ConsequentialismConsequentialism refers to those moral theories that hold that the consequences of a particular action form the basis for any valid moral judgement about that action. Thus, on a consequentialist account, a morally right action is an action which produces good consequences.
Apart from this basic outline, there is little else that can be unequivocally said about consequentialism. There are, however, some general themes that reappear in a number of consequentialist theories. These include questions such as:
- What determines the value of consequences?
In other words, what counts as a good state of affairs?
- Who or what is the primary beneficiary of moral action?
- Who judges what the consequences of an action are and how?
What kinds of consequences
One way to divide various consequentialisms is by the types of consequences that are taken to matter most, that is, which consequences count as good states of affairs.
According to hedonistic utilitarianism, a good action is one that results in any increase in pleasure, and the best action is one that results the most pleasure possible. Closely related is eudaimonic consequentialism, according to which a full, flourishing life, which may or may not be the same as enjoying a great deal of pleasure, is the ultimate aim. Similarly, one might adopt an aesthetic consequentialism, in which the ultimate aim is to produce beauty.
However, one might fix on non-psychological goods as the relevant effect. Thus, one might puruse an increase in material equality or political liberty instead of something the more ephemeral "pleasure".
A theory might even adopt a package of several goods, all to be promoted equally. Since there would be no overarching consequence to aim for, conflicts between goods are to be adjudicated not by some ultimate consequentialist principle, but by the fine contextual discernment and intuition of the agent. Even in a consequentialist system that focuses on a single type of good, though, such conflicts and tensions are to be expected.
Consequences for whom
Moral action always has an effect on certain people or things, the consequences. Various kinds of consequentialism can be differentiated by the person or thing that is supposed to benefit from the good consequences. That is, one might ask "Consequences for whom?"
Agent-Centered or Agent Neutral
A fundamental distinction along these lines is between theories that demand that agents act for ends in which they have some personal interest or motivation to pursue (actually or counterfactually) and theories that demand that agents act for ends perhaps disconnected from their own interests and drives. These are called "agent-focused" and "agent-neutral" theories respectively.
Agent-neutral consequentialism ignores the specific value a state of affairs has for any particular agent. Thus, in an agent-neutral theory, my own personal goals do not count any more than anyone elses goals in evaluating what action I should take. Agent-focused consequentialism, on the other hand, focuses on the particular needs of the moral agent. Thus, in an agent-focused account, such as one that Peter Railton outlines, I might be concerned with the general welfare, but I am more concerned with the immediate welfare of myself and my friends and family.
These two approaches could be reconciled by acknowledging the tension between an agent's interests as an individual and as a member of various groups, and seeking to somehow optimize among all of these interests. For example, it may be meaningful to speak of an action as being good for someone as an individual but bad for them as a citizen of their town.
Most consequentialist theories seem primarily concerned with human beings and their relationships with other human beings. However, some philosophers argue that we should not limit our ethical consideration to the interests of human beings alone.
No less a person than Jeremy Bentham, who is regarded as the founder of Utilitarianism, regarded animals as a serious object of moral concern, arguing that they evinced at least some response to pleasure and pain, and thus, the consequences a certain course of action would have on animals was directly relevant. More recently, Peter Singer has argued that it is unreasonable that we do not treat animals in the same way we are inclined to treat human beings.
Some environmentalists and ecocentrists hold that the environment or particular ecosystems are the relevant object(s) of concern. Thus, an action can only be considered acceptable if it has a positive (or at least non-negative) impact on a particular ecosystem. Theoretically, even the entire universe might be the relevant object of concern, the best action being the one that brings the most value into the
One important characteristic of many normative moral theories such as consequentialism is the ability to produce practical moral judgements. At the very least, any moral theory needs to define the standpoint from which the goodness of the consequences are to be determined. What is primarily at stake here is the responsibility of the agent.
