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What I will discuss here is Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is, in the words of Star Trek, "the good of the many outweighs the good of the one", although this is something of an oversimplification.
In general, Utilitarianism is based on the idea that "good" and "evil" are sourced from the effects of a thing on sentient beings. Unlike other forms of ethics with a similar premise, such as Objectivism, it considers the net harm and net benefit to all sentient beings of an action, rather than considering each sentient the sole source of morality.
So, when a thing can cause both harm and benefit to different sentients, Utilitarianism compares the total harms to the total benefits: measuring the good and evil of an action and choosing the "greater good" or the "lesser evil".
Now then, there are several forms of Utilitarian thought. They diverge on a few points: how much indirection of cause is acceptable (that is, are only immediate effects considered? Are the effects out to the end of the universe considered? Does the harm of an action stop being considered when it reaches a being with the ability to choose not to continue the chain of cause and effect?), the importance of rules in decision-making (If someone carries out an action that normally has overall negative effects, but it has positive effects, is that action right? Is the answer different if the person is aware of the positive effects?), and exactly what is defined as "good" (Pleasure? Order? Negative freedom? Positive freedom? Effectiveness?).
What I use goes as follows (this is an abbreviated version):
- Things have meaning because sentient beings choose to give them meaning.
- "Goodness" and "Badness" are therefore defined, respectively, as that which causes pleasure to sentient beings and that which causes suffering to sentient beings.
- If an action brings both pleasure and suffering to the same or a different sentient beings, whether it is good or bad depends on the balance of the two.
- Some types of action have a general tendency to cause more suffering than pleasure, or vice versa. Statistically, these actions can be called "bad" or "good".
- There is not usually sufficient time or objectivity when making a decision to look at all possible consequences of the decision. Therefore, rules must be established based on these likelihoods to allow decisions to be made quickly and objectively.