What’s my ethical system? A disambiguation.

Jeremy Bentham, founder of utilitarianism

A friend of mine recently asked me what system of ethics I subscribe to. For all that I’ve thought, read, and talked about ethics over the years, I still have trouble answering that question clearly and coherently. This time, at least, I had the useful realization that my difficulty discussing this in the past is partly due to the fact that there are several ways of interpreting the question, each of which leads to a different answer from me.

I’m sure I’ll write a lot more about each of these topics in the future, but for now, I want to share a brief disambiguation. Even if your answers to these questions are different from mine, it still might be helpful for you to break down your own answer along these or similar lines.

“What’s my ethical system,” then, could be interpreted any of the following ways:

1. What ethical system am I most comfortable with intellectually? Act utilitarianism. This system holds that in any given situation, you should do whatever will maximize expected utility over all sentient beings. There are some tricky questions involved (for example, are you maximizing the sum of total utility, or the average? How do you take into account the utility of future beings?). Nevertheless, utility is the only good which I think it makes sense to care about — if you told me “We should try to pursue/avoid result X, even though it won’t affect anyone’s utility,” that wouldn’t make any sense to me intellectually.

2. What ethical system am I most comfortable with emotionally? Some mishmash of act utilitarianism + rights theory. Even though my emotional intuitions usually accord with act utilitarianism, there are some cases in which I simply don’t like the action that act utilitarianism prescribes. For example, I tend to feel that people have a “right” to autonomy even if you knew that they would end up happier if you forced them to make a certain choice. I also tend to feel that people have a “right” to know the truth about certain things, even if you knew that it would make them less happy overall.

But I don’t have any justification for my feelings about those situations, nor do I think any such justification exists — I don’t think the concept of a “right” makes any sense except as a convention we all choose to respect. So I’m still trying to figure out how to reconcile my strong overall preference for act utilitarianism with my strong emotional inclination to discard it in cases like these.

3. What ethical system do I think is “correct?” None. I’m pretty much an error theorist when it comes to ethics, which means that I think ethical claims (e.g., “Causing gratuitous suffering is wrong”) can’t be said to be true or false the way empirical claims (e.g., “Poisoning the well will cause gratuitous suffering”) can. That doesn’t imply that ethical claims are entirely meaningless. Clearly ethical claims can express emotions like disgust and outrage, and a kind of prescriptivism, i.e., “Don’t do X”.

But in my experience, people making ethical claims tend to also believe they are making a factual claim about a property (“wrongness”) that some act has, and that’s where the “error” in “error theory” comes in — I don’t think that properties of rightness and wrongness exist, objectively, in the world.  The explanation that most closely matches my views on this is J. L. Mackie’s, laid out in Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong.  So the preferences I laid out in #1 and #2 are just that — preferences.

4. What ethical system do I actually follow on a day-to-day basis? Some mishmash of #2 + weakness of will + selective apathy + social pressures and habits. I’m not perfect, even by the standards of the system of ethics I myself have chosen. There are plenty of relatively easy things I could be doing to reduce suffering in the world which I am not doing, mainly out of inertia and the knowledge that society won’t judge me harshly for not doing them. I can and intend to remedy this gap, to some extent, but there’s no clear answer to the question of how high a standard to hold oneself to.

13 Responses to What’s my ethical system? A disambiguation.

  1. Mark Ormandy says:

    Thanks for another great post,

    I find I agree with your emotional preferences intellectually, a conclusion that at lest seems very similar to the one present in Alonzo Fyfe’s Desire Utilitarianism.

    Have you looked into this ethical theory? He believes he can make factual claims about moral propositions stemming from his desire based theory of value (Not to be confused with Desire acts utilitarianism). I personally find it very convincing.



  2. ” For example, I tend to feel that people have a “right” to autonomy even if you knew that they would end up happier if you forced them to make a certain choice. ”

    Under Mill’s Utilitarianism, autonomy is built in. A violation of autonomy is a harm, and harms are to be minimized.

