The Instigator
Con (against)
0 Points
The Contender
Pro (for)
3 Points

[Your preferred theory of ethics] is tenable when examined closely

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 6/5/2016 Category: Philosophy
Updated: 2 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 520 times Debate No: 92349
Debate Rounds (3)
Comments (7)
Votes (1)




I will ask that my opponent represent a popular ethical framework, and I have given some options below. If you wish, you may represent an alternative view, however.

Pro: Representing Mill's Utilitarianism, Kant's Formalism, Locke's Rights Ethics, or Aristotle's Virtue Ethics, present an argument that supports the validity of your position.

Con: I will be arguing that not only are all systems of ethics irrational, but that they can be easily applied to opposing sides of a number of modern moral issues.


Out of the offered choices, I know the most about Utilitarianism.

I'm personally an existential Nihilist on the side of Con.

Utilitarianism shall be defined as the subsect of consequentialism that the purpose of morality is to make life better by increasing the amount of good things (such as pleasure and happiness) in the world and decreasing the amount of bad things (such as pain and unhappiness).

The way that this is commonly done is to observe what results in the most number of people benefitting in a given situation but what is not commonly realized is that a Utilitarian can also justify harming the majority of people in a specific scenario for a greater good. For instance if we had 10 infertile people and 2 fertile ones, the Utilitarian would slaughter the 10 before the 2 because the 2 could produce future people. This is one of many examples of the flexibility of Utilitarianism that many miss. It's not always 'majority wins' in a case by case basis.

Con has the primary burden of proof as he has to attack my chosen code of ethics and I have to defend.

Best of luck Con. :)
Debate Round No. 1


Stating that I have the burden of proof is a good tactic, but I don't think I'll have too much trouble here.

To begin with, any choice that we can make as a society must be accepted to have both positive and negative consequences, and most particularly those that require the application of a code of ethics like utilitarianism. Even if we were to use a utilitarian argument to say something to the effect of 'people who are apparently dying when they come into the emergency room should be treated before their possession of insurance is known, if they are not conscious when brought in". Most people would agree with this, yet there will certainly be an increase in taxes or insurance rates as a direct result of this decision.

Knowing then that all of these decisions have negative, as well as positive, outcomes for different groups within a society, the application of utilitarianism must then be applied arbitrarily to any side of an ethical issue. In the above example, you could argue for the treatment of an unconscious man with a bullet wound, because the severity of his individual suffering outweighs the minor inconvenience of the population at large for their slightly increased taxes. You could, however, just as compellingly argue that if we can establish any comparative scale for economic burden vs. physical suffering (which we can't, because utilitarianism does not provide us with these basic conversion tools which form the basis of the issue it is trying to address), we would find that any reasonable amount of value placed on economic burden is going to win the argument when that burden is multiplied by the number of tax payers. This argument may seem harsh, and you could, if you liked, apply the utilitarian argument to libertarianism and try to weigh freedom against suffering, but our results would remain the same; inconclusive.

The only reason we believe that utilitarianism might apply in the above instance to helping the single dying man is because the ethics we have instinctively adopted as social creatures in our particular culture is more likely to dictate an empathetic response, and so we will see how we can shape utilitarianism to fit the ethical answer we already believe to be true. To be clear though, utilitarianism has not aided in any way in that decision, regardless of the side you fall on, because the "amount of good things" could be interpreted as any intensity of gain for the most number of people, or favour high intensity of goodness for a smaller group. We do not know which, because utilitarianism offers us no tools for making relative comparisons; all it provides is argumentative support for pre-existing ethical prejudices.

As if utilitarianism's inability to truly relate virtually any two sides of an ethical issue to any kind of relative value, which is basically the only thing it sets out to do, wasn't bad enough, it is not even reasonably applicable when you know which ethical consequence is more desirable. Utilitarianism fails at such a fundamental level because it claims that we should base our decisions on consequences when we obviously have no ability to know, with any degree of certainty, the consequences of our actions. In the example used here, admitting the man to the hospital may save his life, but it may not, it may increase insurance rates and taxes, but that's uncertain too. Not only are we left wildly speculating as to which consequence utilitarianism supports, but also as to whether or not a certain action will even yield an expected consequence.

