CONSEQUENTIALISM is the class of normative ethical theories holding that the consequences of one's conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness or wrongness of that conduct. Thus, from a consequentialist standpoint, a morally right act (or omission from acting) is one that will produce a good outcome, or consequence. In an extreme form, the idea of consequentialism is commonly encapsulated in the saying , "the end justifies the means", meaning that if a goal is morally important enough, any method of achieving it is acceptable.
Some argue that 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.
* 1 Philosophies
* 2 Issues
* 2.1 Action guidance
* 2.1.1 The ideal observer * 2.1.2 The real observer
* 2.2 Consequences for whom
* 2.2.1 Agent-focused or agent-neutral * 2.2.2 Human-centered?
* 2.3 Value of consequences
* 3 Etymology * 4 Criticisms * 5 Notable consequentialists * 6 See also * 7 References * 8 Further reading * 9 External links
It is the business of the benevolent man to seek to promote what is
beneficial to the world and to eliminate what is harmful, and to
provide a model for the world. What benefits he will carry out; what
does not benefit men he will leave alone. — Mozi,
Mohist consequentialism , also known as state consequentialism, is
an ethical theory which evaluates the moral worth of an action based
on how much it contributes to the welfare of a state. According to
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Unlike utilitarianism, which views utility as the sole moral good,
"the basic goods in Mohist consequentialist thinking are... order,
material wealth, and increase in population". During
The Mohists believed that morality is based on "promoting the benefit
of all under heaven and eliminating harm to all under heaven." In
On the other hand, the "Legalist" Han Fei "is motivated almost totally from the ruler's point of view."
Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think... — Jeremy Bentham, The Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789) Ch I, p 1
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 will prescribe
actions that may be beneficial, detrimental, or neutral to the welfare
of others. Some, like
Main article: Altruism (ethics)
Ethical altruism can be seen as a consequentialist ethic which
prescribes that an individual take actions that have the best
consequences for everyone except for himself. This was advocated by
See also: Rule utilitarianism
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—and in some cases, this is stated as a criticism of rule 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. Rule consequentialism exists in the forms of rule utilitarianism and rule egoism .
Various theorists are split as to whether the rules are 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
One of the most common objections to rule-consequentialism is that it is incoherent, because it is based on the consequentialist principle that what we should be concerned with is maximizing the good, but then it tells us not to act to maximize the good, but to follow rules (even in cases where we know that breaking the rule could produce better results).
Brad Hooker avoided this objection by not basing his form of rule-consequentialism on the ideal of maximizing the good. He writes:
…the best argument for rule-consequentialism is not that it derives from an overarching commitment to maximise the good. The best argument for rule-consequentialism is that it does a better job than its rivals of matching and tying together our moral convictions, as well as offering us help with our moral disagreements and uncertainties.
Derek Parfit described Brad Hooker's book on rule-consequentialism Ideal Code, Real World as the "best statement and defence, so far, of one of the most important moral theories."
The two-level approach involves engaging in critical reasoning and considering all the possible ramifications of one's actions before making an ethical decision, but reverting to generally reliable moral rules when one is not in a position to stand back and examine the dilemma as a whole. In practice, this equates to adhering to rule consequentialism when one can only reason on an intuitive level, and to act consequentialism when in a position to stand back and reason on a more critical level.
This position can be described as a reconciliation between act consequentialism – in which the morality of an action is determined by that action's effects – and rule consequentialism – in which moral behavior is derived from following rules that lead to positive outcomes.
Another consequentialist version is motive consequentialism which looks at whether the state of affairs that results from the motive to choose an action is better or at least as good as each of the alternative state of affairs that would have resulted from alternative actions. This version gives relevance to the motive of an act and links it to its consequences. An act can therefore not be wrong if the decision to act was based on a right motive. A possible inference is, that one can not be blamed for mistaken judgements if the motivation was to do good.
Most consequentialist theories focus on promoting some sort of good consequences. However, negative utilitarianism lays out a consequentialist theory that focuses solely on minimizing bad consequences.
One major difference between these two approaches is the agent's responsibility. Positive consequentialism demands that we bring about good states of affairs, whereas negative consequentialism requires that we avoid bad ones. Stronger versions of negative consequentialism will require active intervention to prevent bad and ameliorate existing harm. In weaker versions, simple forbearance from acts tending to harm others is sufficient. An example of this is the Slippery Slope Argument, which encourages others to avoid a specified act on the grounds that it may ultimately lead to undesirable consequences.
Often "negative" consequentialist theories assert that reducing
suffering is more important than increasing pleasure.
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Teleological ethics (Greek telos, "end"; logos, "science") is an ethical theory that holds that the ends or consequences of an act determine whether an act is good or evil. Teleological theories are often discussed in opposition to deontological ethical theories, which hold that acts themselves are inherently good or evil, regardless of the consequences of acts.
Teleological theories differ on the nature of the end that actions
ought to promote.
Eudaemonist theories (Greek eudaimonia, "happiness")
hold that the goal of ethics consists in some function or activity
appropriate to man as a human being, and thus tend to emphasize the
cultivation of virtue or excellence in the agent as the end of all
action. These could be the classical virtues—courage , temperance ,
justice , and wisdom —that promoted the Greek ideal of man as the
"rational animal", or the theological virtues—faith , hope , and
love —that distinguished the Christian ideal of man as a being
created in the image of God.
