The Instigator
Pro (for)
1 Points
The Contender
Con (against)
4 Points

The categorical imperative vs. the principle of utility

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 1/21/2013 Category: Philosophy
Updated: 5 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 3,888 times Debate No: 29411
Debate Rounds (4)
Comments (13)
Votes (1)




In this debate, the Pro will undertake to defend the categorical imperative while the Con will defend the principle of utility as a justified ethical principle. The standard to win is to defend your own position while disproving the others.


Kant's first formulation of the categorical imperative was to “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.”[1] Hereon referred to as FF.

The principle of utility states that "actions or behaviors are right in so far as they promote happiness or pleasure, wrong as they tend to produce unhappiness or pain."[2] Hereon referred to as PU.

Justified: To demonstrate or prove to be just, right, or valid.


1. Drops will count as concessions.

2. Semantic or abusive arguments will not be counted.

3. New arguments brought in the last round will not be counted.

4. R1 is for acceptance. Argumentation will begin in R2.

5. Burden of proof is shared.


[1] (Sec. 5)
[2] Utilitarianism (John Stuart Mill), pg. 5. Available online:


I accept. I shall use the first round to build my case, then use the round following it to criticise the categorical imperative, afterwards finally summarising why utilitarianism should be preferred to (I assume my opponent's case here) Kantian Ethics.

For simplicity of reference, I shall be running soft rule preference utilitarianism (a mouthful, but can be summarised as a variant of utilitarianism promoting the value of the preference of each individual, with principles (rather than laws) to follow to be moral), which itself if true by lemma necessitates the principle of utility. The principle of utility states that actions or behaviors are right in so far as they promote happiness or pleasure, wrong as they tend to produce unhappiness or pain. Hence, utility is a teleological principle.
Debate Round No. 1


I'll follow Con's method and use this round to build a general case for the categorical imperative and use the next round (and further rounds) to deconstruct Con's case while defending my own. My own case will draw from Habermas' discourse ethics[1] in deriving normative truths from the pre-requisites and implicit values in communicative argumentation. The aim here will be to show why these normative truths can be used in support of the categorical imperative.

===Discourse and Universality===

a priori of argumentation/communication.

First, it must be accepted that argumentation is a necessary pre-requisite to communicative justification. This merely means that you have to argue if you want to justify a proposition. This is more formally called the a priori of argumentation and communication. Justification is derived from a reductio i.e., it's incoherent to argue that arguing is unnecessary. But even without this the point just seems common sense to most people. You can't justify your position by recourse to force or mere conjecture specifically because there's no argument.

justification of pre-requisites to discourse.

What does this have to do with ethics? Argumentation necessitates certain norms of action in order to facilitate its enaction. For instance, we have to be alive in order to argue so arguing in favor of something like murder would be hard pressed to get around the fact that the content of the argument contradicts the non-contingent pre-requisites to argument itself (i.e., it exhibits a performative contradiction). The purpose of this argument will be to show that the first formulation of the CI is in line with the pre-requisite norms of argumentation.

truth aptness presupposing universality.

The first formulation (FF) entails universality as the crux of moral consideration. And this is specifically what we see when we examine the normative pre-requisites of discourse. In forwarding an argument (regardless of the content) the aim is to be able to convince others of its soundness. This presumes inter-subjective validity. For if a proposition is only valid when expressed inwardly (for instance solipsism), it can't be expected to convince others. So the question then is "are non-universalizable maxims inter-subjective valid?". The answer is no because to assume so means to assume that normative statements are not truth apt (truth being universalizable) which is incoherent if one is undertaking to defend a certain conception of normative truth in the first place. Non-universalizable normativity therefore undermines itself.




I thank my opponent for his quick first post.

We must first start with the basic principle of what is morality, or what is ethics. Of course, if ethics isn't anything, this becomes problematic. I assume to begin with ethics is a non-cognitive system which evaluates the rules we wish to govern our private lives by. That is, it is non-cognitive as without moral beings morality will not exist. Similar to aesthetics or politics, without humans they lose their raison d'etre and simply cannot be. Ethics is also a governance system. Politics governs the public life (the life of government and legislation etc.) while ethics governs the private life (our life of how we act and what we do and don't do etc.).

