The three most defensible principles in ethics

From eight to five to three: this article is the result of a long process of several years, searching for the most important or fundamental ethical principles, refining, simplifying and deleting principles until we end up with the three ethical principles that have the strongest justification.

The first, non-arbitrariness principle is the most fundamental principle because it applies to the choice of moral rules and ethical systems. The second, maximum relative preferences principle is the most demanding and implies an absolute duty of impartiality and altruism to help others. It relates to a utilitarian, consequentialist ethic. The third, mere means principle weakens the demandingness of the second principle: it makes some duties less demanding (less absolute) and allows for some kinds of partiality. This principle relates to a deontological rights-based ethic. All three principles are most defensible in the sense that it is most difficult to complain against them or to give reasonable counterarguments against them.


1)    The non-arbitrariness principle

If you make a choice, you are only allowed to make that choice if you can give a justifying rule of which you can consistently want that everyone follows that rule, in all possible situations. You can consistently want something only if it is compatible with a consistent set of the strongest things that you want.

This principle is equivalent to: if you make a choice, you have to avoid unwanted arbitrariness. Arbitrariness consists of picking an element or subset of a given set without using a rule. Arbitrariness is unwanted if it cannot be consistently wanted by at least someone.


Suppose that your choice contains unwanted arbitrariness. If you say that that arbitrariness is permissible, then I may also make arbitrary choices that you cannot consistently want. You are not able to give reasonable critique to my choice that contains unwanted arbitrariness, because any criticism from your side can be countered easily by pointing out that you do the same thing.

If you may do something, everyone else may do similar things. Your permission or right to do that thing does not belong exclusively to you. If you are allowed to do something, then so is everyone, because you are not special. You should not arbitrarily pick yourself from the set of all individuals and say that you are the only one who may do that thing. You are not allowed to exclude other people from following the rule that you follow. If you do something according to a rule, that rule does not apply exclusively to you.

This first principle is the most fundamental in the sense that it also applies to the choice of ethical principles and the construction of ethical systems. It implies that our permissible ethical systems are bound to strong constraints to exclude any inconsistencies, vagueness (ambiguities) or other kinds of unwanted arbitrariness. If an ethical system contains an inconsistency, for example if the ethical system says it is both allowed and not allowed to choose X, one could arbitrarily pick any of those two opposing views. If the system contains an ambiguity, i.e. a principle that has multiple interpretations, one could arbitrarily pick one of the possible interpretations.

If you choose to follow an incoherent ethical system, i.e. a system of ethical principles that contains unwanted arbitrariness, I am allowed to reject that system and impose my ethical system on you, and you are not able to complain. You are not able to give reasonable or justified counterarguments against the imposition of my ethical principles, because by following your incoherent principles, you are acknowledging that unwanted arbitrariness is allowed. That means that it is also permissible to arbitrarily ignore someone else’s moral views and ethical principles. So I can say to you that your moral values and judgments are not valid. And if you complain and says that your ethical system is valid, then I can reply that if you are allowed to arbitrarily exclude other moral views and make an ad hoc exception for your own ethical system, then so am I. So I may even make the exception that everyone’s moral views should be respected, except yours. All your objections can easily be bounced back by saying: “If you are allowed to arbitrarily do that, then so am I. What would make you so special that you are allowed to arbitrarily exclude others but I am not?”

The ethical systems of for example racists, rapists and religious fundamentalists contain unwanted arbitrariness, inconsistencies, unscientific beliefs and vague principle. So we are allowed to reject those incoherent ethical systems. If your ethical system is more coherent than those of others, i.e. if your ethical system does not contain any unwanted arbitrariness, then you can say that your ethical system is better than those of others and then you may oppose those incoherent systems of others.

