Doctrine that the moral lightness of an act or policy depends entirely on its consequences; the moral goodness of the agent depending on the act’s expected or intended consequences.

This is one form of teleology, utilitarianism is one form of consequentialism.

Objections include the apparent moral counterintuitiveness of many consequentialist prescriptions, especially in connection with justice, reward and punishment, and with the difficulties in deciding what the consequences of an action are.

Also see: deontology

P Foot, ‘Utilitarianism and the Virtues’, Mind (1985); with discussion by S Scheffler

Consequentialism is a class of normative, teleological ethical theories that holds 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. Consequentialism, along with eudaimonism, falls under the broader category of teleological ethics, a group of views which claim that the moral value of any act consists in its tendency to produce things of intrinsic value.[1] Consequentialists hold in general that an act is right if and only if the act (or on some views, the rule under which it falls) will produce, will probably produce, or is intended to produce, a greater balance of good over evil than any available alternative. Different consequentialist theories differ in how they define moral goods, with chief candidates including pleasure, the absence of pain, the satisfaction of one’s preferences, and broader notions of the “general good”.

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.

Some argue that consequentialist theories (such as utilitarianism) and deontological theories (such as Kantian ethics) 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.[2] Similarly, Robert Nozick argued for a theory that is mostly consequentialist, but incorporates inviolable “side-constraints” which restrict the sort of actions agents are permitted to do.[2] Derek Parfit argued that in practice, when understood properly, rule consequentialism, Kantian deontology and contractualism would all end up prescribing the same behavior.

Forms of consequentialism


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

In summary, Jeremy Bentham states that people are driven by their interests and their fears, but their interests take precedence over their fears; their interests are carried out in accordance with how people view the consequences that might be involved with their interests. Happiness, in this account, is defined as the maximization of pleasure and the minimization of pain. It can be argued that the existence of phenomenal consciousness and “qualia” is required for the experience of pleasure or pain to have an ethical significance.[4][5]

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.[6] 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.

Rule consequentialism

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 consequentialism with deontology, or rules-based ethics[7]—and in some cases, this is stated as a criticism of rule consequentialism.[8] 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 has. 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 held that a certain set of minimal rules, which he calls “side-constraints,” are necessary to ensure appropriate actions.[2] 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 that recognizes the importance of certain rules, but these rules are not absolute.[2] 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 results).

In Ideal Code, Real World, Brad Hooker avoids this objection by not basing his form of rule-consequentialism on the ideal of maximizing the good. He writes:[9]

[T]he 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 Hooker’s book as the “best statement and defence, so far, of one of the most important moral theories.”[10]

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.[11]

— Mozi, Mozi (5th century BC) Part I

State consequentialism, also known as Mohist consequentialism,[12] is an ethical theory that evaluates the moral worth of an action based on how much it contributes to the welfare of a state.[12] 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 welfare.”[13]

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.”[14] During the time of Mozi, war and famine 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 “order” refers to Mozi’s stance against warfare and violence, which he viewed as pointless and a threat to social stability.[15] In The Cambridge History of Ancient China, Stanford sinologist David Shepherd Nivison 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.”[14]

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.[16] The term state consequentialism has also been applied to the political philosophy of the Confucian philosopher Xunzi.[17] On the other hand, “legalist” Han Fei “is motivated almost totally from the ruler’s point of view.”[18]

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 inevitably decrease.[19]

Ethical altruism

Ethical altruism can be seen as a consequentialist theory which prescribes that an individual take actions that have the best consequences for everyone except for himself.[20] This was advocated by Auguste Comte, who coined the term altruism, and whose ethics can be summed up in the phrase “Live for others.”[21]

Two-level consequentialism

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.[22]

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.[22]

The two-level approach to consequentialism is most often associated with R. M. Hare and Peter Singer.[22]

Motive consequentialism

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 judgments if the motivation was to do good.[23]

Negative consequentialism

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.[24]

Often “negative” consequentialist theories assert that reducing suffering is more important than increasing pleasure. Karl Popper, for example, claimed that “from the moral point of view, pain cannot be outweighed by pleasure.”[25] (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).

Acts and omissions

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.

Actualism and possibilism

The normative status of an action depends on its consequences according to consequentialism. The consequences of the actions of an agent may include other actions by this agent. Actualism and possibilism disagree on how later possible actions impact the normative status of the current action by the same agent. Actualists assert that it is only relevant what the agent would actually do later for assessing the value of an alternative. Possibilists, on the other hand, hold that we should also take into account what the agent could do, even if she wouldn’t do it.[26][27][28][29]

For example, assume that Gifre has the choice between two alternatives, eating a cookie or not eating anything. Having eaten the first cookie, Gifre could stop eating cookies, which is the best alternative. But after having tasted one cookie, Gifre would freely decide to continue eating cookies until the whole bag is finished, which would result in a terrible stomach ache and would be the worst alternative. Not eating any cookies at all, on the other hand, would be the second-best alternative. Now the question is: should Gifre eat the first cookie or not? Actualists are only concerned with the actual consequences. According to them, Gifre should not eat any cookies at all since it is better than the alternative leading to a stomach ache. Possibilists, however, contend that the best possible course of action involves eating the first cookie and this is therefore what Gifre should do.[30]

One counterintuitive consequence of actualism is that agents can avoid moral obligations simply by having an imperfect moral character.[26][28] For example, a lazy person might justify rejecting a request to help a friend by arguing that, due to her lazy character, she wouldn’t have done the work anyway, even if she had accepted the request. By rejecting the offer right away, she managed at least not to waste anyone’s time. Actualists might even consider her behavior praiseworthy since she did what, according to actualism, she ought to have done. This seems to be a very easy way to “get off the hook” that is avoided by possibilism. But possibilism has to face the objection that in some cases it sanctions and even recommends what actually leads to the worst outcome.[26][31]

Douglas W. Portmore has suggested that these and other problems of actualism and possibilism can be avoided by constraining what counts as a genuine alternative for the agent.[32] On his view, it is a requirement that the agent has rational control over the event in question. For example, eating only one cookie and stopping afterward only is an option for Gifre if she has the rational capacity to repress her temptation to continue eating. If the temptation is irrepressible then this course of action is not considered to be an option and is therefore not relevant when assessing what the best alternative is. Portmore suggests that, given this adjustment, we should prefer a view very closely associated with possibilism called maximalism

One thought on “Consequentialism

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