If ethics governs the self, it governs every individual, individually. Thus, ethics is the evaluation of one's actions. Ethics is whether we should do what we do. As everyone has their own "ethic", if everyone lives by their ethic people will come into conflict. This is known as a state of nature - people will assault each other for foods and lands and, as there is no public ethic, or politics, people will punish each other violently and act violently as a result, much more violently than people will think is fair. Thus, the state of nature will be seen by the aggregate as unfair. Even those who are successful in the state of nature will be in deep fear at all times: they are worried they will be stolen from, or hurt when asleep and cannot defend themselves, or that a more powerful person will come along and simply beat them. The weak, of course, will be even more fearful.

People rationally then come together (as that is the alternative: stay apart or group together, and both will happen). People make an agreement: "You don't hurt me", the first person says. The second person agrees: he doesn't want to be hurt. And this incredibly crude system is created, a system of morality. This is a prescriptivist moral system. It's people coming together and stating commands both parties agree upon.

Let's take stock, and look at criticisms. One could contend this simply will not happen. However, this seems pointless to assume as given the thousands of years this did go on for, and the millions it theoretically could, there's very good reason to assume this will occur. One could criticise this as a normative judgement: they should group together. However, at this point, I am only pointing out the two options. Finally, one could criticise this as being a way of forming something like morality, but in fact is a bad moral system. I'll address this point now.

If it is a bad moral system, it's a system people reject. Why would one reject a system? Let's assume you value your freedom, and wish to preserve it. Or you wish to preserve your traditions. Or preserve your virtues. Prescriptivism accepts all of these, as when people come together, they all come together because they have something in common: a value they all wish to promote. This is where discourse ethics can slide in: you want to value discourse, or reason. My problem with discourse ethics is that it stops a step early: its assumption that discussion is good is because we like reason. It's our enjoyment, or happiness, that is why we came together. We want to protect this value.

Let's take stock, and look at criticisms again. You can reasonably argue that this is a system of relativism. The reasoning is clear: if it simply depends on who made the agreement, then ethics is just relative and there is no principle. However, the problem is that the principle of utility underlies everyone's barter. The axiom is this: when people do something, they want to do it. Whether it's the lesser of two evils, whether it's only an apparent good, they do it because they want to. This principle is in every single action humans do, and as such it is not relative on who signs the contract. This is the motivation of action, and this is why people agree to an ethical system: they have a common ethical principle everyone abides by, and everyone has as a result the same moral virtue.

The moral virtue is the value of preference. This is key: it may be that you dislike their values, but that is no impetus to stop them. Otherwise, people may similarly dislike your value and go against you, and kick you from society, or you may force back to a state of nature, which is worse. Something is good if it promotes the net preference. If their value goes against the net preference, then you can rightly condemn that ethical system. However, if people live their life in ways you do not like (e.g. commit euthanasia), you cannot morally stop them as their right to freedom is paramount.

Again, let's take stock. One can criticise this system as not consequentialist, but as deontological. Personally, I don't see the dichotomy, but many say this is a problem. Ethical systems like Natural Law, Kantian Ethics and Divine Command Theory all say there are moral laws which are morally required to be followed: "Do not steal" is usually a common one. The problem is that these ethical principles are not founded in anything, and are too rigid in many systems. Utilitarian ethics goes past this, and simply claims ontic goods. Ontic goods are goods which are not material or obvious, but values which ought to be promoted. So while giving money to charity is a good, the ontic good is generosity to good causes. Clearly, giving money to charity is usually good, but not always (giving money to the "Help us bomb Spain" fund probably isn't a good use of money) but generosity to good causes is always good. The ontic good of utilitarianism is the principle of utility: maximise preference.

This is the equivalent of the moral principle. While deontological systems have these moral laws which are rigid and lead to intuitively horrid events, the consequentialist approach of the principle of utility simply lacks this fault: its flexibility gives it its true advantage.

One may reasonably contend I have contradicted myself: I have said at the beginning that an example of a prescriptivist law is "do not hurt me", which is clearly not an ontic good, but now I say that it is only the ontic good that matters: maximise preference. This is a valid criticism. The solution is this: a wholehearted acceptance of these rules. Some subscribe to the utilitarian system known as Act Utilitarianism, where actions are to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. I do not see that as being easily logically derived. Instead, I accept Rule Utilitarianism, where there are certain rules which can promote preference, or maximise utility. However, I am not a Hard Rule Utilitarianism, meaning we should always follow these rules. Instead, I am a Soft Rule Utilitarian. Mill explains this well: "particular cases may occur in which some other social duty is so important, as to overrule any one of the general [rules] of justice [such as "do not kill"]. Thus, to save a life, it may not only be allowable, but a duty, to steal, or take by force, the necessary food or medicine, or to kidnap, and compel to officiate, the only qualified medical practitioner".

