Ten values we can all live by

How insights from different moral philosophies can help us find common ground

Ariel Pontes
Apr 11 · 20 min read

Should we tax the wealthy to help the poor? Should we try to eat less meat? Should abortion be legal? These are all questions that ultimately boil down to ethics. Moral philosophers have proposed different methods for answering them, but none seem to satisfy everyone. One of the most intuitive method is perhaps utilitarianism, a moral theory that tries to minimize harm and maximize well-being. In the absence of a universally accepted method, we seem to default to some version of utilitarianism, unless it conflicts with the religious and ideological convictions of a sufficiently large number of people, in which case those issues become political and unresolvable, except perhaps by compromise or by force. But is it really impossible to find universal values we can all agree on?

This is the final article of an entire series responding to arguments that are traditionally presented as objections to utilitarianism, and that have motivated philosophers to develop alternative theories in response. I will argue, however, that the insights present in different theories are not mutually exclusive, and that it is indeed possible for many of us to find shared values we can all live by.

A universal moral intuition

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think: every effort we can make to throw off our subjection, will serve but to demonstrate and confirm it. In words a man may pretend to abjure their empire: but in reality he will remain subject to it all the while. The principle of utility recognizes this subjection, and assumes it for the foundation of that system, the object of which is to rear the fabric of felicity by the hands of reason and of law. Systems which attempt to question it, deal in sounds instead of sense, in caprice instead of reason, in darkness instead of light.

Jeremy Bentham, 1780. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation.

Utilitarianism is a consequentialist moral philosophy first proposed by Jeremy Bentham and later developed by John Stuart Mill and many other philosophers. At first sight, utilitarianism seems to be a great candidate for a universal moral axiom that we could all agree on. Its central claim (the principle of utility) is intuitive and uncontroversial: causing pain is bad and producing pleasure is good. Indeed, Jeremy Bentham was ahead of his time. He lived in a time when slavery was still legal and supported by many, and where being convicted of homosexuality could destroy one’s life. Still, many of the ideas promoted by contemporary social movements such as the animal welfare and LGBT movements can be traced back to him.

Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being? The time will come when humanity will extend its mantle over everything which breathes. We have begun by attending to the condition of slaves; we shall finish by softening that of all the animals which assist our labors or supply our wants.

— Jeremy Bentham, 1789. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation.

[T]o destroy a man there should certainly be some better reason than mere dislike to his Taste, let that dislike be ever so strong.

— Jeremy Bentham, 1814–1817. Of Sexual Irregularities, and Other Writings on Sexual Morality.

In spite of all this, many still resist utilitarianism, which has failed to become a notable political movement or even a widely supported cause within a broader movement. The failure of utilitarianism to gain widespread support is seen by some as a refutation of the idea that the principle of utility is a universal moral intuition upon which all normative judgement should be grounded. But that is not necessarily true. There may be other reasons explaining this reality.

Utilitarianism is a great idea with an awful name. It is, in my opinion, the most underrated and misunderstood idea in all of moral and political philosophy.

Joshua Greene, 2013. Moral Tribes.

The adjective “utilitarian” now has negative connotations like “Machiavellian”. It is associated with “the end justifies the means” or using people as a mere means or failing to respect human dignity, etc.

Julian Savulescu, 2014. Why I Am Not a Utilitarian.

The core principle of utilitarianism is so intuitive that it’s almost impossible to start a discussion about ethics without mentioning it. Indeed, some alternative theories such as deontology and contractarianism are often presented as a response to a perceived failure of utilitarianism. The word “utilitarianism”, however, has a lot of baggage. In this article, therefore, I will avoid labels and simply try to formulate a universal moral principle based on common-sense:

The best action is always the one we have most reason to believe will maximize the total long-term quality of sentient life.