Examples and implications

The anti-arbitrariness principle implies that moral rules should apply to everyone and everything, without arbitrary exceptions. If you may forbid something merely because you find it unclean, unnatural, unholy or disgusting, then someone else may forbid something that you like but that s/he finds unnatural, unholy or disgusting. If you may say that we should follow your preferred holy book (such as the Bible or the Koran), then I may say that we should follow my preferred holy book. If you may say that your moral intuitions are better than mine, then I may say that mine are better than yours. If you may arbitrarily choose yourself as the person who determines the moral rules, then I may choose myself. If you may arbitrarily choose your victims, then I may arbitrarily choose my victims. If you may say that our moral rules only apply to your preferred group, then I may also take my preferred group of individuals, which may be different from your group. If you claim that moral rights only apply to humans, including mentally disabled orphans, and if you are not able to give a rule why you pick the biological species of humans amongst the many biological categories (e.g. races, species, genera, families, orders, classes,…), then I may pick another biological category and claim that rights only apply to members of that biological group. If you do not take the preferences of other sentient beings properly into account, then I do not have to take your preferences into account. You cannot consistently want those things, so you may not do those things.

Many other things are permissible for you to do. For example if you want to take the train, you can follow the rule that everyone is allowed to take a seat on the train if one has paid for it and if the seat is not yet taken.


2) The maximum self-determined relative preferences principle

We have to choose the situation that maximizes the sum of everyone’s self-determined relative preferences. A relative preference (or relative utility) of an individual in a given situation is the difference between the preference (utility) for the given situation and a reference preference (for example the preference for another situation). The reference preference depends on the population ethics preferred by the individual (see examples below). A relative preference is self-determined if the individual can determine one’s own preference function and choose a preferred reference.

To avoid arbitrary exclusions, this principle applies to everyone and everything. However, non-sentient objects have no personal preferences and no preference for a reference (no preference for a population ethic), so we may set those preferences of a non-sentient object to zero.  The relative preferences of objects can be neglected. The same goes for non-existing persons: they have zero relative preferences. Therefore, this principle becomes only relevant for existing subjects or sentient beings, because sentient beings are by definition able to value situations and subjectively want certain situations. They feel their subjective, personal preferences for different situations. Hence, the personal preferences are to be distinguished from unconscious interests. Some sentient beings do have personal preferences but do not have a preference for a reference. In that case we may choose the reference preference for that individual.


The basic elements of this principle are the personal preferences. These personal preferences should be distinguished from projected preferences: I can project my preferences on someone else, comparable to anthropomorphism of non-human animals. The personal preferences of an individual are the preferences that the individual holds himself or herself, not the preferences that someone else projects on that individual. Projected preferences violate the self-determination of an individual if the projected preferences are incompatible with the personal preferences.

The maximum relative preferences principle has a strong justification in the sense that it maximally takes everyone’s preferences into account, and it allows for everyone to determine for themselves their preferences. There are no externally imposed restrictions on the preferences: no-one else determines the preferences of an individual or projects their own preferences on that individual.

The maximum relative preferences principle is a utilitarian ethic, because it looks at the utilities (preferences) of individuals. The difference with traditional (absolute) preference utilitarianism is that the relative preference utilitarianism looks at relative preferences and hence includes a reference preference. As the examples below demonstrate, this reference preference becomes important in population ethics, i.e. when our choices determine who will be born and how many sentient beings will exist.

Examples and implications

The preference or utility can be a function of the well-being of an individual, but an individual can decide to include other variables in the preference function. The preference function of an individual does not have to be a function of a quantity called well-being. To respect the self-determination or autonomy, it is up to the individuals themselves to decide whether they want to maximize their well-being and how they interpret or define well-being. If everyone decides that their preference function is a function of one’s own happiness and nothing else, we arrive at a hedonistic utilitarianism. This kind of utilitarianism is a special case of the relative preference utilitarianism.

If everyone decides that their preference or utility function is a concave function of well-being, we arrive at a prioritarian ethic. (Examples of concave functions are the square root and the logarithm functions.) This means that well-being has a decreasing marginal utility: the more well-being you have, the less utility an extra unit of well-being generates. The difference in utility between well-being 1 and well-being 0 is bigger than the difference in utility between well-being 2 and well-being 1. The resulting prioritarianism says that we have to increase everyone’s well-being, giving a higher priority to increasing the well-being of the worst-off people, the persons who have the lowest levels of well-being.

