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Resolved: Utilitarianism is a flawed moral ideology

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 3/9/2013 Category: Philosophy
Updated: 4 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 2,145 times Debate No: 31117
Debate Rounds (4)
Comments (8)
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Resolution: Utilitarianism is a flawed moral ideology

Utilitarianism- The moral doctrine that any action which brings about maximum happiness ought to be followed/considered right

Flawed- Containing, but not limited to, a mistake, weakness, fault, contradiction, etc....

Moral ideology- An ideology that seeks to describe moral and immoral actions

Round 1: Acceptance

Round 2: Arguments (Shared BOP)

Round 3: Arguments/ Rebuttals

Round 4: Rebuttals/ Conclusion



I'm not well-versed on utilitarianism or the issues surronding it, but I think that I can put up a reasonable defense in a debate. I accep.

Debate Round No. 1


I thank my opponent for accepting this debate challenge.


It's first important to further define the term of utilitarianism before arguing about it. Utilitarianism has its roots in Greek hedonistic philosophy, in that its main imperative to maximize the greatest amount of good or happiness (utility) for the maximum amount of people. Any action that does so is consequentially considered the morally correct action in the specific circumstance.


1. Future Calculations

2. Subjectivity

3. Quantification

4. Is/Ought

Future Calculations

The entire premise of utilitarian philosophy is based on the ability for conscious reasoning and knowledge about the future ramifications of any actions (ends). Since utilitarianism only takes into account the ends, instead of the means, a mandatory part of utilitarianism is the ability to know the ends of any such action. This is strictly impossible. No individual is capable of seeing into the future and knowing that deciding upon X will have ramifications of Y and Z in the far future. Since any action causes subsequent actions ad infinitum, any moral action that is made by a utilitarian cannot possible have all of its consequences accounted for during the time that the action is made.

For example, take the hypothetical of a man seeing a baby drowning in a river. The man, capable of swimming, rushes into the river and rescues the baby from harm. Clearly, according to the utilitarian, this was the moral action in this situation. Now assume that the baby grows up to become a raging maniacal serial killer who claims the lives of many individuals. The utilitarian thinker is at an impasse. On the one hand, the utility from rescuing the baby supersedes the danger from the man going into the river. One the other hand, the danger and negative effects of letting a serial killer run loose clearly over weigh the life of the baby. Even assuming that the serial killer is captured, it is unclear what his actions will prompt others in society to do and so forth ad infinitum.

Is it obvious that considering the above hypothetical, it would be moral for the man to let the child drown in the river. His action of saving the baby was highly immoral, considering its future repercussions. Utilitarianism requires the knowledge that the child would have turned into a serial killer to make a moral decision onto whether he should have been saved. However, there is no way that the man could have had the knowledge at that time.

Utilitarianism requires the ability to predict the future consequences of any specific actions, which is clearly impossible. Only with an omnipotent knowledge would one be able to map out the effects that any single action would have one the future. Therefore, the very premise of utilitarianism- maximizing happiness- cannot be accounted for when an action requiring moral reasoning is to be committed.


The central premise of utilitarianism is that there exists some sort of objective goodness or happiness (utility) that should be maximized. This is unfounded because what constitutes as being "good" and "happy" is in itself subjective. Whereas individual X might believe that obtaining wealth leads to being good and happy, individual Y,a sadomasochist, might believe that goodness and happiness are caused by pain and suffering inflicted onto oneself. There is absolutely to way to reconcile the different interpretations that individuals have on what constitutes as the central premise of utilitarianism. Building onto the previous point about future ramifications, there is no way that an individual would be able to account for all the subjective definitions of goodness and happiness in his calculation for all the people which it would effect in the future (which he can't account for either.... double whammy!). Therefore, the concept of maximizing good is inherently flawed because it assumes an objective definition of what is classified as good and cannot be taken into account by the moral agent with regards to all subjective definitions ad infinitum.

Furthermore, this subjectivity also leads to the conclusion that some people might not want to achieve happiness in their daily lives. For example, some individuals choose to voluntarily live in seclusion and reject what most people deem to be "happiness" and "pleasure." If I were to follow utilitarianism, I would be forced to forcefully implement "happiness" and "pleasure" onto them, thus stripping them of their individual and moral autonomy.


Perhaps the most apparent problem of utilitarianism is how do you quantify utility? Utilitarianism assumes, that even if you could see and account for all the possible subjective preferences of happiness and the future ramifications of any action, there would be some way to quantify the utility of an action. Albeit, the closest we have come to that is hedonistic calculus (don't know why it's called calculus; it has no math in it), which is basically equivalent to filling out a self-help questionnaire about how you feel. There is no way to transform into mathematics the "intensity, duration, purity, extent, etc..." of any feeling. Therefore, no moral agent can objectively determine the correct moral action.

