can be bothered reading it 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s