What about inconsistencies in preferences? There are two kinds of inconsistencies: synchronous and intertemporal. Intertemporal inconsistencies are easy to deal with: suppose I strongly prefer X at time t and no longer prefer X at a later time t+1. If that is the case, I can say that at time t+1 I am another individual, different from the person at time t. An individual can be fully described or defined by the set of all his or her preferences. If preferences change over time, we have to consider this as if there are multiple individuals, one individual for each moment of time. To be safe, we have to assume that every other moment in time there are different individuals. The preference or utility refers to the utility of an individual at a specific time t. At another time, we have another individual.

It is possible that at a moment t a person Pt can identify himself or herself with a single future person Pt+1 at a later time t+1, and this identification influences the preferences of the person Pt. If future technologies allow for duplicating brains or copying minds, it is even possible that a person can identify himself or herself with multiple future persons. The relative preferences principle respects self-determination or autonomy again: it is up to the persons themselves to decide with whom they identify themselves with and how that identification influences their preferences. It is up to a person P in situation S1 to decide whether a person in another situation S2 is the same person. Persons can decide with whom they prefer to identify themselves. A person P who exists in situation S1 can even prefer another situation S2 where that person does not exist or will soon die. If I could choose a situation where everyone is maximally happy, except for the fact that I will die or I will be brainwashed and become a completely different person, I will prefer that situation, even if there is no-one in that situation I can identify myself with.

What about synchronous inconsistencies in preferences? Suppose a friend lies to you, you will never be able to know that it was a lie, and if you know the truth, you would be very unhappy. You prefer to be happy, so are lies permissible in such situations? Not necessarily, because you may also prefer to know the truth. So you may have two conflicting preferences: one to avoid unhappiness and one to know the truth. The relative preferences principle respects your self-determination: it is up to you to decide what you most strongly prefer. Your preference for a certain situation (e.g. the situation where friends tell the truth) should be based on the most coherent set of your strongest preferences. Only if a contradiction remains, if you insist on both preferring and not preferring a certain situation at the same time, other people can decide for you.

Now let us look at the application of this relative preference utilitarianism in population ethics. Suppose that everyone prefers a zero reference preference. The relative preference than simply becomes the absolute preference for a given situation, so we have to choose the situation that maximizes the sum of everyone’s absolute preference for that situation. In this special case, the relative preference utilitarianism becomes a total preference utilitarianism that wants to maximize total preference satisfaction. However, this total utilitarianism faces a counter-intuitive implication in population ethics: a repugnant or sadistic conclusion. According to total utilitarianism, a situation S1 that contains a billion maximally happy people (who have maximum preference satisfaction) is worse than a situation S2 where those same billion people are maximally unhappy and where an extra huge number of people exist who have lives barely worth living (i.e. slightly positive preference satisfaction). If the number of extra people is large enough, the total preference satisfaction is higher in the second situation, but saying that this situation is better than the first is very counter-intuitive, repugnant or sadistic according to many people. So if everyone chose as a reference the situation for which they have 0 preference, the relative preference utilitarianism turns into a total utilitarianism and that means that everyone accepts the implications of total utilitarianism.

The counter-intuitive implication of total utilitarianism can be avoided by choosing other reference preferences. For example if everyone took as reference situation a situation for which they all have a non-zero, positive preference C, we end up with a so-called critical level utilitarianism: instead of choosing the situation that maximizes the sum of everyone’s absolute preferences, we choose the situation that maximizes the sum of the relative preferences Ui(S)-C where Ui(S) is the utility or preference of individual i for situation S. (To be more accurate, we can better write Ui(S,S) instead of Ui(S), because Ui(S,S) is the utility for an individual i in situation S for that situation S.)

Instead of choosing a constant reference preference C, people could choose another reference preference, for example the preference for the most preferred situation. The relative preference of an individual becomes Ui(S,S)-Ui(S,B), where Ui(S,B) is the preference that the individual i in the given situation S has for another situation B, namely his or her most preferred, best situation. This relative preference can be considered as a complaint: an individual in situation S would prefer his or her best situation B, and the difference between utilities Ui(S,B)-Ui(S,S) measures how strongly that individual prefers the best situation B above the actual situation S. The stronger that preference, the bigger his or her complaint in situation S becomes. Taking these reference preferences, the maximum relative preferences principle becomes a minimum complaint theory where we should choose the situation that generates the least amount of complaints. We have to choose the situation S for which the sum over all individuals of the complaints Ui(S,B)-Ui(S,S) is minimal.