The Ideal Observer
One common tactic among consequentialists, particularly those committed to an altruistic account of consequentialism is to talk about an ideal, neutral observer from which moral judgements can be made (this is a bit like WP:NPOV). John Rawls, a critic of utilitarianism, notes that utilitarianism, in common with other forms of consequentialism, relies on the perspective of such an ideal observer.e particular characteristics of this ideal observer can vary from an omniscient observer, who would grasp all the consequences of any action, to an ideally informed observer, who knows as much as could reasonably be expected, but not necessarily all the circumstances or all the possible consequences. Consequentialist theories that adopt this paradigm hold that right action is the action that will bring about the best consequences from this ideal observer's perspective.
The Real Observer
Of course, in practice, it seems very difficult to always adopt the point of view of an ideal observer. An individual moral agent, after all, only knows a certain number of things about the situation they are in, and thus the possible consequences of a particular course of action. Thus, some theorists have argued that consequentialist theories can only require an agent to choose the best action in line with what they know about the situation.
However, this idea, naïvely adopted, could lead to very bad results, if the moral agent does not go out of the way to inform themselves about the situation. Acting in a situation without first informing oneself of the circumstances of the situation can lead to even the most well-intended actions to have miserable consequences. As a result, certain theorists have argued that there is a moral imperative for an agent to inform themselves as much as possible about a situation before judging the appropriate course of action. This imperative, of course, is derived from consequentialism: a better informed agent is able to bring about better consequences.
How many consequences?
The world as we normally experience it does seem to exhibit some kind of causal determinism. Thus, the effects of a particular action might have a virtually unlimited chain of other consequences. This raises a serious question for consequentialism: how long along the causal chain can one still be held morally accountable for the consequences of an action?
Moral theorists have a wide range of opinions on this matter. Some hold that the agent is responsible for all the consequences resulting from their action, whether forseen or not. Others hold that the agent is only responsible for the consequences that they intended to bring about, regardless of what actually happens. Still others hold that the agent is responsible for any consequences they could have reasonably expected from their actions.
Some consequentialists might hold that agents are wrong to commit acts that have unforeseen bad consequences, but shouldn't be condemned for them. Utilitarian Peter Singer says that "Comfortably off Americans who give, say, 10 percent of their income to overseas aid organizations are so far ahead of most of their equally comfortable fellow citizens that I wouldn't go out of my way to chastise them for not doing more," even though "they should be doing much more" -- presumably, he holds his tongue because criticizing donors would discourage people from donating, and thus have bad consequences. By the same basic principle -- that condemnation shouldn't be given out when it has bad conseqences -- it might be wrong to condemn people for wrong actions that they couldn't have known were wrong.
Varities of Consequentialism
Consequentialism is a nefariously multi-headed beast, capable of adopting quite a variety of guises. However, there are certain consequentialist theories that serve as paradigms of consequentialism.
Ethical egoism can be understood as a consequentialist theory according to which the consequences for the individual agent are taken to matter more than any other result. Thus, egoism may license actions which are good for the agent, but are detrimental to general welfare. However, some advocates of egoism, most notably Ayn Rand, have argued that the pursuit of selfish ends ultimately works out best for everyone.
In general, consequentialist theories focus on actions, however, this need not be the case. Rule consequentialism is a theory that is sometimes seen as an attempt to reconcile deontology and consequentialism. Like deontology, rule consequentialism holds that moral behavior involves following certain rules. However, rule consequentialism chooses rules based on the consequences that the selection of those rules have. Various theorists are split as to whether the rules are the only the only determinant of moral behavior or not. For example, Robert Nozick holds that a certain set of minimal rules, which he calls "side-constraints", are necessary.
There are also differences as to how absolute these moral rules are. Thus, while Nozick's side-constraints are absolute restrictions on behavior, Amartya Sen proposes a theory which recognizes the importance of certain rules, but these rules are not absolute. at is, they may be violated if strict adherence to the rule would lead to much more undesirable consequences.
Most consequentialist theories focus on promoting some sort of good consequences. However, one could equally well lay out a consequentialist theory that focuses solely on minimizing bad consequences. Of course, the maximization of good consequences could also involve the minimization of bad consequences, but the promotion of good consequences is usually of primary import.