In short, utilitarianism's "increasing the amount of 'good things' in the world" is the equivalent of the "do the right thing" statement; it sounds pretty, but no one knows how to apply it.

All of this, and we haven't even touched on the fundamental hedonistic assumption of utilitarianism; that happiness is the highest ethical goal, which is obviously unsubstantiated by anything except personal feelings.


Before I procede with this round of debate, I would like to define the term 'tenable' because I want this word to be equally understood by my opponent, the audience and myself.

I don't want to be sleazy and grab and easy 'sources' vote here so I won't link the dictionary URL but the site I uses was if you wish to visit it.

According to the definitions on that site, there are two aspects to being tenable:

1. being able to be maintained or defended against attack or objection.
2. being able to be held or used.

The term 'held' refers to physical objects so shall not be applied in this debate.

Now that I have established what exactly 'tenable' means, I shall announce that I agree with most things Pro stated in round 2 other than that most don't know how to apply Utilitarianism and that the results of the given scenario as well as any hyothetical scenario will be inconclusive to the extent that the 'more good / less evil' option isn't clear by the end of the process.

Sub-Case 1: The Impossibility of Calling a Method of Moral Decision Making Wrong
Whether I had chosen Utilitarianism, Formalism, Rights Ethics or Virtue Ethics, this debate was impossible for Con to win from the get-go as long as I was his opponent. I chose Utilitarianism as, out of those four, it is indeed the system that was not only put the most thought into when making but which I personally have studied the history of far more in depth than the other 3.

The reason why it is impossible for Con to ever win this debate is that there is no way to double check a result when it comes to moral decision making other than to use another method of moral decision making, which Con would also have to argue is flawed and thus is in an endless cycle of self-defeat. In other words, the only way Con could have won the debate would be if he had proven that using the chosen method of Pro, one could reach a conclusion of 'right' or 'wrong' on a choice in a scenario that another, non-flawed method of moral decision making concluded was the opposite result. Since Con is in a position whereby he/she has to prove any and all moral systems as flawed, Con is left with zero methods of double checking any result that Utilitarianism could reach on a matter and thus can't eve rprove that he result Utilitarianism produces is incorrect or flawed. Even if Utiliaranism were to produce an inconclusive result, perhaps that means that each choice is literally equally good and evil or right and wrong so that makes being inconclusive correct as a result. The only way to prove the being inconclusive is evidence of Utilitarianism being flawed would be to produce a different result with a non-flawed moral system and compare the two.

Sub-Case 2: The Moral Method and The One Applying It are Separate Entities
Let's take the case of long division and short division. These are two different methods of reaching the answer of a divsion operator sum. Let's say that Utilitarniam is long division and Con is saying it is flawed because someone who is incapable of correctly applying it reached an incorrect answer with long division but a correct answer with short division. This would seem like an airtight case against my chosen method at first because on top of them being wrong with my method they were right with another. Unfortunately for Con, even if this happened the debate is still not remotely won and this point is totally ridiculous to put forth as an argument against long division. The individual carrying out long division is the one who is flawed here.

Following on from this, each and every person or group of people applying Utilitarianism may be psychopaths who can't comprehend other's suffering or joy, may even be mentally challenged to the degree that they can't process the variables all at once and iwll never be able to conclude if it's 'good' or 'evil' to do either option in a given scenario. This does not prove that Utilitarianism is flawed, this proves that people can be flawed with how they apply the method.

Sub-Case 3: Most People Will Conclude the Same Result Using Any Method
Something that is not commonly realized is that no matter what moral decision making method we use, most people who conclude 'good' or 'evil' in one option of a scenario will always conclude that using any method because their view of either action is so skewed based on preconceptions that they end up letting the moral system they are applying make them be 'right' instead of bothering to rethink things along the lines of the system.