Is/Ought Problem

Finally, the last point in favor of utilitarianism being flawed is the is/ought problem. Whereas utilitarianism recognizes that happiness exists and the individual pursues it, it attempts to make a normative claim out of this descriptive claim, which is an is/ought fallacy.


I have shown how there is no way to account for the future ramifications of any actions, the subjectivity of the terms used by utilitarianism, the fact that quantification is impossible, and the violation of the is/ought problem.

This resolution is affirmed.


Ave! I am going to be making an argument for a form of utilitarianism that has been popularized by writers such as Sam Harris and Joseph Daleiden.

Moral Truth
If objective moral values and duties do not exist, then it's clear that utilitarianism cannot be a moral ideology, because morality is just subjective. I'm going to devote a section to criticize relativism before I begin with my arguments. Please note that I'm not refuting LK's argument, as that would be against the rules. He hasn't argued for relativism.

The existence of moral conflict does not disprove moral truth. If I say that voodoo practices are justified by physics, and Victor Stenger tells me otherwise, there must not be any truths to be known about physics! Our beliefs about physics are merely cultural and biological. A person in Africa has a different idea of physics than I do. Physics that work America don't have to work in Brazil. This is insane, but it's relativism taken to its logical consequences.

Some realtivists argue that we cannot demonstrate moral values to be true or false using fact, so they must not correspond to reality. But, if somebody argues that witchcraft is immoral and that we should burn witches, we can prove that their opinion is wrong using objective facts. We can use our modern day scientific knowledge to show that witchcraft does not exist. We can also use scientific data to show that burning people alive as punishment might not be a great idea. Moral values can be proven or disproven with reference to facts.

Moral relativism also argues that moral judgements are subjective and do not correspond to reality. Therefore, we should be intolerant of other moral systems and ideas because of this. However, this presents us with a contradiction. Tolerance is treated as a universal moral value that we should all act by. A moral relativist in America thinks we should tolerate other moral systems, and a moral relativist in Brazil would believe the same. On relativism, everybody should be tolerant of other people's morality. Ergo, tolerance is assumed as objectively moral, making relativism self-contradictory.

Moral relativists also shouldn't debate people. In entering a debate, a relativist has assumed several first values. These values are things like truth, respect for evidence, respect for logic, etc. However, they also claim that there are no objective moral values. How then can he enter a debate that assumes things like logic and evidence are objectively valuable?

Moral truth exists, so utilitarianism can be true.

What is morality?

I am not going to redefine the word "morality" differently from the definition given in the first round. I'm just going to expand on the definition to make a larger point. We"ve established that morality is a system of dictating right and wrong. But, what do cultures and civilizations typically consider to be right and wrong?

The well-being of conscious creatures is the basis of all moral judgements. Kill your daughter? That's wrong. Sacrifice a child to the gods? That's moral. Step on a twig and snap it in half? It's just a twig. We know of no culture or civilization that punishes its members for crimes against unconscious things. Ergo, the role that well-being has in morality is undeniable.

Of course, one can think of moral judgements that have nothing to do with well-being at first glance. Why are people against cutting down the world's oldest tree? It's not conscious, yet people are against cutting it down. The answer to this is that the moral value is ultimately reducible to well-being. As humans, we have a bias towards keeping old things and traditions, so we don't want to see something like the world's oldest tree get cut down. With deeper analysis, we can conclude that "Don't cut down the world's oldest tree" actually relates to human well-being.

In conclusion, the most meaningful definition of right and wrong is based on the well-being of conscious creatures.

Maximizing Well-Being
If all morality is reducible to the well-being of conscious creatures, then it logically follows that maximizing well-being is moral. If you have problem Y, and solution X and X1 attempt to solve that problem, then the one that maximizes well-being is the most moral.

A Moral Landscape
Since morality is about the well-being of conscious creatures, we can create a type of moral landscape about the morality of our actions. The peaks of this landscape represent the maximization of well-being, and the valleys represent the worst possible misery for everyone. An action's morality can be decided based on where we would place it on the moral landscape. If the action improves economic well-being, then it would bring us closer to a peak, and it would be moral. If somebody decides to kill forty people with a machine gun, then that would bring us closer to a valley, and it would be immoral.