Because the universe is too complex and we are too limited, it is simply impracticable and pointless to try to thoroughly analyze all the possible long-term outcomes of every little decision we make. We are forced, therefore, to focus on the immediate future and to rely on heuristics. An emphasis on cultivating virtues, enforcing good rules, or on being fair and impartial are a few examples of useful heuristics that have been extensively discussed in philosophy. Being forgiving towards ourselves and others when we fail to be completely impartial is also an important aspect of any moral theory that has the ambition of being widely adopted. And if we have reason to believe our moral axiom is right, than it is our moral obligation to spread it as widely as possible because that in itself would contribute to the minimization of suffering.

Note that I was careful to explicitly define what’s right not in terms of how good the actual consequences of an action are, but in terms of how much reason we have to believe their consequences will be good. Although some would say this is a cheap trick, and that my philosophy is still consequentialist, I would say that at the very least this reformulation makes it a special kind of consequentialism, if not some sort of hybrid deontic-consequentialist theory. After all, deontology is generally defined as a label for any moral theory that states that “some actions are right even if their consequences are bad”, and the philosophy I defend here is actually compatible with this claim, as long as the agent had good reasons to believe, although incorrectly, that those actions would actually be good.

Although this principle is different from the traditional principle of utility in some crucial ways, it is similar enough that many will want to label it as utilitarianism. In order to avoid this baggage, it is tempting to try to come up with a new name altogether. Joshua Greene, for example, proposes “deep pragmatism” for his version of utilitarianism. Unfortunately, I think this is again a very technical and not very self-explanatory name. It is bad marketing if we expect a theory to be embraced by the general public. Besides, as soon as I give a new name to a certain view of morality, it creates a sense of opposition to all other views, and one of the most important aspects of the approach that I am proposing is that it is eclectic and conciliatory.

Here, an analogy with science is perhaps useful. When we started using the word “science”, this new enterprise wasn’t simply seen as yet another epistemic theory to be debated ad nauseam. It was seen as a pragmatic approach to epistemology, one that transcends the boundaries of epistemic theories that are traditionally presented as incompatible, such as empiricism and rationalism. Science doesn’t pick a side, but rather embraces both without opposing either. Similarly, a unified moral theory should be pragmatic and embrace aspects of multiple normative theories. So why is it that makes people so reluctant to accept utilitarianism, what are these objections they keep bringing up, and what can we learn from the theories presented as solutions to them?

Objections against utilitarianism

There are many common objections to utilitarianism. Some are more common in lay circles, and are simply a natural result of the fact that in many countries we don’t learn anything about ethics in schools. Others, however, are recurring in philosophy and have motivated influential thinkers to defend alternative moral theories in response to them. Because not all objections have motivated entire moral theories in response, however, I will focus here on responding to objections, and I will introduce alternative theories in the context of the objections they attempt to address. Since this is the last of a series of articles, I will merely include a brief summary of the arguments here.

Are pain and pleasure all that matters?

Many object to utilitarianism on the basis that “some people like pain” or “a life without suffering would be boring”, etc. In this article I argue that yes, pain and pleasure are indeed the only things that matter, but only because they are defined very broadly. Basically, according to utilitarianism, any experience you desire to have counts as pleasure or happiness, and any experience you desire not to have counts as pain or suffering.

Cultivating virtues is utilitarian

Virtue ethics is an approach to moral philosophy that is based on the work of Aristotle. It places an emphasis on the cultivation of virtues instead of on a constant robotic calculation of pros and cons. In this article I argue that cultivating virtues is perfectly utilitarian because a society of virtuous individuals is more conducive to happiness than a society plagued by vices. The promotion of positive virtues is a useful tool to achieve utilitarian ends, but it is not an end in itself. If the cultivation of a certain trait ceases to be instrumental in the pursuit of collective happiness in our current historical context, then that trait can no longer be meaningfully considered a moral virtue.