John Stuart Mill
Utilitarian-type theories hold that the end consists in an experience
or feeling produced by the action.
Other utilitarian-type views include the claims that the end of
action is survival and growth, as in evolutionary ethics (the
19th-century English philosopher
The chief problem for eudaemonist theories is to show that leading a
life of virtue will also be attended by happiness—by the winning of
the goods regarded as the chief end of action. That Job should suffer
Utilitarian theories, on the other hand, must answer the charge that ends do not justify the means. The problem arises in these theories because they tend to separate the achieved ends from the action by which these ends were produced. One implication of utilitarianism is that one's intention in performing an act may include all of its foreseen consequences. The goodness of the intention then reflects the balance of the good and evil of these consequences, with no limits imposed upon it by the nature of the act itself—even if it be, say, the breaking of a promise or the execution of an innocent man. Utilitarianism, in answering this charge, must show either that what is apparently immoral is not really so or that, if it really is so, then closer examination of the consequences will bring this fact to light. Ideal utilitarianism ( G.E. Moore and Hastings Rashdall ) tries to meet the difficulty by advocating a plurality of ends and including among them the attainment of virtue itself, which, as John Stuart Mill affirmed, "may be felt a good in itself, and desired as such with as great intensity as any other good."
ACTS AND OMISSIONS, AND THE "ACT AND OMISSIONS DOCTRINE"
Since pure consequentialism holds that an action is to be judged solely by its result, most consequentialist theories hold that a deliberate action is no different from a deliberate decision not to act. This contrasts with the "acts and omissions doctrine", which is upheld by some medical ethicists and some religions: it asserts there is a significant moral distinction between acts and deliberate non-actions which lead to the same outcome. This contrast is brought out in issues such as voluntary euthanasia .
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 (selfless) account of consequentialism, is
to employ an ideal, neutral observer from which moral judgements can
The Real Observer
In practice, it is very difficult, and at times arguably impossible, to adopt the point of view of an ideal observer. Individual moral agents do not know everything about their particular situations, and thus do not know all the possible consequences of their potential actions. For this reason, some theorists have argued that consequentialist theories can only require agents to choose the best action in line with what they know about the situation. However, if this approach is naïvely adopted, then moral agents who, for example, recklessly fail to reflect on their situation, and act in a way that brings about terrible results, could be said to be acting in a morally justifiable way. Acting in a situation without first informing oneself of the circumstances of the situation can lead to even the most well-intended actions yielding miserable consequences. As a result, it could be argued that there is a moral imperative for an agent to inform himself as much as possible about a situation before judging the appropriate course of action. This imperative, of course, is derived from consequential thinking: a better-informed agent is able to bring about better consequences.
CONSEQUENCES FOR WHOM
Surveyed consequences of whistleblowing
Moral action always has consequences for certain people or things. Varieties of consequentialism can be differentiated by the beneficiary of the good consequences. That is, one might ask "Consequences for whom?"
Agent-focused Or Agent-neutral
A fundamental distinction can be drawn between theories which require that agents act for ends perhaps disconnected from their own interests and drives, and theories which permit that agents act for ends in which they have some personal interest or motivation . These are called "agent-neutral" and "agent-focused" theories respectively.
Agent-neutral consequentialism ignores the specific value a state of affairs has for any particular agent. Thus, in an agent-neutral theory, an actor's personal goals do not count any more than anyone else's goals in evaluating what action the actor 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, the agent might be concerned with the general welfare, but the agent is more concerned with the immediate welfare of herself and her 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.
VALUE 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 utilitarianism , a good action is one that results in an increase in pleasure , and the best action is one that results in the most pleasure for the greatest number. 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". Other theories adopt a package of several goods, all to be promoted equally.
However, consequentialism and virtue ethics need not be entirely
The ultimate end is a concept in the moral philosophy of
We must be clear about the fact that all ethically oriented conduct may be guided by one of two fundamentally differing and irreconcilably opposed maxims: conduct can be oriented to an "ethic of ultimate ends" or to an "ethic of responsibility." This is not to say that an ethic of ultimate ends is identical with irresponsibility, or that an ethic of responsibility is identical with unprincipled opportunism. Naturally, nobody says that. However, there is an abysmal contrast between conduct that follows the maxim of an ethic of ultimate ends—that, is in religious terms, "the Christian does rightly and leaves the results with the Lord"—and conduct that follows the maxim of an ethic of responsibility, in which case one has to give an account of the foreseeable results of one's action. — Max Weber, Politics as a Vocation, 1918
The term "consequentialism" was coined by
G. E. M. Anscombe
G. E. M. Anscombe
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.
* R. M. Adams (born 1937)
Jonathan Baron (born 1944)
Doctrine of mental reservation
* ^ Mizzoni, John. Ethics: The Basics. John Wiley & Sons. p. 104.
* ^ Cambridge Dictionary: the end justifies the means
* ^ A B C D E F G H Scheffler, Samuel (Ed.) (1988).
* Darwall, Stephen (Ed.) (2002). Consequentialism. Oxford:
Blackwell. ISBN 978-0-631-23108-0 . CS1 maint: Extra text: authors
list (link )
* Goodman, Charles (2009). Consequences of Compassion: An
interpretation and Defense of Buddhist Ethics. Oxford: Oxford
University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-537519-0 .
* Honderich, Ted (2003). "Consequentialism, Moralities of Concern
* Portmore, Douglas W. (2011). Commonsense Consequentialism: Wherein
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