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.
Consequentialism is primarily non-prescriptive, meaning the moral
worth of an action is determined by its potential consequence, not by
whether it follows a set of written edicts or laws. One example would
entail lying under the threat of government punishment to save an
innocent person's life, even though it is illegal to lie under oath.
Consequentialism is usually contrasted with deontological ethics (or
deontology), in that deontology, in which rules and moral duty are
central, derives the rightness or wrongness of one's conduct from the
character of the behaviour itself rather than the outcomes of the
conduct. It is also contrasted with virtue ethics, which focuses on
the character of the agent rather than on the nature or consequences
of the act (or omission) itself, and pragmatic ethics which treats
morality like science: advancing socially over the course of many
lifetimes, such that any moral criterion is subject to revision.
Consequentialist theories differ in how they define moral goods.
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.
1.1 State consequentialism
1.3 Ethical egoism
1.4 Ethical altruism
1.5 Rule consequentialism
1.6 Two-level consequentialism
1.7 Motive consequentialism
1.8 Negative consequentialism
1.9 Teleological ethics
1.10 Acts and omissions, and the "act and omissions doctrine"
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
2.3 Value of consequences
2.5 Ultimate end
5 Notable consequentialists
6 See also
8 Further reading
9 External links
Main article: State consequentialism
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 (5th century BC) Part I
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
the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Mohist consequentialism,
dating back to the 5th century BCE, is the "world's earliest form of
consequentialism, a remarkably sophisticated version based on a
plurality of intrinsic goods taken as constitutive of human
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 Mozi's era,
war and famines were common, and population growth was seen as a moral
necessity for a harmonious society. The "material wealth" of Mohist
consequentialism refers to basic needs like shelter and clothing, and
the "order" of
Mohist consequentialism refers to Mozi's stance against
warfare and violence, which he viewed as pointless and a threat to
social stability. Stanford sinologist David Shepherd Nivison, in
The Cambridge History of Ancient China, writes that the moral goods of
Mohism "are interrelated: more basic wealth, then more reproduction;
more people, then more production and wealth... if people have plenty,
they would be good, filial, kind, and so on unproblematically".
The Mohists believed that morality is based on "promoting the benefit
of all under heaven and eliminating harm to all under heaven". In
contrast to Jeremy Bentham's views, state consequentialism is not
utilitarian because it is not hedonistic or individualistic. The
importance of outcomes that are good for the community outweigh the
importance of individual pleasure and pain. The term state
consequentialism has also been applied to the political philosophy of
the Confucian philosopher Xunzi.
On the other hand, the "Legalist" Han Fei "is motivated almost totally
from the ruler's point of view".
Main article: Utilitarianism
Jeremy Bentham, best known for his advocacy of utilitarianism
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
Jeremy Bentham states that people are driven by their
interests and their fears, but their interests take precedence over
their fears, and their interests are carried out in accordance with
how people view the consequences that might be involved with their
interests. "Happiness" on this account is defined as the maximization
of pleasure and the minimization of pain. Historically, hedonistic
utilitarianism is the paradigmatic example of a consequentialist moral
theory. 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. However, some contemporary
utilitarians, such as Peter Singer, are concerned with maximizing the
satisfaction of preferences, hence "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 will prescribe
actions that may be beneficial, detrimental, or neutral to the welfare
of others. Some, like Henry Sidgwick, argue that a certain degree of
egoism promotes the general welfare of society for two reasons:
because individuals know how to please themselves best, and because if
everyone were an austere altruist then general welfare would
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 Auguste Comte, who coined the term "altruism," and whose ethics can
be summed up in the phrase "Live for others".
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
Amartya Sen proposes a theory that 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.