Rules are good to live by as rules provide order and promote stability and thus ease for justice to be done. However, they are not sacrament, and can be broken in order to promote a clear good. For example, killing people who disagree with your political views is a morally bad thing to do, I am sure we'd agree as a principle at least. However, if someone is a Nazi and is about to put their view into practice, I would say, in the words of Mill, we have not just a moral allowance but a moral duty to stop them.

The principle of utility can thus be derived from my case presented. I have not 'split it up' as most debates as that would ruin how philosophy should be done, I feel. Instead, I have given a full coherent view of ethics and how to draw conclusions. I look forward to responses and rebuttals, (and ask my opponent to look at the comments section before rebutting). Thank you.
Debate Round No. 2


I'll begin my taking to defend some of the counters to possible criticisms of Con's take on the grounding of morality.

1) Con has no way of critiquing or judging the validity of any rival moral system (or his own for that matter) Assuming non-cognitivism, as my opponent has done, ethical statements cannot be truth-apt. But if this is the case then from whence does the rational basis on which to critique and compare ethical systems come from? Con is left with either presupposing his own system as a standard or (as I'll get to next) judging a standard based off of the reactions and merely subjective valuations of others.

2) Con's system of judgement is more or less incoherent. First, it's not obvious that people will reject a "bad" system of morality. For instance, racial genocide is taken by many to be a "bad" ethic but it's clear that people still accepted it. So an acceptance/rejection criterion is not only normatively blind (in that it fails to show the theoretical or moral failings with a system) but it's descriptively unreliable. Furthermore, Con defends this conception by simply showing an example of someone rejecting something they didn't like. But equating morality with mere preference or value equates to giving up any claim to argumentative validity and this brings me to my next point

3) Con's system of judgement fails as an inter-subjective metric of judgement since it takes individual valuations as its measuring stick. Imagine trying to convince someone of your system of ethics when it relies entirely on a value which they do not hold. It would be impossible. Con tries to bring discourse ethics down with it as well by positing that it does the same thing, only with reason and argument as its values. Let me clear up this confusion quickly. Con's interpretation is completely false. Discourse ethics doesn't rely on whether one accepting the value of discourse or reason, that's specifically what separates it from the more traditional Kantian framework of relying solely on contradictions in the will.

Discourse ethics instead looks at the NECESSARY presupposed norms inherent in discourse and argument to base normative judgements. Con, in even arguing against discourse ethics, is forced to accept its prescriptions. So even if Con (or any objector) consciously claims to deny reason or argument as values or preferences, they contradict themselves in arguing in the first place. Con can of course claim that this only applies if we accept reason, but this isn't a very good criticism. Doing so (making an argument) in the first place invalidates any such claim.

4) Con's next problem comes from a redefinition of what utility and utilitarianism actually are. Con claims that the base motivation for action is that we want something (i.e., by recourse to preference). So far so good. Next he argues that since this is the case, the moral good resides in the satisfaction of some aggregate preference level. This is where it doesn't follow though. I'm perfectly justified in presuming that my preferences (assuming the term isn't loaded here to denote relativism) are objectively valid and others' that contradict mine aren't. Con's only refutation is that others could think the same thing. Well of course they could, that doesn't make them correct though. Con's presuming his own system in preferring an open mind towards preferences out of want for social stability (presuming a utilitarian framework).

5) A short criticism of deontological ethics is made by Con. He claims that "these ethical principles are not founded in anything, and are too rigid in many systems." Firstly, Con simply waives past my own justification for discourse ethics in claiming that deontological ethics aren't founded in anything. I can claim that utilitarianism claims no arguments as well but doing so would ignore the entire case I'm tasked with refuting in this debate. The same is true of my opponent. The second problem comes from the fact that Con, unwarranted, calls deontological systems "too rigid" without argument. What makes it worse is that Con actually has to presume his own ontic standard in order to argue this. But doing so would simply be circularity. Furthermore the inclusion of "intuitively horrid events" as criticism isn't unique to deontology. Consider the utility monster thought experiment[1] showing the "intuitive" moral failings of consequentialists lines of moral reasoning.

Con's case revolves around an idea of the "good" centered around flexibility. However, support for this type of system is generally only made up of intuitive moral feelings or presupposing the moral system undertaken to be proved. Discourse ethics on the other hand shows that ethical truths are objective and absolute since their grounding lies in the norms we presupposed in even having a debate. For these reasons and others I implore a Pro Vote.