The moral relevance of intentions

Utilitarianism is a consequentialist moral philosophy, and for this reason many seem to think that it only cares about consequences, while ignoring intentions. These people reject utilitarianism, therefore, because they think it’s unfair to say that it is better to attempt murder and fail than to kill somebody by accident. But this is a misunderstanding of the theory. Utilitarianism praises and encourages the cultivation of good intentions because they are conducive to a happier society, and condemns bad ones because they tend to bring suffering.

Rule utilitarianism

Many critics say that some rules should never be broken, not even if one has good reason to believe that by breaking them they would be minimizing suffering. It is never right, for example, to kill a healthy patient and donate their organs to five compatible recipients who would have died otherwise, even if mathematically it seems to make sense. The intuition that some laws may never be broken is so powerful that it has motivated philosophers to embrace deontology, a moral theory that defines what it means to do the right thing not by appeal to the consequences of that action, but by appeal to their success or failure to conform to a rule. In this article I argue that utilitarianism was never intended as a short-sighted moral philosophy that only considers the immediate consequences of actions.

Rules are indispensable tools to maintain order in a civilized society, and it is often worth respecting them even if in certain isolated occasions they risk causing more harm than good. What is important is that, in the long run, the benefits of respecting that rule outweigh the costs. Utilitarians may tolerate the breaking of rules in extreme, exceptional circumstances, but only if it doesn’t become a habit that corrodes our respect for the rule, cancelling its positive effects.

Pragmatic utilitarianism

Another common objection against utilitarianism is that it doesn’t help us when we have to weigh the suffering of one group against that of another. Utilitarians often claim, for example, that being gay doesn’t make anybody suffer. Critics, however, argue that this is not true since conservative parents do suffer when they find out their child is gay. In this article I argue that, in such situations, we should prioritize the well-being of the LGBT not only because the pain of repressing themselves is likely to be more intense than the shame experienced by their parents, but because the shame of having gay kids is somewhat easy to get rid of, while history proves us that homosexual urges are almost impossible to overcome without extreme suffering. It is more pragmatic, therefore, to promote the treatment of homophobic shame than the repression of one’s sexuality.

Utilitarianism is not unfair

Many say utilitarianism justifies exploiting minorities as long as this benefits a sufficiently large majority. This motivated John Rawls to propose a version of contractarianism as an alternative to utilitarianism which is not vulnerable to the same kind of criticism. Rawls’ philosophy is famously illustrated by his “original position” thought experiment. Imagine you are part of a committee of spirits who are in charge of defining the rules governing humanity. Once you manage to agree on a set of rules, you will each be born in a random position in this society.

From behind this “veil of ignorance”, you wouldn’t know whether you’d be born as the prince of Sweden, or as an undesired blind child in a hunger stricken village in Sub-Saharan Africa. What rules would you choose in this situation? According to Rawls, the rules agreed upon by this committee would be by definition the fairest rules possible. Living according to those rules, therefore, would be what it means to be moral.

In this article, I explain that utilitarianism does not condone the exploitation of minorities if we embrace negative utilitarianism, according to which the prevention of suffering has priority over the maximization of pleasure. I also argue that Rawlsian contractarianism is best seen not exactly as an alternative to utilitarianism, but as a useful tool to determine how negative a truly impartial utilitarianism should be.

If from behind a veil of ignorance even the most rational and self-interested individuals refuse to enter in a world where 99% live as kings while 1% live as slaves, that can only mean that a life as a slave is so bad that even a 99% chance of being free still won’t be enough to eliminate their fear of ending up as a slave. In other words, the expected value of the gamble is negative. Therefore, it would be inconsistent to say that the happiness of the 99% compensates for the suffering of the 1%. If it did, they would accept the gamble.

A forgiving utilitarianism

Another objection often brought up against utilitarianism is that it is too demanding, and that a moral philosophy that claims we should let our child die to save two strangers cannot be taken seriously. In this article I argue that once again, this is only true under a very naive interpretation of the theory. Human beings are imperfect creatures and we have our own selfish instincts and biases that are hard to overcome. All that utilitarianism asks of us is that we try to be as neutral as we can, without beating ourselves up if we fail to reach moral perfection. A society where we are constantly forced to sacrifice our most meaningful relationships in the name of some greater good seems dystopian, and if a society seems depressing and dystopian, it is by definition not utilitarian.