In fact most people would struggle to see a remote difference between virtue ethics and utilitarianism because to them 'seeking pleasure' being consistent between them is enough to ignore the 'majority' aspect of Utilitarianism.

The methods can be as flawed or flawless as you want but the people using it will always be flawed.

Sub-Case 4: The "We Can't Know The Consequences" Point Is Irrelevant
This is a limitation of the human being using the system. If there are incorrect predictions this is not an error with Utilitarianism but with the gathering of data which is first done to make it possible to use Utilitarianism.

What Con said here is metephorically that since it's very difficult to correctly produce turqoise paint, that roller painting with turqoise paint is flawed.

Sub-Case 5: Laws and Utilitarianism
The brilliance of Utilitarianism is that since whatever ends up with the most benefit should be the chosen action, it's clear that to obey the rules of the society is usually better than the uproar of a protest to change laws.

Thus operating on the man is the 'good' option.
Debate Round No. 2


I would like to begin by saying that I agree with your definition of 'tenable'.

Having established this, I would like to point out that while Pro's points are undoubtedly a clever circumvention of the arguments I've presented here, they fail to address the core issues I have established. I will demonstrate how by discussing each of the sub-cases presented above by Pro.

Sub-Case 1: The Impossibility of Calling a Method of Moral Decision Making Wrong

This is a good argument to establish why I could not claim that the conclusions drawn from an ethical theory are 'wrong', unless I could prove that another system of thinking was objectively more "right", except... That is not what I am claiming here at all. I have not been claiming that the conclusions drawn from utilitarianism are wrong, but rather that no conclusion at all can be drawn from an exclusive interpretation of utilitarianism.

A defensible theory must have predictive power. In other words, if we know what the genuinely true answer to a problem is, and we apply a working theory to this problem, the output of the theory needs to agree with the true answer in order for us to say that the theory is working and defensible. It does not matter, in this case, that I do not know what the true answer is, if the theory does not predict any solution to the exclusion of all others. Pro's statement that "The only way to prove the being inconclusive is evidence of Utilitarianism being flawed would be to produce a different result with a non-flawed moral system and compare the two" is incorrect. All I have to do is demonstrate that utilitarianism does not discriminately choose any solution, which I have done, and which Pro has already agreed with, in my last argument.

Sub-Case 2: The Moral Method and The One Applying It are Separate Entities

You may have noticed, while reading through Pro's argument, that there was something distinctly fishy about the logic being employed here, and you would not be wrong. Before I address why it is wrong, I would like to propose a new theory of ethics here to consider. When faced with a moral dilemma, you should make your decision based on how many people in the room are wearing blue hats. How, you might ask, are we to interpret that in a way that gives us any kind of solution to the ethical dilemma?

Well, fear not. According to Pro's argument here, it doesn't matter how absurd the theory of ethics we propose is, if anyone has an issue with that theory, it is apparently the fault of the interpreter, and not that of an incomprehensible, inapplicable theory. We can not establish that a theory is incomprehensible unless we know the true answer that it ought to be able to predict, and yet arguing that it predicts no single solution is somehow not adequate to dispel this blaming of the interpreter.

Sub-Case 3: Most People Will Conclude the Same Result Using Any Method

This whole argument is diverting the issue. We are not asking how well people practice the ethical standards they claim to follow, the question is whether those ethical standards hold up to examination. Very few people actually understand or practice particle physics, but that does not mean that the field itself can't be tested and scrutinized.

Sub-Case 4: The "We Can't Know The Consequences" Point Is Irrelevant

I will actually grant Pro this point. I think his/her argument is valid here.

Sub-Case 5: Laws and Utilitarianism

In contrast to his/her last argument, this one makes very little sense. I could see it very easily being argued that the uproar to give women the right to vote, or to legalize gay marriage, or to give slaves their freedom were all instances where the benefit to the many outweighed the inconvenience of the few. Not only does the argument not really work, but I fail to see it's relevance, so I will not be discussing it here further.