I'll rebut first:

1) Firstly, can I judge rivalling moral systems? Yes, of course. I gave a coherent complete view of how to get moral truths. Moral statements are imperatives of how we want people to behave: in that sense, they are non-cognitive as they do not express propositions. Morality, then, exists not as statements which are true or false like deontology, but express imperatives or commands we want others to do, based on our desires. Everyone wants their desires to be fulfilled. As morality is imperatives, then morality is the fulfilment of desires: good is the net fulfilment of desire, or preference, while bad is the net unfulfilment of desire, or preference. I can easily judge whether an action is moral or not. I criticise other moral systems for simply being wrong.

2) My opponent's building criticism that it is unclear that people will reject a bad moral system is irrelevant. It is an is-ought fallacy. Yes, some people accept bad moral systems. People are not perfect - people will do the wrong thing. We are rational, but not perfectly rational. Indeed, if this is a valid criticism of my argument, it's valid for all arguments, as there is no majority opinion on what ethical system is right. My point is that, as my opponent points out, morality is preference. What promotes the general preference is good is good, what doesn't is bad. This makes genocide wrong, as it goes against general preference, not presupposed sacred rules appearing from nowhere.

3) My opponent criticises preference ethics by saying that it is individual valuations that is the measuring stick. This simply isn't true. I made the case clearly: everyone has different values, but there's a value underpinning each of these that is really being promoted: preference. We simply cannotnotwant our preferences: it is illogical. Proceding to promote preference, then, is the only logical conclusion. Preference Utilitarianism is the science of promoting net preference, which means any values which don't impede others.

My opponent's argument in favour of discourse ethics makes no sense. Yes, in the medium of debate, we have to accept reason. If we accept this argument, we have to accept that we cannot discuss discourse ethics in the medium of debate, and is necessarily unwinnable. Moreover:

On more serious issues, outside of discourse, my opponent has to justify why we should accept it. Saying "It's a NECESSARY presupposed norm" isn't a defence: it's just saying "yes, it's an assumption, but you'vegotto assume it!" Notice the imperative: We must assume it. "Assume discourse ethics!" is an ethical statement, as it deals with ethics. But now, as I pointed out in the first round, we have a plurality of ethical systems, each with supposedly "necessary" assumptions on what is ethically right. What they have in common, and what I have pointed out we should value, ispreference. This incorporates discourse ethics into preference utilitarianism. This, then, is aturn.

4) My opponent is correct that the base motivation for action is desire. He then says this cannot be universalised. However, his problem is he subjectivises then objectivises preference with no lack of interest. If we remove the personal touch to the problem, it is instantly obvious:

"I'm perfectly justified in presuming that preference is objectively valid and others' that contradict preference aren't."

Preference is not "mine" or "yours", anymore than discourse is mine or yours: it is what ought to be promoted.

5) My opponent says I presuppose utilitarianism: this clearly is false. I put forth a large argument to how I reach my conclusion to specifically show how we can rationally conclude utilitarianism. My opponent conversely simply has presumed that discourse is valuable, and thus discourse[-based] ethics is true. The flaw is obvious: discourse ethics, unlike preference utilitarianism, has no basic foundation. This clearly then is aturn. Moreover, his premise, that we discuss ethics rationally, does not follow his conclusion: that we ought to value ethics. The fact of the matter is this entire format for discussing ethics can be flat out wrong. The justification is just a "nuh-uh!" which should not hold any weight. I urge my opponent to understand the distinction between a conclusion and an assumption when he criticises my case: I derive my conclusion from the brute fact that ethics is a group effort. If my opponent disputes this, then contend with it, or if he disputes the logical validity of my case, then by all means, it may be disputed. However, if the base premises are true, and the argument does not commit any logical jumps, then the conclusion of the principle of utility is necessary, far from being an assumption.

To build my case:

Discourse ethics is circular

Outside of debate, there is no discourse to have discourse ethics. Discourse ethics is based on the idea that everything is discourse, but clearly this is not true. Yes, in debate, the discourse rules apply. However, in for example the trolley problem, there is no discourse to be had: the values of discourse are meaningless. When discussing these virtues with others, we should observe these rules because they create fruitful debate, but this is a hypothetical imperative, not a categorical one. We observe them as they promote good discussion, not for their own sake. The danger is one of conflation: when discussing what is the right thing to do, we must observe the ethics of discourse to have meaningful debate. However, these ethics only apply inside discourse. They are there because it makes debate easier to have and both sides benefit from it and consent to it: Indeed, discourse ethic's failure is the PU's triumph.