Natural rights and moral desert

Many worry that utilitarianism is dangerous because it has no respect for human rights or for the basic principle of treating people as they deserve. Again, this is a result of naively interpreting utilitarianism as a short-sighted theory that only aims to maximize happiness in the immediate future. A society where human rights are not respected and people don’t get the rewards and punishments they deserve would quickly spiral into chaos, producing a lot of suffering in the process. However, it is important once again to understand that rights, rewards, and punishments, just like virtues and rules, are only valuable insofar as they serve as tools that help us minimize suffering and maximize collective happiness in the long run. When they stop serving this role, they are no longer justified.

Moral illusions

Finally, I consider the criticism that utilitarianism conflicts with many of our moral intuitions, and that it cannot, therefore, be a universal moral theory. In this article I explain that just like we have cognitive biases that cloud our ability to make rational decisions, we also have cognitive biases that impair our moral reasoning. Just like we experience visual or mathematical illusions but manage to snap out of them when we are shown that they cannot be reconciled with other deeper intuitions we have, we also experience moral illusions and should be able to snap out of them by examining whether those intuitions are really compatible with the deeper moral intuitions we have but might not be aware of.

Pragmatic objections

The objections I have considered in the previous sections are all concerned with utilitarianism as a theory. Other objections, however, concern the practical use of utilitarianism as a basis for public policy. The most common objection I hear regards the inefficacy of this approach in answering certain specific moral questions. Because there are certain disputes that are in practice impossible to settle empirically, such as “did NATO prevent more deaths than it caused when it bombed Yugoslavia”, some moral questions are bound to remain unanswered by our moral paradigm.

I don’t think this is a weakness of this approach to morality, but a strength. Just like a scientific, evidence-based epistemology forces us to be humble and admit when we just don’t know something, a consistent moral theory with well-defined axioms also forces us to be humble and admit that sometimes we simply don’t have enough data to really know what’s the most ethical thing to do. In those situations, all we can do is be agnostic.

Of course, we will often have our hunches, and in the absence of hard data we are justified in arguing in favor of our position by resorting to analogies, personal experience, anecdotal evidence, thought experiments, etc. In fact, this is, I believe, the role of philosophy in discussions about morality. Whenever hard science enthusiasts claim that certain philosophical questions should be handed to scientists, philosophers react with skepticism. But I think both science and philosophy have a role in moral debates.

The way I see it, philosophy is essentially the art of educated speculation. Claims that can be empirically verified with current technology are in the domain of science, claims that can be empirically verified in principle but not in practice are in the domain of philosophy, and claims that cannot be empirically verified even in principle are in the domain of mysticism. But as educated as our speculation may be, at the end of the day we have to admit that we might be wrong. Our only alternative is to postulate ad hoc rules that conform to our own personal intuitions even if those intuitions are not universal and even conflict with intuitions triggered in different contexts. But this is caprice, not reason. Darkness, not light.

Politics

Although an epistemically humble approach to morality leaves many questions unanswered, it does provide clear answers to many controversial moral questions that we seem to be taking decades and decades to converge on. Abortion, for example, as I have argued before, is clearly morally acceptable as long as the fetus is unable to feel pain, which is definitely the case at least in the first trimester. Homosexual behavior, or in fact any sexual taboo should be morally permissible as long as it only involves consenting adults. Recreational use of drugs is also perfectly acceptable as long as done responsibly.

On the other hand, inflicting unimaginable amounts of suffering on factory farmed animals and inhumanely slaughtering them to satisfy our food cravings is clearly something bad that we should work to move away from as urgently as possible. Justifying extreme inequality by appeal to dogmatic notions of merit, defending tax cuts for the wealthy based on pseudo-scientific ideas such as trickle-down economics, administering retributive rather than rehabilitative punishment to criminals, and living a life of luxury and ostentation when you could instead donate the money to effective charities, are also impossible to justify morally under this paradigm.