Measuring Well-Being
Consider the issue of women being forced to wear hijab. Does it make human beings more compassionate to one another? Does it make life safer for the woman (prevented rape, etc)? Does it improve the woman and her mental health? These questions all fall under the domain of scientific research. Scientific research can be conducted to investigate the affect that compulsory hijab has on compassion or the mental health of women who are forced to wear hijab. Science could also determine if wearing hijab makes one any else likely to get raped, and it can also tell us why people rape other people in the first place. That would also work to help us decide the affect of hijab on well-being.

Science can also analyze the physical states of the brain, and determine if an action has harmed or improved the well-being of the subject.
Through the scientific method, we have an objective and empirical way of measuring well-being.

Different ways of reaching peaks
The fact that we have many ways of promoting well-being does not undermine my moral system. By analogy, consider food. There are many healthy foods that one can eat. On any day, you could eat brocolli, carrots, or celery, and they would all be healthy foods. However, there is a clear difference between healthy food and poison, and the fact that there are many healthy foods to eat does not tempt us to say that there is no poison. To put this analogy in real terms, we have many ways of pursuing well-being, but this does not mean there are not ways to harm well-being.

Concluding Points
- Moral truth exists, so utilitarianism can be moral.
- Morality reduces to the well-being of conscious creatures.
- Maximizing well-being is moral.
- Well-being can be quantified.

There are several problems that Pro has put forward in the last round that I didn't address here because of the rules. For instance, how do we quantify well-being? Aren't ideas of well-being subjective? I will answer these arguments in the next round.


Debate Round No. 2


I thank my opponent for providing his arguments.

In the interest of fairness, I urge that my opponent attempt to rebut only the claims that I have made in Round 2 in his Round 3 rebuttal.

Now onto the interesting part:

My opponent's entire case is based upon his critique of moral relativism. If this single point falls, then consequently, so does his entire argument. Due to this, I will spend the majority of my rebuttals attacking his point about relativism.


Moral Relativism

My opponent's argument, in syllogism form, is as follows:

P1. Moral relativism depends on the non-existence of moral truths.
P2. Moral truths can be proven from the observation of reality
C1. Moral relativism is false.

P1. My opponent is mistaken in the notion that moral relativism implies no moral truths. In fact, moral relativism derives moral truth from the subjectivity of a culture's actions. In other words, moral truths are subjective across cultures. In Aztec times, the concept of human sacrifice was a culture-wide phenomenon, and thus was accepted as moral truth in that culture. In modern times, the concept of multiculturalism is often accepted by most cultures around the world, and thus within those cultures, the promotion or adherence to multiculturalism is considered as a moral truth. Relativism states that objective moral truths don't exist; that, however, does not transfer to saying that subjective moral truths don't exist.

P2. My opponent states that "Moral values can be proven or disproved with reference to facts," using examples such as that "witchcraft does not exist" and "burning people alive as punishment might not be a great idea."

By doing so, he is trying to derive normative claims from descriptive claims, committing the classic and infamous Is/Ought fallacy. Even though science and mathematical analysis can tell us that burning people alive has negative repercussion onto society and it is not an effective way of preventing crime, it can, in no way, make the logical step between the "is" (burning doesn't work) and the "ought" (burning shouldn't be done). This by itself is a fallacy in its own terms because it implies that we should value "negative repercussions" and "effects that actions have on crime." There is no objective standard by which my opponent can state that burning people is objectively and inherently bad.

My opponent is somehow attempting to bridge the gap between what modern science can tell us and ethical claims as a result of these findings. These ethical claims are based on subjective values that have no objective value, and thus still support the concept of moral relativism.

C1. This would obvious be true if the first two points were correct. Albeit, they weren't.


My opponent claims that moral relativism is self-contradictory because it implies the universality of tolerance for other cultures. He could not be further from the truth.

The end result of relativism is the implication that all cultures and moral statements have no objective value whatsoever. Ergo, culture X and culture Y cannot be classified as objectively better than culture Z. However, my opponent tries to make an erroneous logical leap that implies that all cultures should be treated equally- this is simply not the case. Although in some cases, individuals might decide to be tolerant towards other cultures because of their subjective values, it is by no means a mandatory universal force. Cultures can still subjectively think that their own moral system is better than others (although it's not), and thus not apply tolerance to that culture. This is perfectly in line with relativism; tolerance is not a mandatory virtue of the philosophy.

Moving back towards Utilitarianism......

What is morality?

My opponent states that morality can be ultimately reduced to maximizing happiness for conscious creatures.

I'm not necessarily in opposition to this, except for the fact that it's pertinent to remember that the entire foundation for his objective moral truths has just been destroyed.

