Against singular conceptions of the good

The most popular theories of ethics tend to have a singular conception of the good. They say there is one thing, and one thing alone, which determines whether an action/person/system is just.

  • Utilitarianism:  pleasure maximization.
  • Libertarianism: non-coercion (by other humans)
  • Deontology: the decision making process, not the real world outcomes of that process
  • Egalitarianism:  equality
  • Rawls: The difference principle. (In reality the idea that justice is the overriding concern of society rather than other things like not starving to death)

All these theories are wrong. They run counter to our moral intuitions in obvious ways.

Utilitarianism says an action or outcome is good insofar as it maximizes utility, usually meaning pleasure. This does not match our intuitions. Most of us would trade off some pleasure for some amount of knowledge, freedom or justice. Utilitarianism has only two defenses to this. First, ever expanding definitions of utility. This fails because as the definition of utility moves towards “things we like”, utilitarianism nears the trivially true claim that we should maximize good things and minimize bad things. Second, to claim that we value other goods solely because they give us utility. This is unfalsifiable and hence unacceptable.

Deontology says only the process matters, not the outcome. Lying is wrong regardless of the consequence. Rape is always bad. It fails because, while the process does matter to us, the outcome does too. Murder is wrong but murdering one person to save a whole galaxy worth of lives seems right. Lying is wrong but lying to the Gestapo to save a Jewish familly is less wrong. Caring about process alone means that your moral reasoning is detached from reality. Our intuitions aren’t.

Egalitarianism thinks that equality is all that matters yet a world of starving slaves seems worse than a world split between millionaires and billionaires.

Rawls thinks maximizing the minimum is our duty. I’ve already written about this. He’s wrong. Trading a universe of happy, meaningful lives where a few starve for a universe where everyone starves but slightly less is not right, nor a world any of us would choose if placed behind the veil of ignorance.

All of these theories are based on a singular conception of the good. They all claim that we value only one moral good, absolutely and to the exclusion of all others. We don’t. We value many moral goods and to different extents in different circumstances. Our ethical universe is not simple. It is complex. Our morality is not the product of a single value but of a complex optimization process which maximize for many different things. Refusing to see this is putting a square peg in a round hole. It’s refusing to look at the difficult question of how we trade off competing values and instead denying that such trade-offs exist.

Simplicity is not truth. Morality is not monolithic. Any theory or philosopher who says otherwise is wrong.

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