Considering how this unified morality is well aligned with progressive causes, it is hard to comprehend why progressives are so reluctant to accept it. One of the reasons is of course lack of ethical literacy, which might lead people to see moral philosophy as some sort of elitist popularity contest between mostly straight white men who defend conflicting and equally incomprehensible theories. This leads them to reject the axiom upon which all our moral claims are grounded, after all it is “utilitarianism”, and therefore “just another theory”.

Another reason why people may reject our views, however, might be that it challenges some ideas that have become gospel in some of the more dogmatic leftist circles. The popular idea that abortion is a matter of women’s rights, for example, is challenged by arguments that focus only on harm. Anti-capitalistic, Marxist ideas against the “commodification of the female body” are threatened by utilitarian arguments in favor of the decriminalization of sex-work, etc.

Besides, the idea that finding scientific answers to certain empirical questions is a prerequisite to answering certain moral questions is also taboo, because it forces us to accept that science is the only legitimate method of answering empirical questions, an idea that is usually not very welcomed by new age leftists, postmodernists, Marxists, Freudians, and people who hold supernatural and pseudo-scientific beliefs of any kind.

The ten core values of a unified moral theory

As I have argued, it is perfectly possible to ground your entire moral philosophy on the simple and intuitive idea that suffering is bad and pleasure is good. Objections to this view have inspired valuable insights but, as I have shown, none of these insights are incompatible with a suffering-focused morality. It is possible to define good and bad in terms of conscious experiences and still recognize the practical importance of rewards, punishment, of treating rules as inviolable, rights as inalienable, and of cultivating positive virtues. In order to make my point more memorable, I have summarized it in this list of ten principles of a unified moral philosophy:

  1. Promote long-term well being. The best action is always the one we have most reason to believe will maximize the total long-term quality of sentient life.
  2. Cultivate good intentions. Because the morality of an action is contingent on our beliefs about the consequences of that action, it is impossible to judge the morality of an action without knowing with what intention it was performed. If a man pulls the lever in a trolley problem and somehow the trolley rolls over and kills everyone, we cannot judge the action as moral or immoral until we know what intentions that man had and, if they were good, how justified he was in believing that pulling the lever would satisfy that intention. It is important, therefore, to cultivate and promote good intentions, while condemning bad ones.
  3. Be epistemically responsible. Because the morality of an action is contingent on our intentions and how good our reasons are for believing those actions will satisfy those intentions, it is extremely important to be able to properly identify what counts as good or bad reasons for believing something. If we assume without evidence that the consequences of an action will be good even though a more careful analysis would clearly show there was great potential for them to be bad, then we have acted immorally and should be held accountable. However, if we were as epistemically responsible as humanly possible, but because of some unpredictable random event our actions led to horrible consequences, then we have acted morally and should not be held accountable to any harm.
  4. Respect good rules. Because we cannot reasonably expect each other to accurately predict the long-term outcomes of every single action imaginable, it is useful to create rules and treat them collectively as (almost) inviolable. If we don’t apply any constraints at all to the freedom of individuals to act according to their own predictions, there is too much potential for disagreement, which hinders cooperation. Experts should be responsible for helping us define these rules in their respective areas of expertise. If experts conclude that the enforcement of a certain rule is causing more harm than good (e.g. criminalizing drugs), that rule should be revoked.
  5. Cultivate positive virtues. Because we cannot reasonably expect each other to accurately predict the long-term outcomes of every single action imaginable, and because it is in our nature to estimate how valuable somebody is as a cooperator by measuring how they score on a few memorable character traits, it is useful to promote certain traits as virtues and others as vices. The more cooperative the individuals in a society are, the happier that society is likely to be. However, if studies show that a certain character trait generally perceived as a virtue is doing more harm than good (e.g. male toughness), we should no longer encourage their cultivation.
  6. Respect justified rights. Because we cannot reasonably expect each other to accurately predict the long-term outcomes of every single action imaginable, it is useful to define certain rights and treat them as (almost) inviolable. Experts in different areas should be responsible for helping us define these rights. If they conclude that the enforcement of a certain right is causing more harm than good (e.g. the right to bear arms), the enforcement of that right is no longer justified and it should be revoked.
  7. Punish constructively. Because people adjust their behavior in response to punishment, it is useful to enforce some system of punishment in order to protect innocent people from harm. The goal of this system, however, must be to minimize harm, not to cause harm as pure retribution for other harm. If a system of punishment inflicts any level of discomfort that doesn’t serve the purpose of incapacitation, deterrence, rehabilitation, or restoration, that system must be reformed to eliminate that purposeless suffering.
  8. Reward constructively. Because people adjust their behavior in response to rewards, enforcing some system of rewards is useful for maximizing well-being. If studies show, however, that a certain system of rewards is not functioning in a way that maximizes general well-being, perhaps because it fails to reduce extreme poverty, for example, that system should be reformed even if that means reducing the rewards that certain individuals feel they deserve.
  9. Be fair. Because pain weights exponentially more than pleasure, if the suffering experienced by one sentient being has sufficient intensity and duration, it cannot be compensated by any amount of pleasure another sentient being might experience. This means that an unequal distribution of well-being is only justified if the worst-off are above a minimal baseline.
  10. Forgive. Because evolution happens at the level of genes and not individuals, humans have many contradictory instincts. Even though we have a strong sense of justice and impartiality, for example, we also have a powerful instinct to favor our kin. It is unreasonable, therefore, to believe that a system would be conducive to overall happiness if it was so rigid as to punish a father for saving his daughter from a fire instead of two strangers. A forgiving system that tolerates certain transgressions while still trying to minimize them seems more workable, more pragmatic, and more conducive to overall happiness.

