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Consequentialism 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. Consequentialism is usually taken to be different from deontology which emphasizes the type of action instead of its consequences, and virtue ethics which focuses on the moral qualities of the agent.
- 1 Defining consequentialism
- 2 Varieties of Consequentialism
- 3 Consequentialism and other moral theories
- 4 Criticisms of Consequentialism
- 5 Bibliography
- 6 See also
- 7 Further reading
- 8 External links
The term "consequentialism" was coined by G.E.M. Anscombe in her essay "Modern Moral Philosophy" in 1958, and has since become common throughout English-language moral theory. Its historical roots are in utilitarianism, although earlier ethical theories often considered the consequences of actions relevant to ethical deliberation. Because of this historical tie to utilitarianism these two approaches are sometimes conflated. This conflation is not necessarily inaccurate as utilitarianism has the important formal character of all consequentialist theories: a focus on the consequences.
As its name suggests, consequentialism focuses on the outcomes of actions, emphasizing the results rather than the kinds of acts involved. Most consequentialist theories focus on maximizing good states — after all, if something is good, then more seems better. However, not all consequentialist theories adopt this stance.
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 pursue an increase in material equality or political liberty instead of something like 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.
One might even take the course advocated by G.E. Moore and argue that "the good" is unanalyzable, and thus argue that good states of affairs do not necessarily share any other property than "goodness" itself .
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.
Many consequentialist theories may 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 non-human animals as a serious object of moral concern, arguing that they can experience pleasure and pain, and thus, the consequences a certain course of action would have on them was directly relevant. More recently, Peter Singer has argued that it is unreasonable that we do not give equal consideration to the interests of animals as to those of human beings when we choose the way we are to treat them. Such equal consideration does not necessarily imply identical treatment of humans and non-humans, no more than it necessarily implies identical treatment of all humans.
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 universe, whatever that value might be.
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. John Rawls, a critic of utilitarianism, argues that utilitarianism, in common with other forms of consequentialism, relies on the perspective of such an ideal observer. The 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.
Varieties 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.
- Main article: Utilitarianism
Hedonistic Utilitarianism is, historically, the paradigmatic example of a consequentialist moral theory. It holds that right action produces the most happiness for all agents. "Happiness" on this account is defined as the maximization of pleasure and the minimization of pain. This form of utilitarianism holds that what matters is the aggregate happiness; the happiness of everyone and not the happiness of any particular person.
John Stuart Mill, in his exposition of hedonistic utilitarianism, proposed a hierarchy of pleasures, meaning that the pursuit of certain kinds of pleasure is more highly valued than the pursuit of other pleasures.
Some contemporary utilitarians, such as Peter Singer are concerned to maximise the satisfaction of preferences, hence the expression "preference utilitarianism". Other contemporary forms of utilitarianism mirror the forms of consequentialism outlined below.
- Main article: Ethical egoism
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 (see Objectivist ethics).
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 to ensure appropriate actions. 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. That 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 always tell the truth, even to a murderer asking 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, unless it has been provided by a virtue such as benevolence.
However, consequentialism and virtue ethics need not be understood to be entirely antagonistic. 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.
Criticisms of Consequentialism
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, is demonstrably false 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.
In a more extreme tenor, William Gass argues that moral theories such as consequentialism are unable to adequately explain what is wrong with a wrong action. Gass uses the example of an "obliging stranger" who is so obliging as to allow himself to be baked in an oven. Gass claims that the rationale that any moral theory might attempt to give for this wrongness, e.g. it does not bring about good results, is simply absurd. It is wrong to bake a stranger, however obliging, and nothing more can or need be said about it.
In A Theory of Justice John Rawls argues that people would choose Kantian principles over the consequentialism of utilitarianism. To make the argument he constructs a thought experiment where a hypothetical person is placed in an original position outside of society. This person has no knowledge of what skills or values he will have, nor does he know if he will be wealthy. The person also does know whether society will accept his values or if he will be in a minority. Rawls argues that in this position everyone would choose a system with deontological values such as freedom of speech and social justice. People, fearing the possibility of low station, would choose to have protections for minorities and human rights instead of a strictly consequentialist society.
As already mentioned, G.E.M. Anscombe coined "consequentialism" in the process of criticizing 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.
Along the same lines, Bernard Williams has argued that consequentialism is alienating because it requires moral agents to put too much distance between themselves and their own projects and commitments. Williams argues that consequentialism requires moral agents to take a strictly impersonal view of all actions, since it is only the consequences, and not who produces them, that is said to matter. Williams argues that this demands too much of moral agents — since (he claims) consequentialism demands that they be willing to sacrifice any and all personal projects and commitments in any given circumstance in order to pursue the most beneficent course of action possible. He argues further that consequentialism fails to make sense of intuitions that it can matter whether or not someone is personally the author of a particular consequence. For example, that having "dirty hands" by participating in a crime can matter, even if the crime would have been committed anyway, or would even have been worse, without the agent's participation.
Some consequentialists — most notably Peter Railton — have attempted to develop a form of consequentialism that acknowledges and avoids the objections raised by Williams. Railton argues that Williams's criticisms can be avoided by adopting a form of consequentialism in which moral decisions are to be determined by the sort of life that they express. On his account, the agent should choose the sort of life that will, on the whole, produce the best overall effects.
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 affected by a particular action. He argues that a consequentialist cannot really critize human rights abuses in a war, for example, if they ultimately result in a better state of affairs.
- Anscombe, G. E. M.. Modern Moral Philosophy. Philosophy 33: 1-19.
- Moore, G. E. (1903). Principia Ethica, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 052144848.
- Scheffler, Samuel (Ed.) (1988). Consequentialism and Its Critics, Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198750730.
- Bentham, Jeremy (1996). An Introduction to the Principles of Moral Legislation, Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198205163.
- Singer, Peter (2002). Helga Kuhse, ed. Unsanctifying Human Life, Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 0631225072.
- Mill, John Stuart (1998). Utilitarianism, Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 019875163X.
- Gass, William H.. The Case of the Obliging Stranger. The Philosophical Review 66: 193-204.
- Darwall, Stephen (Ed.) (2002). Consequentialism, Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 0631231080.
- Honderich, Ted (2003). "Consequentialism, Moralities of Concern and Selfishness".
- Scheffler, Samuel (1994). The Rejection of Consequentialism: A Philosophical Investigation of the Considerations Underlying Rival Moral Conceptions, Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198235119.
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