My opponent, yet, fails to define what is classified as "happiness" and "well-being." I addressed this point extensively in my argument titled "Subjectivity." He is implying that there is one specific definition of the word and that it should, consequently, be maximized. As I've already stated, the concept of utility and happiness is highly subjective throughout different individuals and cultures. Some might value monetary gain to be of greater utility than family. Others might do the exact opposite. Some might even value the infliction of pain onto themselves and others as a great amount of utility. My opponent runs into the problem of defining what "utility" objectively is, since no two individuals on this earth have the exact same definitions of what classifies as utility to themselves. Some people might not even want any happiness in their lives. It would be a violation of their moral autonomy to force them to "be happy" (which would probably have the exact opposite results).

Ergo, not only is my opponent committing an Is/Ought fallacy by stating that since humans strive for happiness and well-being, it is, as a result, the moral thing to do, but he is also incapable of objectively defining utility with regards to multiple individuals and different preferences.

Measuring Well-Being

My opponent states (mistakenly) that scientific research can be conducted to measure the well-being of any action onto the individuals and that mathematical analysis can be conducted to see the results of an action (i.e. hijab). This has quite a few flaws:

1. There is no objective scientific way to measure well-being. Any way that involves the measurement or analysis of brain waves or dopamine is inherently flawed because it only measures short-term results and is not always a measure of well-being. Pleasure =/= well-being. For example, a person addicted to drugs may gain short-term pleasure from ingesting drugs, but that doesn't mean that his well-being is overall improved- especially in the long term.

2. There is no way to assess what is classified as "utility" in context of the results of wearing (for example) a hijab. This might cause women to have lower literacy rates, but that isn't necessarily bad or necessarily good- it all depends on pre-existing viewpoint. Not wearing a hijab might grant female equality to men. Again, the validity of this is subjectively based on culture. My opponent's argument suffers from the fact that he assumes an objective set of standards to be true for utility (compassion, safety, etc...). This is completely unsubstantiated. For the third time, he is committing an Is/Ought fallacy.

3. Ever action that you take has thousands of future repercussions. There is absolutely no way to know the aggregate utility (even if you could measure it) of your initial action. Any action has millions of repercussions into the future, and it is impossible to know all of these when committing your first action. This is perhaps the strongest point against utilitarianism.

Moral Relativism- This point is blatantly false because not only does moral relativism state that there are (subjective) moral truths, but my opponent is committing the Is/Ought fallacy by attempting to bridge the gap between descriptive and normative claims.

What is morality?- My opponent's argument fails because he does not, nor cannot, provide an objective definition of happiness or well-being that is universal for all individuals in the world.

Measuring Well-Being- My opponent mistakenly states that it is possible to measure well-being. Not only is it impossible to measure the aggregate utility of the millions of actions that are resulted from the first action, but my opponent is again trying to impose his own preferences about what is classified as "well-being" onto others, committing the Is/Ought fallacy.

The resolution is affirmed.



Ave! I sincerely thank Lordknuckle for his interesting and engaging criticism of utilitarianism. Truly, I've enjoyed pondering the arguments.

You might notice that I haven't addressed every single one of LK's arguents in its own section. This is because many of the things I say in regards to one argument have implications on others. Rather than waste room (and your time), I put them under one section.

Moral Truth
I think premise one is a misrepresentation of what I have said. I'm not suggesting this was on purpose, as it's possible that I didn't make myself clear. My argument is that moral relativism denies the existence of any objective moral truth. I don't believe that moral relativism denies all moral truth. That would be moral nihilism, and it would be sophomoric to confuse the two.

I think it's important to put my argument in context. When I talked about how tolerance is assumed to be a universal moral value, it was an attack on a specific form of relativism called normative relativism. This view argues that since nobody is right or wrong, we ought to tolerate the actions of other people even if we disagree with them. LK took this argument and then showed how it didn't apply to a different form of relativism called meta-ethical relativism. It wasn't never meant to, and I think the context should be noted by the reader.

LK says that we have subjective moral truths, and this is supposed to meaningful. However, there is no reason to think that subjective moral truths are any more useful than no moral truths at all. Under subjective moral values, we have no reason to think that a person like Adolf Hitler or Pol Pot actually did anything wrong. Sure, you can appeal to the moral values of the specific culture, but why think that's a good standard on a relativistic view?

LK also misunderstands what I tried to argue with the witch analogy. I wasn't arguing that since science shows X to be the case about witch burning, it shouldn't be done. I was arguing that if the advocates witch burning make an assertion, then it can be easily be proved true or false by factual analysis. That doesn't tell us anything about the morality of witch burning, it just tells us about the reasons given for why wich burning is moral. My point with this analogy was to show that moral values aren't just ideas in people's heads that can't be falsified or proven. Indeed, there are factual reasons behind these values, which can be justified.