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
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
The two-level approach to consequentialism is most often associated
R. M. Hare and Peter Singer.
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
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
Often "negative" consequentialist theories assert that reducing
suffering is more important than increasing pleasure. Karl Popper, for
example, claimed "…from the moral point of view, pain cannot be
outweighed by pleasure...". (While Popper is not a consequentialist
per se, this is taken as a classic statement of negative
utilitarianism.) When considering a theory of justice, negative
consequentialists may use a statewide or global-reaching principle:
the reduction of suffering (for the disadvantaged) is more valuable
than increased pleasure (for the affluent or luxurious).
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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. The saying, "the end
justifies the means", meaning that if a goal is morally important
enough, any method of achieving it is acceptable.
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, an influential liberal thinker of the 19th century
and a teacher of utilitarianism
Utilitarian-type theories hold that the end consists in an experience
or feeling produced by the action. Hedonism, for example, teaches that
this feeling is pleasure—either one's own, as in egoism (the
17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes), or everyone's, as in
universalistic hedonism, or utilitarianism (the 19th-century English
philosophers Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Henry Sidgwick),
with its formula of the "greatest pleasure of the greatest
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 Herbert Spencer); the experience of power, as in
despotism; satisfaction and adjustment, as in pragmatism (20th-century
Ralph Barton Perry and John Dewey); and freedom,
as in existentialism (the 20th-century French philosopher Jean-Paul
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
Jesus die while the wicked prosper, then seems
unjust. Eudaemonists generally reply that the universe is moral and
that, in Socrates' words, "No evil can happen to a good man, either in
life or after death," or, in Jesus' words, "But he who endures to the
end will be saved." (Matt 10:22).
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
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
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.[citation
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
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. Jeremy Bentham, who is
regarded as the founder of utilitarianism, argues that animals can
experience pleasure and pain, thus demanding that 'non-human animals'
should be a serious object of moral concern. 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, any more than it necessarily implies identical
treatment of all humans.
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
Consequentialism can also be contrasted with aretaic moral theories
such as virtue ethics. Whereas consequentialist theories posit that
consequences of action should be the primary focus of our thinking
about ethics, 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 and importance of moral character. For example,
Philippa Foot argues that consequences in themselves have no ethical
content, unless it has been provided by a virtue such as
However, consequentialism and virtue ethics need not be entirely
Iain King has developed an approach which
reconciles the two schools. Other consequentialists consider
effects on the character of people involved in an action when
assessing consequence. 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 that
argues that virtuous activity ultimately produces the best
consequences.[clarification needed]
The ultimate end is a concept in the moral philosophy of Max Weber, in
which individuals act in a faithful, rather than rational,
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 in her essay "Modern Moral Philosophy" in 1958, to describe
what she saw as the central error of certain moral theories, such as
those propounded by Mill and Sidgwick.
The phrase and concept of "The end justifies the means" are at least
as old as the first century BC.
Ovid wrote in his
Heroides that Exitus
acta probat "The result justifies the deed".
G. E. M. Anscombe
G. E. M. Anscombe objects to consequentialism on the grounds that it
does not provide ethical guidance in what one ought to do because
there is no distinction between consequences that are foreseen and
those that are intended.[full citation needed]
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 are 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 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.
R. M. Adams (born 1937)
Jonathan Baron (born 1944)
Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832)
Richard B. Brandt (1910–1997)
John Dewey (1857–1952)
Milton Friedman (1912–2006)
William Godwin (1756–1836)
R. M. Hare (1919–2002)
Sam Harris (author)
Sam Harris (author) (born 1967)
John Harsanyi (1920–2000)
Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746)
Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527)
James Mill (1773–1836)
John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill (1806–1873)
G. E. Moore
G. E. Moore (1873–1958)
Mozi (470–391 BCE)
Philip Pettit (born 1945)
Peter Railton (born 1950)
Henry Sidgwick (1838–1900)
Peter Singer (born 1946)
J. J. C. Smart
J. J. C. Smart (1920–2012)
Doctrine of mental reservation
Lesser of two evils principle
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Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Deontology and Ethical Ends
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