It is easy to see why the minimum complaint theory avoids the abovementioned counter-intuitive problem in population ethics. The people who are very unhappy in the second situation have very strong complaints, and the other people cannot complain because they have maximum preference satisfaction.

However, if we minimize the total complaints, we would have to prefer the minimum complaint situation Sm and it might be possible that an individual in situation S has a lower preference for this minimum complaint situation than for the actual situation S in which he or she exists. This means Ui(S,Sm) could be lower than Ui(S,S). Now it becomes tricky for that individual in situation S: if he or she complains, the situation Sm will be chosen and the individual will be worse off. Again the relative preference principle respects self-determination: the individual i in situation S can decide to change his or her reference preference, for example to set the reference preference equal to Ui(S,S). In this way, that individual will not complain in situation S (the relative preference becomes 0) and the total complaint will no longer include the complaint of that individual. That means another optimal situation will be chosen, one that individual i in situation S can prefer.

Why is this relevant? If we simply want to minimize complaints, we might have to prefer the situation where no-one (no future generation) exists, because existing people can always complain. If only one person exists, that person might feel lonely, can complain and prefer a situation with more people. So consider all possible situations that contain at least two persons. Those people have to distribute finite resources amongst themselves, which means in every situation there is always at least one person who can complain. The only situation with no complaints, is the situation where no-one exists. If an individual i exists in situation S and has a positive utility Ui(S,S), and if some or all other possible situations that have a smaller total complaint are situations in which the person does not exist, that person might decide not to complain in situation S.

To respect self-determination, everyone can decide what counts as the reference situation. It doesn’t have to be the most preferred situation. It can also be for example the least preferred situation, in which case the complaint becomes negative: it becomes an anticomplaint or gratitude. Or it can be the situation for which the person has 0 preference. If everyone chooses their own preferred reference, we end up with a population ethic that is a hybrid or mixture of total utilitarianism, critical utilitarianism, minimum complaint utilitarianism and other utilitarian theories.

3) The mere means principle and the self-determination right

Everyone has the self-determination right over one’s own body: we are not allowed to use someone’s body against their will as a means for someone else’s ends. This is equivalent to the mere means principle which says that we should not use someone as merely a means. Someone is used as a means to an end if the presence of his or her body is necessary to achieve the end. Someone is used as merely a means when the use as means is against his or her will, i.e. when he or she has to do or undergo things against his or her will.

To avoid arbitrary exclusion (discrimination), this right should be given to everyone and everything. However, insentient objects do not have a sense of their own bodies and they do not have a will, so they cannot be treated against their will. This means the self-determination right is always trivially satisfied (cannot be violated) for non-sentient objects. The right becomes only important or non-trivial for sentient beings, because they have a will and a sense of their own bodies.

The self-determination right does not have to be absolute. If the consequences of using someone as merely a means are very positive (i.e. if a lot of strong relative preferences are satisfied), or if the usage is only slightly against one’s will, a violation of the self-determination right might be permissible. The strength of the mere means principle relative to the relative preferences principle, is something to be decided democratically.


Most moral rules and rights generate negative externalities or costs on others. For example if we choose to give everyone a right not to be harmed, the mere presence of a person with that right can decrease my liberty and hence generates a negative externality for me. Suppose I am in danger and I want to save myself, but someone else is in my way. I can only save myself by doing something that will harm that person. If the person would not have been there, I could justifiably save myself, but the presence of that person with the right not to be harmed means I no longer have the liberty to save myself. I would have been better off if that person with the no-harm right was not present. However, there is one fundamental right that does not generate such negative externalities: the self-determination right not to be used as a means against ones will.

Suppose I want to use you against your will, and the presence of your body is necessary to reach my ends. If you are present and if you have the self-determination right, I am not allowed to use you against your will. I could complain that with this right I am no longer able to reach my ends. But this complaint becomes less valid or invalid when we consider the fact that if you were not present, I could not reach my ends either. It makes no difference to me if you are not present or if you are present and you have this self-determination right. Your presence does not pose negative externalities on others when you have that right. Introducing people who have this self-determination right does not generate costs on others. Complaints against moral rules (e.g. against the choice for a specific right) become less valid or invalid when the mere presence of people who are subject to that moral rule does not pose any negative externalities (costs, loss of liberties) on others. The self-determination right is unique in the sense that it is a right that does not generate negative externalities on others.