One major difference between these two approachess is the agent's responsibility. Postive consequentialism demands that we bring about good states of affairs, whereas negative consequentialism may only require that we avoid bad ones. A more strenuous version of negative consequentialism may actually require active intervention, but only to prevent harm from being done.
Consequentialism and other moral theories
Though many philosophers regard consequentialism as the most commonly held moral theory, it is not the only moral theory. Critiques raised by moral theorists who hold other moral theories have shaped the forms consequentialism takes in recent literature.
Consequentialism is often contrasted with deontological ethics. Deontological theories focus on types of actions rather than the particular consequences of those actions. Thus, deontological theories hold that certain actions are wrong simply because of the nature of that action.
Consequently, a deontologist might argue that we should stick to our duty regardless of the consequences. For example, Kant famously argued that we had a moral duty to tell some one planning a murder where their would-be victim is.
However, consequentialist and deontological theories are not necessarily mutually exclusive. For example, T.M. Scanlon advances the idea that human rights, which are commonly considered a "deontological" concept, can only be justified with reference to the consequences of having those rights. Similarly, Robert Nozick argues for a theory that is mostly consequentialist, but incorporates inviolable "side-constraints" which restrict the sort of actions agents are permitted to do.
Consequentialism can also be contrasted with aretaic moral theories such as virtue ethics. In fact, Anscombe's paper which coined the term "consequentialism" also began the discussion of character-based ethical theories in modern philosophy.
Whereas consequentialist theories, by definition, posit that consequences of action should be the primary focus of moral theories, virtue ethics insists that it is the character rather than the consequences of actions that should be the focal point. Some virtue ethicists hold that consequentialist theories totally disregard the development of moral character. For example, Phillipa Foot, in an influential paper, argues that consequences in themselves have no ethical content, unlessit has been provided by a virtue such as benevolence.
However, consequentialism and virtue ethics need not be understood to be completely opposite. Consequentialist theories can consider character in several ways. For example, the effects on the character of the agent or any other people involved in an action may be regarded as a relevant consequences. Similarly, a consequentialist theory may aim at the maximization of a particular virtue or set of virtues. Finally, following Foot's lead, one might adopt a sort of consequentialism which argues that virtuous activity ultimately produces the best consequences.
Consequentialism has been criticized on several counts. According to G.E. Moore in Principia Ethica, consequentialism (or at least classical utilitariansim) commits "the naturalistic fallacy" by assuming that "the good" can be adequately defined by some "natural" property or set of natural properties. This, he claims, can be demonstrated because for any X a consequentialist might propose as being innately good we can always ask "But is X good?" Thus we must have a tacit understanding of moral goodness that is different from any possible natural property or set of such properties. If this is the case, then, Moore argued, most forms of consequentialism are incoherent, since this innate sense of moral goodness is all that can be appealed to.
As already mentioned, G.E.M. Anscombe coined "consequentialism" in order to attack the theory. She held that consequentialist theories hold moral agents responsible for consequences of their actions that they did not intend, and thus ignores the moral character of the agent involved. Not all consequentialists would see this as a valid criticism. After all, consequentialism places the strongest value on consequences.
However, more recently, there have been attacks upon consequentialism in a similar vein. For example, Thomas Nagel holds that consequentialism fails to appropriately take into account the people effected by a particular action. He argues that a consequentialist cannot really critize human rights abuses in a war if they ultimately result in a better state of affairs.
Along the same lines, Peter Railton argued that consequentialism is alienating because it requires too much of moral agents. According to Railton, the logical result of most forms of consequentialism would be a requirement that we always try to do the best possible thing: to do less would be to not do the moral thing. However, this might require us to go far out of our way, leaving no time to pursue our particular ambitions. Consequently, he argues that consequentialism needs to be reformulated to be an appropriate moral theory.
John Stuart Mill
Scottish School of Common Sense
The Age of Enlightenment