We as debaters value discourse because we prefer to have rational discussion on issues rather than irrational spats. That is what makes us follow moral rules: our desire to have good discourse. Of course, though, we cannot apply our values outside of debating.

Discourse ethics is self-contradictory

In discourse, if we have anything over someone else which they cannot access, we coerce them outside the medium of debating, which is immoral (as via absurdum, everything becomes a coercion game). Thus, total egalitarianism is required with no ownership. However, if no one had the right to acquire and control anything except his own body then we would all cease to exist and the problem of the justification of normative statements simply would not exist.Its acceptance leads to contradictory positions on issues. Note both of these arguments are accepted as conclusions: one by Habermas, and the other by Hoppe. Of course, I can point out more contradictions here, as there are many, so my opponent's burden is to show that there is a coprehensive set of rules to follow, or a more clear-cut way of what the rules are rather than "if they contradict, then it is immoral".

Discourse Ethics supports the principle of utility

I already alluded to this, but to make it clear: the principle of utility can be derived from discourse ethics. My opponent already pointed out a principle of not killing as one of the derivations from discourse ethics. However, consider the trolley problem: you can either kill one man to save the lives of five, or let five men die to save the life of one. Kantian Ethics can say don't kill the man because it would be using him as an end. However, discourse ethics cannot similarly discriminate. Do we rationally kill one or kill five? Saying as both contradict discourse ethics they are both equally wrong is intuitively wrong: killing more people is immoral than killing one person. Thus, we have a principle of utility concluded as an addition to discourse ethics.

With that, I'll pass the final round of debating to my opponent, and look forwards to a strong response. Thank you.

[Also, @PRO, check comments]
Debate Round No. 3


Noumena forfeited this round.


I urge a vote PRO.

If my opponent wants to redo the final round in another debate, I'll happily except. Moreover, let's ignore the first rule (drop arguments are concessions) for the voting. Thank you for reading, and I hope you enjoyed the debate.
Debate Round No. 4
13 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 10 records.
Posted by Stephen_Hawkins 5 years ago
Yesterday, I was thinking "His argument actually is quite similar to spinko's... too similar... I'll have a gander at that old debate running discourse ethics..."
Posted by Stephen_Hawkins 5 years ago
Lol, only just realised it was you, spinko :)
Posted by Noumena 5 years ago
Posted by Stephen_Hawkins 5 years ago
Can we agree to nullify source voting as an issue? I've had problems in the past on people winning or losing a debate because someone decided that the use of the extra irrelevant source means someone wins instead of a draw or even a win in the other person's favour.
Posted by phantom 5 years ago
This has to be one of the greatest debate resolutions and match-up ever!
Posted by Noumena 5 years ago
Seeing the difference between my R2 and R3 posts, I think it says something of the superiority of just typing up responses as you see them, rather than checking multiple sources left and right to make sure you posted the "right" interpretation.
Posted by Noumena 5 years ago
1) Thanks for the head up.

2) I don't see that as going to be the case. For instance, me supporting the first formulation doesn't *necessitate* that I defend the formulation dictating us to treat people as ends as oppose to means.

3) Okay.
Posted by Stephen_Hawkins 5 years ago
Just a few things:

1) My first criticism will be you cannot draw anything from discourse ethics. It's fair to say that now, b/c otherwise what I have to rebut is so minimalist that I won't really be able to stretch out any actual criticisms short of "it doesn't provide a moral framework", which is a very big problem otherwise.

2) I assume we are including the other formulations of the CI by Kant as relevant?

3) If there are any questions on whether preference is a value that a utilitarian can promote, or can be promoted by the principle of utility, Peter Singer, the foremost utilitarian, promotes it. As well as many others.
Posted by Noumena 5 years ago
Yeah I'll probably run some variation of the calculation problem and maybe other stuff.
Posted by Stephen_Hawkins 5 years ago
Word of advice to some of the most enjoyable criticisms of utility:

Nozick's moral monster
The pinprick problem
Logical conclusion of negative utilitarianism
Inability to calculate hedonist values.
1 votes has been placed for this debate.
Vote Placed by Citrakayah 5 years ago
Agreed with before the debate:-Vote Checkmark-0 points
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Who had better conduct:-Vote Checkmark-1 point
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Total points awarded:14 
Reasons for voting decision: Pro forfeited a round which is a conduct loss, but had better S&G, so no real net difference. Con's arguments seem more convincing, as much of Pro's argument seemed to be that preference is subjective and therefore cannot be universalized, and I think that Con did an acceptable job of showing this to not be the case.