Examples and implications

Your body belongs to you and no-one else may use your body against your will. That is why slavery and rape are immoral. The self-determination right lies at the heart of many moral intuitions in moral dilemmas. I am not allowed to use your body against your will, so that is why cannibalism (killing and eating someone in a lifeboat scenario), forced organ transplantations (sacrificing one person and using his or her organs to save the lives of many patients), involuntary medical experimentation (using someone as test object to find a medicine that can save many lives), scapegoating (prosecuting an innocent individual in order to stop a riot that will kill many people), terror bombing (killing innocent civilians in order to demoralize the enemy and end a war) or throwing a heavy person in front of a runaway trolley in order to stop that trolley and save people on the track, are not allowed, even if the overall consequences (in terms of maximizing relative preference satisfaction) are positive.

The self-determination right also implies other moral principles, such as the difference between doing and allowing and the difference between negative (perfect) and positive (imperfect) duties. If we only had the relative preferences principle, there will be no distinction between doing and allowing or between negative and positive duties. But many people have the intuitive moral judgment that doing harm is worse than allowing a similar level of harm. Pushing a child in the water to kill him is worse than not saving a drowning child. If they would be equally bad, not saving a child would be as bad as murder, and so I would have a very strong duty to save children. I would have to sacrifice a lot to save children, which I do not want. So when I have an absolute duty to save children at all costs, I will become merely a means to help others, which is against my will. My self-determination right will be violated.

Suppose I face a dilemma: if I do nothing, three people will die. If I choose to save them, one other person will die. If I do nothing, I allow the death of the three people. If I act, I do cause the death of the one person. Suppose this one person is a friend. I do not want to kill this person, so I let the three people die. You could say that I had a duty to save the three people, because one dead person is better than three dead people. But if you would say that to me, you would consider me as merely a means to the ends of the three people. My presence was required to save the three people, and I would have to do something (sacrificing my friend) I do not want, so my self-determination right would be violated if you judge me. If you are not allowed to judge me, it appears as if allowing the three people to die is not worse than killing one person.

The difference between doing and allowing also corresponds with a difference between positive and negative duties. A positive duty is a duty of beneficence, a duty to help, where the presence of the agent (the helper) is required in order to benefit someone. A negative duty of non-maleficence (the no-harm principle) is a duty not to harm someone. This does not require the presence of the agent: if the agent is not present, the no-harm principle is trivially satisfied because the agent cannot cause harm when s/he is absent.  When someone causes harm, we can judge that person for violating his or her duty of non-maleficence, without considering him or her as merely a means, i.e. without violating his or her self-determination right. However, if you do not want to help someone, and if I claim that you have to help that person and you violate the duty of beneficence if you do nothing, I would consider you as merely a means. Therefore, violations of positive duties are considered less bad (more tolerable) than violations of negative duties.

Positive duties are imperfect duties, in the sense that while we are not required to live up to them at all times, these duties are deserving of admiration. Helping others is an imperfect duty, because there is a whole range of possible levels of assistance that one could give. Perfect duties on the other hand can and should be respected at all times (for example the duty not to use someone as merely a means is a perfect duty).

When it comes to positive duties, some level of partiality is allowed. Consider a situation where I have to choose between saving someone I hold dear versus saving three unknown people. If you say I should save the three people, my self-determination right would be violated, so I am allowed to save the person I hold dear. As a result, when helping others, you are allowed to be a bit partial in favor of your loved ones, even if that does not maximize relative preference satisfaction, as long as you are prepared to tolerate similar levels of partiality of everyone else. According to the moral intuitions of a lot of people, partiality is more permissible in positive, imperfect duties, but we are not so tolerant towards partiality in negative, perfect duties. That is why you are not allowed to sacrifice and use someone in order to save someone you hold dear.

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6 reacties op The three most defensible principles in ethics

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