A Unified Morality

(This is the seventh part of the ‘From Neural Is to Moral Ought’ series of talks.)


32: Three Moral Theories

I have previously looked at the three main moral theories (briefly). All three have their plus-points and downsides. Here, I bring together points made previously to present a unified moral theory, trying to take the best parts of the three theories and avoiding the worst.

On the plus-side:

  • The Utilitarianism form of Consequentialism recognizes that it is the ‘happiness’ (better described as ‘well-being’) of individuals that matters (unlike ‘State Consequentialism’). Also, it is the consequences of actions that ultimately really matter, in order to improve the overall well-being of people. Morality is not a zero-sum game, although conflict remains a key problem – how to trade-off the benefits for one person to the detriment of another.
  • Deontology also recognizes that it is individuals that matter (people are ‘ends in themselves’). It provides a method of generating definite rules for behaviour. Through universalization, there is implicit equality among persons.
  • Virtue Ethics recognizes that we cannot judge people on what they could not possibly do or avoid. Someone cannot be expected to do the right thing if they have not been brought up that way. Right actions are embodied in the character of a person. Ethics is a dynamic process.

By emphasizing the plus-points of one theory, there is an implicit criticism of the other theories for not having those features. But also on the down-side:

  • For Utilitarianism: There are absurd counter-examples such as Robert Nozick’s ‘utility monster’.
  • For Deontology: There are also absurd counter-examples such as the ‘murderer at the door’. It is too inflexible and it can easily degenerate into blind rule-following.
  • For Virtue Ethics: There is precious little guidance on (1) how to make decisions in particular circumstances and (2) what virtues should be cultivated. It is too vague.

Here, I don’t provide any supporting details; refer instead to previous discussions:


33: A Unified Moral Theory



Calling the three moral schemes ‘theories’ implies that they are competing alternatives, only one of which may be right. But it is better to see them as three different approaches to moral problems. They are like three different views of the same object – an object we are trying to grapple with in order to understand it. In this case, that object is morality. It is analogous to the geometric object below which can appear to be distinctly different, depending on the direction we approach it from – from the left as a triangle, from the right as a square or from below as a circle. In reality of course, it is a higher-dimensional object that subsumes all three ‘aspects’.

(Picture credit: DataGenetics; click for Quicktime .mov or .wmv for animations.)

So here, I propose a unified moral scheme that tries to subsume the best of the other three to get to the object beyond what it appears to be from the three different approaches; to produce a single vision, from which all three approaches are discernible:

  1. Agency: Individuals are agents, acting within a shared environment.
  2. Well-being: It is the well-being of individuals that matter, not some ‘greater cause’. Individuals are ‘ends in themselves’. [UD]
  3. Consequences: Ultimately, it is the consequences of actions that matter – the consequences on the well-being of individuals. [U]
  4. Maximizing: The greatest well-being of the greatest number within the population that is to be maximized. [U]
  5. Average Well-Being: It is well-being per capita that is to be maximized. In Utilitarian terms, it is ‘average utility’ rather than ‘total utility’ that is to be maximized. (That man is a social animal will tend to act against the population dwindling to 1. The notorious case of painlessly exterminating individuals with below-average well-being can be avoid with points 10, 11, 12. That there are limited resources in the environment will act against a runaway population increase.) [U]
  6. Prediction in a complex environment: Moral skill is the ability to predict consequences from actions. In a complex environment, this is notoriously difficult. It is impossible to reliably predict consequences, but those with greater skill will produce better consequences in the long run. [V]
  7. Estimation of Utility: Utilitarianism presents itself as a quantitative morality but attaching numbers to consequences is impossible in practice in anything more than the simplest of environments. The quantitative aspect is conceptual. We should imagine consequences and weight them as is appropriate. As experience is gained, we will become better at judging this. [UV]
  8. Rules: Rules determining action tend to produce good consequences in the long run. [U]
  9. Perfect Rules: Kant’s perfect duties – those for which their contradiction leads to a logical inconsistency – are a very good source of rules when there is insufficient prior experience. As experience is gained, the hypothetical, imperfect sub-rules replace the categorical perfect rules. [DU]
  10. The ‘Golden rule’ substitution: The categorical imperative is essentially a form of the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would want to be done by / not do unto others as you would not want to be done by”. This is also a very good guide for establishing rules. [D]
  11. Substitution: A simpler principle to the above is that any individual can be substituted for another without the rule changing. [D]
  12. Equality: The substitution principle implicitly means that all the moral agents are ‘equal’. [DU]
  13. Imagination, observation and improvement: Moral skill requires an ability to imagine consequences before enacting action. We then observe the consequences of our actions.
  14. Retrospection: Each action is retrospectively evaluated in terms of the effect (change in utility) of rules – both of the actual rule applied and of alternative rules, for future comparison.
  15. Super-Rules and Sub-rules: For the purposes of below, here I define a sub-rules as being a rule that can be subsumed by another rule. Equally, a super-rule is one that subsumes anther rule. Thus (1) ‘do not lie except when confronted by a murderer’ is a sub-rule of the ‘do not lie’ rule (2) the ‘do not lie’ rule and the ‘do not murder’ rule are separate rules.
  16. Rule-to-Rule Conflict: Where there is a conflict of rules in which one does not subsume the other, the rule with the most positive change in utility should be followed. [U]
  17. Rule-to-Subrule Conflict: Where there is a conflict of rules in which one rule subsumes the other, the rule that should be applied should be determined by the one which has proven most reliable based on previous experience, for the specific current circumstance. As experience is built up, a sub-rule may prove to be more successful than the super-rule. Where there is not sufficient prior experience then the super-rule should be followed.
  18. Duty: It is the duty of an individual to follow the appropriate rule according to the meta-rule above, without exception. [D]
  19. Growth cycle: This sets up a cycle of growth – a virtuous circle – for the moral growth of each individual. [V]
  20. Intentions and Skills: Good intentions motivating actions combined with good moral skill will tend to produce good consequences. This combination of good intention and good skill can be described as ‘virtuous’. [DV]
  21. Innate virtues: Eventually, the acquired skill becomes second nature to the individual. In contrast, someone who tries to act good against their nature is to be commended but they are not as good as one for whom the decision is natural. The former is lacking moral skill. [V]

(The bracketed letters D, U and V above indicate whether the particular point is relate to Deontology, Utilitarianism and Virtue Ethics respectively.)


‘Three Worlds’: Lithograph by M. C. Escher; rendering by Martin Kay

This synthesis of the three main moral theories is necessarily more complex than any one of them in isolation and I am proposing it as a better moral theory than the others. Obviously, it is not the only way the three theories can be combined and I am sure a better theory could be devised.

But how can one theory be considered better than another, anyway?

If asked:

What purpose does your new moral theory serve?

the reply could be:

What purpose does any moral theory serve?

That is what I turn to next.

However, the purpose of my new moral theory is not to provide a viable moral theory but just to provide an example for comparison with the 3 main moral theories – later on.

Next: Others, Orders and Oughts


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2 Responses to A Unified Morality

  1. Wyrd Smythe says:

    I really like your 21-point list! Quite an excellent summary!

  2. Pingback: Some Good Reason | Headbirths

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