    I find that lot of people’s discomfort with Utilitarianism stems from forgetting about the whole ‘minimization of harm’ part.

  3. Julia Galef says:

    @Brian — In general, violations of autonomy do reduce utility. But I was talking about the exceptions — cases in which violating someone’s autonomy would increase their utility. My point was that I have an emotional preference for preserving autonomy even at the expense of utility, even though intellectually I want to say: “What’s the value of autonomy if it doesn’t bring you utility?”

  4. Mill also addresses that (and I’m paraphrasing wildly from, I think, On Liberty): preservation of autonomy is precondition for maximising Utility. The *only* acceptable violation is in order to prevent harm, not merely to increase happiness. Mill agrees with you on preservation of Autonomy.

    I’m happy to dig up the relevant sections, if you like? It’ll take a week though as I’m moving internationally on Monday…

  5. Cruz says:


    I know you were just spelling out your views in this post but I was just curious about what your arguments/reasons would be for holding some of these views. You said:

    “I don’t think the concept of a “right” makes any sense except as a convention we all choose to respect”

    Why do you think that rights can only make sense as ‘a convention we all choose to respect’?

    Also why are you an error theorists about ethics? It seems strange to think that someone isn’t really making a true claim when they claim that what Hitler did was wrong, and something false when they tell you it was wrong of you to tie your shoelaces after you put your shoes on and not before.

    Looking forward to your response!

  6. Lawrence says:

    Admirable frankness!

    That tension you describe between your emotional inclination and intellectual preference in certain cases… I think there’s a way out of it, through what you label “inertia and the knowledge that society won’t judge me harshly”.

    (Caveat lector; rambling ahead…) I think that points to the fact that each of us already has an instinctive system of judgment, one that becomes unique through the experience of being a person in a particular place, molded by a particular set of relationships with others and with the natural world. This is where philosophy can begin to understand its own connection to history and to lived experience, can begin to understand the dependence of its assumptions upon our myriad lives as sensing and feeling animals.

    (“Location-dependent utilitarianism”: like the traditional variety, but in addition, holding one to a higher moral standard when behaving toward those who are closest to them, because one, being an animal, has a finite capacity for sensing and feeling and reasoning. In a very real sense each individual is the center of their own universe.)

    Indeed there is no clear answer to the question of setting a standard, because there is no way to pack the nuance of all the universe’s permutations into a simple formula. Frankly, I think it’s an aesthetic question. 🙂

    Isn’t it nice how we don’t apply moral judgments to animals? We give them a pass because we assume they don’t have the intellectual sophistication to receive moral judgment and channel it productively. But we’re mostly the same as them, so if we’re to develop a truly general moral system, oughtn’t we give at least some fraction of that pass to ourselves? I guess what I’m trying to say is: Inertia’s ok in moderation. So, the need to “remedy the gap” is itself something to look into…

  7. Jesse R says:

    hey Julia,

    To my mind the underlying cause of our ethics is ’emotional’ in that our evolved empathic response is felt rather than thought; but that’s not to say that it isn’t also the most rational or even utilitarian response. After all, the phenotype of empathy evolved not for warm fuzzies, but for survival.

    The convention of a ‘right’ to this or that can become an ingrained idea such that its familiarity and memetic virulence and pervasiveness serves to obscure the original reason for its existence (it becomes an institution unto itself rather than a considered response), but the vast majority of the time I find that the rights we hold to be valid en masse are quite rational in terms of utility.

    Your example of a right to autonomy serves many useful and rational purposes as an ethical premise. It may be the case that we adopt a bias toward ‘the right to autonomy’ as a result of it being useful/good in many situations, and also as a cultural ideology (especially in the USA I suspect), and so if we wish to get at the truth of things, we need to tease out that which is biased from that which is rational, but I think it is a mistake to say that it boils down to an ’emotional’ reason.

    I also feel/think that one’s autonomy should have precedence over their happiness, but I don’t think that happiness need be the absolute measure by which we measure value and ethics.