To summarize; clearly defined words and definitions and phrasing are all important in the codification of any sort of ethical system. We do not have an overview with utilitarianism that adequately and prejudicially allows itself to be applied in the selection of any specific or general most ethical option in a scenario, and it is therefore indefensible as a moral position. Where we are asked to select options for 'the greater good', we have no idea whether this would apply to butchering an innocent person to salvage their organs, or to release all serial killers from prison in the interest of reducing the taxes put towards incarceration costs. It does not matter whether or not we can say the solutions utilitarianism gives are incorrect, when it is plain to see that utilitarianism gives it's interpreter any solution they wish to find.

Thank you for the debate.


RE: The Impossibility of Calling a Method of Moral Decision Making Wrong
Con has conceded that he/she cannot prove that the results of a Utilitarian moral examination are incorrect and that he/she could not possible claim that the method of moral decision making is thus flawed or incorrect. This point stands and unless Con takes back this concession, will be a primary reason why I win this debate.

Con states that no conclusion at all can be drawn from an 'interpretation of Utilitarianism' but Utilitarianism isn't meant to be interpreted when it's used. When you use the moral decision making method, you apply it to a scenario. Con has yet to prove that one can't use Utilitarianism. All Con showed is that Con's personal view of the man in the hospital leads him/her to be confused about whether or not the man should be operate on. This is a flaw of Con's ability to calculate which route of action results on more overall benefit, not with Utilitarianism. I concluded that since the laws make it so that he man must be operated on, this would be the course of action taken as it causes less unrest and less displeasure overall. Con's inability to use Utilitarianism does not prove Utilitarianism to be flawed but rather Con's capability of using it.

I never agreed with this, I said that if Utilitarianism happens to conclude that both routes of action result in equal overall suffering or gain, then the hypothetical scenario has not given enough background information to conclude, the error would still be with the information given, not the way in which it is used.

Con says that he/she can never prove Utilitarianism to result in an incorrect outcome but instead is saying it can't come to any outcome or conclusion at all, this is not only false but Utilitarianism has been so applicable that entire legal systems were founded upon it. From the slave trade to the back and forth battle between freedom of speech and urge to avoid verbal bullying, Utilitarianism is a vital part of most legal systems even to this date (

RE: The Moral Method and The One Applying It are Separate Entities
Con never explains why the blue hat method of determining right from wrong is flawed. Thus, Con has merely given an extra scenario where my point stands true. The one using a moral decision making process should not blame the process for their inability to conclude that is good/evil or right/wrong.

RE: Most People Will Conclude the Same Result Using Any Method
Since many who use Utilitarianism would not be perfectly effective at doing so, the errors and inconclusiveness any may draw from using it would be impossible for Con to prove is the fault of Utilitarianism as opposed to the user of it.

RE: The "We Can't Know The Consequences" Point Is Irrelevant
I have refuted a primary point of Con and Con has conceded it. Nothing more to say.

RE: Laws and Utilitarianism
There are examples of Utilitarian-fuelled riots and protests but in the example Con gave to show how flawed Utilitarianism is, he/she uses a man who the hospital is legally obliged to treat using the money of people who were in the first place legally obliged to supply to the government for the 'greater good'. The law shows no significant threat to overall wellbeing of society and thus the law itself existing is further reason for the Utilitarian method to conclude that treating the man is the 'good' option. There is no reason to deem this inconclusive at all.

If taxpayers were truly suffering, it's inevitable that they'd stop funding the Government and overthrow it, the fact they obey the law of taxation is furthermore reason why it's an easy clear-cut case for the Utilitarian method and a very poor example to show any flaw with Utilitarianism at all.