Future Calculations and Quantification
My response to the future caculations argument works equally well on the quantification argument, so I'm going to group them together.

To frame what LK said in the last round, it is very difficult to asses the future consequences of our actions. For this reason, he rejects the idea that the morality of our actions is determined by their consequences, because you never really know the consequences. I agree with this assertion, but I don't agree with the conclusions that LK makes from it.

Consequentalism is a statement about the status of moral truth. To put it into more complex terms, it's about ontology, or the foundation of morality. Consequentalm isn't a claim about how we come to know moral truth, which is called epistemology. The argument from future calculations is only an argument about epistemology, and that's not topic of the debate. LK can prove that consequentalism has a difficult epistemology, but it will never show that it's an unsound ontology.

Sam Harris articulates this view well in his book. In it, he makes a distinction between 'no answers in practice' and 'no answers in principle'. How many people were bitten by mosquitos in the past five seconds? We don't know, and there's no way of knowing. Yet, this would not lead us to believe that there is not a number of people who were bit by mosquitos in the past five seconds. Obviously, X amount of people were bit, even if we're not in the right epistemic position to know how many. This analogy is the best response to LK's analogy about saving a baby from a river.

I think it's trivially easy to show the connection between is and ought. An is statement is just a statement about reality. Sentences like 'It is the case that atoms exist' or 'It is the case that I am alive'. If we are to make an ought statement, they must contain is statements within them. If they don't, then the ought statement does not correlate to reality by definition. The only way you could make any ought statement is with reference to is, so the distinction doesn't exist.

What is morality?
LK brings up the issue of pain--what if pain has utility? This question is not a threat to a consequentalist view at all. As another analogy, consider chess. A principle like 'don't lose your queen' is a great strategy to play the game by. But sometimes, losing your queen is a great plan that actually wins the game for you. In the same way, pain can actually maximize well-being. Nobody would suggest that vaccines or surgeries don't improve well-being simply because they cause pain. It's more important to focus on the long-term context of well-being.

The fact that the are various and competing ideas of well-being does not refute consequentalism either. Firstly, like LK's other arguments, it's epistemological rather than ontological. It's also easy to see how some subjective ideas of well-being are objectively wrong. Anybody who think that the complete destruction of all conscious creatures would maximize well-being is wrong because they would eliminated all paths to happiness.

Think of physical health. The definitions of physical health are subjective, and constantly changing over time as society advances. Yet, we would never be tempted to argue that a morbidly obese man who won't live past the age of thirty can be healthy.

Conflicting ideas of well-being does not mean that there is no actual well-being. LK's argument assumes that if there is conflict over an issue, then there is no objective answer. But how does this logic apply to things that are obviously true? If I say that voodoo practices are justified by physics, and Victor Stenger tells me otherwise, there must not be any truths to be known about physics! LK's logic would lead us to accept this conclusion, but the conclusion is overtly false.

Concluding Points
- Moral truth exists
- There is a distinction between epistemology and ontology.
- There is a distinction between no answers in practice and no answers in principle.
- Is can be connected with ought
- Pain can be beneficial to maximizing well-being
- Competing ideas of well-being does not mean well-being does not have an objective component


Debate Round No. 3


Lordknukle forfeited this round.


Extend all arguments.
Debate Round No. 4
8 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 8 records.
Posted by Lordknukle 4 years ago
By the way, just to ensure fairness, your and mine's rebuttals for round 3 should only focus on arguments from round 2.
Posted by Typhlochactas 4 years ago
In context, I was writing about the cultures that view child sacrifice to be moral. This is ultimately reducible to well-being, because there's supposed to be some type of punishment for not pleasing the gods. I didn't say the action was moral.
Posted by Lordknukle 4 years ago
"Sacrifice a child to the gods? That's moral."

Is moral supposed to be "immoral?"
Posted by Typhlochactas 4 years ago
My argument requires moral truth to exist, so I devoted a section attacking relativism. I hope you don't get the impression that I was trying to refute your arguments early, or that you had advocated for relativism. I was just addressing a major aspect of my arguments validity.
Posted by Lordknukle 4 years ago
Actually, the rebuttals are in the third round per the rules.
Posted by Lordknukle 4 years ago
However you want.
Posted by Typhlochactas 4 years ago
I'm confused. Do I put forth my own argument in this round while refuting yours? Or do I put mine forward and refute yours in the round after?
Posted by Lordknukle 4 years ago
Cool cool cool. This ought to be fun. :)
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