Conclusion

The moral standard that I propose is not a defense of utilitarianism and an attack on all other moral theories. It is best seen as an attempt to unify all great moral theories using semi-utilitarian language. Perhaps we could unify all moral theories using the language of deontology or virtue ethics. I think this would be much harder, but as long as the resulting moral theory doesn’t differ from ours in its prescriptions, they should be essentially different ways of describing the same thing.

It has been widely believed that there are such deep disagreements between Kantians, Contractualists, and Consequentialists. That, I have argued, is not true. These people are climbing the same mountain on different sides.

— Derek Parfit, 2011. On What Matters (Vol. 1).

I chose this language because it’s the simplest and most intuitive. Of course pleasure is good, and of course pain is bad. How do you decide if a rule should be universal or not, if not by appeal to their propensity to produce more or less pleasure and suffering? How do you define a virtue, if not by a similar logic?

People who are cornered by utilitarian arguments often resort to the mere existence of other moral theories as if that was sufficient to refute utilitarianism. As I have shown, however, no moral theory is so fundamentally opposed to utilitarian principles that it cannot be reconciled with it under any reasonable interpretation. Even religious people can potentially re-interpret their religion’s moral teachings so as to make it compatible with the philosophy I defend, even if for some it may be harder than for others.

It is important to understand that the boundaries we have created between moral theories in Western philosophy are artificial and largely a result of historical accident. This is becoming increasingly clear as the popularity of Buddhist philosophy grows in the West and we fail to categorize it using our Western framework. Is it consequentialist? Is it deontological? Is it virtue-oriented? A bit of everything? Does it even matter? I don’t think it does. When I attempt to define an eclectic, unified moral theory, what matters to me is: is it precise? Is it clear? Is it intuitive? Is it universal? Is it easy to understand and communicate? Can it help us resolve moral disputes, relieve political tensions, and help us cooperate? I don’t think it will be easy, and I don’t think it will happen overnight, but I think it can.

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