RE: Con's Summary
Con gave no true imaginary scenario here and instead mentions random things like releasing serial killers and killing people to get their organs. Even if this was deemed good by Utilitarians, Con has to first show that it is not actually good and then after that show that it was the error of the Utilitarian method as opposed to the one applying it that led to the false result.
Debate Round No. 3
7 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 7 records.
Posted by ContraDictator 2 years ago
I will admit that I definitely didn't explain what I meant to explain with the laws point correctly but why you gave con point 3 is confusing to me. Thanks for the vote anyway and good rfd other than the giving con point 3.
Posted by lannan13 2 years ago
RFD Part 5: Conclusion.

At the end of this debate, we can see that Pro wins a majority of the arguments provided. These arguments that Pro won weigh more in this debate since they look at the ability for the theory to work and how it's kinda fool proof in some ways. With that, I award the arguments points to Pro.
Posted by lannan13 2 years ago
RFD Part 4: Laws and Utilitarianism

Pro argues that people will generally obey the law that protects the most. Then states that it's better people follow the law then protest for a change. If that's true then why are new laws introduced or why are certain laws repealed? This argument is a bit flawed by Pro. Con highlights this by showing there were protests for Women's suffferage, legalization of gay marriage, and freeing the slaves. If Pro was correct, then these actions would be immoral and unethical. Pro talks about how taxation is the form of how people through utilitarianism support the government and if they don't then they should stop paying taxes. Though this really isn't the case considering the amount of taxes there are and where they are. We have to move on to see that Pro really doesn't refute this argument Con provides.

Con wins this argument.
Posted by lannan13 2 years ago
RFD Part 3: Sub point 4 and Most People Will Conclude the Same Result Using Any Method.

Con concedes point 4 in Round 3.

Pro argues that not all situations are the whole black and white, good and evil situations. People need to go and evaluate the situation again. People ignore the majority aspect of Utilitarianism and they generally confuse it with some aspect of virtue ethics. He states that people who use it will be flawed even if the theory is flawed. Con argues that Pro is derailing the debate. Con then argues that it doesn't matter if they understand it, it matters is if it actually works. Which Pro has yet to answer, via this subpoint. Pro states that it only matters that the people here don't use it correctly and they then get bad answers. Sure that may be the case, but being able to make sure it works is a bit more important, because even if the person understands the theory, but the theory doesn't work, then you are bound to get bad results.

This argument goes to Con.
Posted by lannan13 2 years ago
RFD Part 2: The Moral Method and The One Applying It are Separate Entities

Pro talks about how there are many methods of getting to the answer, but if you still get to the same answer it's still correct. He brings up long vs. short division example where they talk about how, even though they are different and one may be harder to apply than the other, they still come to the same conclusion. Pro then counters Con's argument that showing the individual does not really affect the moral method when Con had previously talked about the mentally ill and callous. Con argues that we cannot really know the theory is correct unless we know the actual answer. Con talks about a new theory by talking about people with blue hats to sort of mock Pro. Con never actually explains this. He also never actually talks about how this is wrong.

This argument goes to Pro.
Posted by lannan13 2 years ago
RFD Part 1: The Impossibility of Calling a Method of Moral Decision Making Wrong

For this RFD, I shall be dividing it up for each and individual subpoint that was brought up and shall be splitting this into the 5 subpoints that Pro had brought up in R2.

Pro begins by defining Tenable and moves into showing how it exists helps shows since. Pro establishes a Catch-22: Either refute the argument using another ethics argument, which would show one of them is tenable, winning the debate for Pro or dropped the argument which would do the same. Con has to prove that all moral systems are flawed. Con argues that only no extensive conclusions can be drawn from Utilitarianism. He then states that the general outcome that is guienie is key and the outcome of Utilitarianism must match up with this outcome. Con Concedes that they can't disprove utilitarianism or show how it is flawed/incorrect. Con also fails to show just how any situation cannot really be applied to utilitarianism.

Pro wins this argument.
Posted by TUF 2 years ago
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1 votes has been placed for this debate.
Vote Placed by lannan13 2 years ago
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Reasons for voting decision: RFD in comments. This vote has been brought to you in part by the DDO Voter's Union.