  8. Julia Galef says:

    @Brian — If it’s true that Mill would advocate preserving autonomy even at the expense of utility, I’d be curious to hear his reasons. (Of course in practice, as I mentioned, autonomy usually leads to utility; I’m just talking about the hypothetical cases in which it doesn’t.)

  9. Julia Galef says:

    @Cruz — I’d be curious to hear how you know that an action has the property of “wrongness.” What does that property consist of?

  10. Julia Galef says:

    @Lawrence — Thanks! The thing is, talking about giving ourselves a “free pass” or not implies some obligation which I don’t think exists. (Unless you mean a legal or social obligation, but as far as saving starving children goes, we aren’t obliged to do that by law and there’s no social pressure to do so either.)

    Although I don’t think it makes sense to talk about what we “should” do, I do think it makes sense to talk about what outcome we want. And the gap I was referencing was the fact that I want there to be less suffering in the world, but I’m not doing as much as I could feasibly do to bring about that outcome.

  11. Lawrence says:

    “as much as I could feasibly do”… there are so many implied counterfactuals there; what are we to do with all of those? 🙂

    What we want… It’s not an obligation, properly speaking; but something that does influence our reasoning. You’ve absorbed through your interactions with others some concept of moral rectitude that guides your behavior. So talking about what we “should” do is not that dissimilar to talking about what we “want” to do, no? The general reduction of suffering… You said in a different post that you “cycled through… Buddhism in 7th grade”, so I’m curious to know how one of its key tenets stuck.

  12. Cruz says:


    Sorry for the delayed response. You said:

    “@Cruz — I’d be curious to hear how you know that an action has the property of “wrongness.” What does that property consist of?”

    So you are asking (1) How we know when an action is impermissible and when it is not and (2) What kind of thing would a moral property be (what properties does it have, does it boil down to other more easy to grasp properties, and maybe can we offer an analysis of ‘wrong’)?

    As for one moral epistemology (or epistemology in general) is an area of study that I am not very well acquainted with but you can get a decent overview of some of the views here:


    Robert Audi also has a section in his ‘Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction (Routledge Contemporary Introductions to Philosophy)’ that is gives an interesting way to understand how we can have knowledge of moral facts. But besides this I think that how we know what moral claims are true is a completely different question from whether or not any of them are true or could have any truth value at all. And I believe that it can be shown that they do have truth value without giving an answer to (2) either. What moral claims consist of is a highly debated question with many different answers. So let me take the road less travel for now and try to show that they can and must have truth value without answer the aforementioned two questions.

    So consider the following claim:

    (A) Killing is wrong if and only if killing is wrong

    This is a moral claim. And it definitely seems to be true, in fact it seems to be trivially true. But if this claim has truth value then moral claims can bear truth values and can be true. Let’s also consider the following argument:

    ( i ) If Mike kills someone that has not and will not harm any others then Mike has acted wrongly.
    (i i) Mike killed someone that has not and will not harm any others.
    (iii) Therefore, Mike has acted wrongly

    Here we have made what seems to be a valid argument. It takes the form of modus ponens. But if moral claims could not have and do not have truth values then this argument could not be valid because it violates the definition of validity. But the argument is valid. Therefore moral claims can and do have truth value.

    I think these arguments pretty conclusively show that moral facts can and do have truth values. I would be interested in hearing what you think about them.

  13. Larry says:

    Interesting conversation here, hope I’m not butting in with this.

    I wonder whether you make a distinction between ethics, which I have come to view not only as the Zeitgeist or character of a person or society, but also as the ‘reason’ something is considered right or wrong, i.e. ‘moral?’ That is, ethics become the context within which we define moral acts, and thus of course are limited to some extent by the social groups we find ourselves acting within and with.

    Also, a little known book/author I encountered along the way stated that ethical theories could be classified. For example: Theological approbative, naturalist, rationalist, etc. according to the perceived source of authority from which acts derive rightness or wrongness.

    It’s possible I can locate it for you in an old bibliography, if you’re interested.


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