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Consequentialism is a moral theory that holds that what ultimately counts in evaluating actions or policies of action are the consequences that result from the particular action or policy pursued.


  • 1 Defining consequentialism
  • 2 Varieties of consequentialism
    • 2.1 Consequences for whom
    • 2.2 What kinds of consequences
    • 2.3 Consequentialism contrasted with other moral theories
  • 3 Criticisms of Consequentialism
  • 4 Bibliography
  • 5 Famous Consequentialists
  • 6 See also
  • 7 External links

Defining consequentialism

Consequentialism, as its name suggests, is primarily concerned with evaluating activities with respect to their results (their "consequences"). After this, what precisely constitutes "consequentialism" is the subject of a great deal of debate among philosophers.

Following Broome (Weighing Goods: Equality, Uncertainty and Time, Blackwell,1991), it is common to hold that a moral theory counts as Consequentialism if and only if it fulfills two conditions:

  1. Teleology
  2. Agent-neutrality

Consequentialism is teleological due to its goal-oriented nature. It focuses on the outcomes of actions, emphasizing the ends over that of the means. In other words, it is concerned with the results of activity.

Consequentialism is considered agent-neutral when it holds that value is a 1-place predicate of the form "x is valuable" as opposed to the 2-place predicate "x is valuable for y". In other words, when it ignores the specific value given to an action by a partiular agent.

Not all "agent-neutral" consequentialist theories demand total agent neutrality. For example, it is probably a better thing (on at least some accounts) to feed someone who is starving than to feed someone who has more than enough to eat. More classically, Millproposed a hierarchy of pleasures, with the result that a better state of affairs maybe produced by more people pursuing philosophy, even if this lead to an increase in a minor inconvenience (the indubtable headaches that would follow).

This leaves open two questions which most Consequentialist theories need to consider

  1. What determines the value of a certain resultant state of affairs?
  2. What is the precise relationship between "good" and "right"?

Hedonistic-Utilitarianism can serve as an example of a Consequentialist moral theory. It holds that right action stems from the maximization of happiness for all agents. Further, happiness is defined as the maximization of pleasure and the minimization of pain. Thus, in answer to (1), it holds that the resulting happiness determines the value of any action, and in answer to (2), that what is "good" (happiness) determines what is "right" (an action which produces happiness).

Varieties of consequentialism

Consequences for whom

Kinds of consequentialism--in a broad sense of "consequentialism" that not all philosophers would countenance--can be distinguished by the subject who is supposed to enjoy the consequences. That is, one might ask "Consequences for whom?"

Ethical / Moral Egoism can be understood as individualist consequentialism according to which the consequences for the agent herself are taken to matter most. In utilitarianism, on the other hand the consequences for a larger group (humanity perhaps, or all sentient beings) are of the greater import.

These views, while both concerned with the consequences of actions, can differ starkly in reasoning or moral guidance. Egoism may license actions which are good for the agent, but are detrimental to general welfare. Group-centered consequentialism may license actions that are good for the whole but harmful for individuals. A conciliatory approach is to acknowledge the tension between an agent's interests as an individual and as a member of various groups, seeking to optimize among all of them. In other words, it can be meaningful to speak of an action as being good for me as an individual but bad for me as a citizen of my town.

Some would say that we should not limit our consideration to the interests of human beings. For example, some environmentalistsand ecocentristsseem to hold that the entire environment or ecosystem to be the relevant patient of consequences. The entire universe might be the subject, the best action being the one that brings the most value into the universe, whatever that value might be. In the case of systems ecology, that value is understood as empower.

What kinds of consequences

Another way to divide consequentialism is by the kind of consequences that are taken to matter most. The most popular form of consequentialism is hedonic consequentialism, according to which a good consequence is one that produces net pleasure, and the best consequence is one that produces more net pleasure than any of the alternatives. Closely related is eudaimonic consequentialism, according to which full, flourishing happiness (which may or may not be the same as enjoying a great deal of pleasure) is the aim. Hedonismis closely related.

One might, however, fix on some non-psychological good as the preferred consequence of actions. For instance, certain ideologies seem to be consequentialist with regard to material equalityor political liberty, regarding gains in these things as desirable in themselves, regardless of other consequences.

One might also adopt a beauty consequentialism, in which the ultimate aim is to produce beauty. Similarly, one might find nothing of greater gravity than the production of knowledge.

One can also assemble packages of goods, all to be promoted equally. Since in this case there is 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.

Consequentialism contrasted with other moral theories

Consequentialism is often contrasted with deontology. Deontological theories tend to focus on kinds of actions rather than the particular consequences of those actions. However, this distinction may be primarily one of emphasis. Some forms of consequentialism are somewhat deontological, implicitly demanding that we have a duty to produce certain kinds of consequences. From the other side, even paradigmatic deontological theories, such as Kant's, do not disregard consequences entirely. After all, it is difficult to find a theory that posits an intrinsic good (such as the autonomous will in Kant) in which it is not better to have more of the intrinsic good.

Consequentialism can also be contrasted with aretaicmoral theories such as virtue ethics. But one must be careful here as well. Consequentialist theories can consider character in several ways:

  1. Effects on character are consequences.
  2. A consequentialist theory can ask the question, "What kind of virtues will produce the best consequences?"
  3. Perhaps the maximization of virtue (or a particular virtue) is itself the goal.

However, whereas consequentialist theories, by definition, posit that consequences of action should be the primary focus of moral theories, aretaic moral theory insists that character rather than the consequences of actions should be the focal point.

A more fundamental distinction might be between theories that demand that agents act for ends in which they have some personal interestand motivation(actually or counterfactually) and theories that demand that agents act for ends perhaps disconnected from their own interests and drives. However, different theories of consequentialism differ on this issue.

Criticisms of Consequentialism

Consequentialism has been criticized on several counts. According to G.E. Moorein 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?"

Similarly, consequentialism can fall into the trap of not valuing the individual at all. A classic example is this: there are five terminally ill patients in the hospital, but they all could be saved if the doctor were to kill a different patient (presumably for that patient's vital organs). Is the doctor justified in doing so? Of course, these sort of examples run the risk of being grossly unlike most real events, but they can have troublesome results.

A variation on this theme is proposed by Peter Railton, who suggests that completely agent-neutral consequentialism, that is a moral theory that demands that we focus on "the greater good" even at the expense of our own good is ultimately alienating (and, indeed, irrational). However, he suggests that this only means that consequentialism needs to take into account agent-centered goals as well as agent-neutral goals.


  • Samuel Scheffler, The Rejection of Consequentialism: A Philosophical Investigation of the Considerations Underlying Rival Moral Conceptions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994) ISBN 0198235119.
  • Consequentialism and Its Critics, edited by Samuel Scheffler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988) ISBN 0198750730.
  • Consequentialism, edited by Stephen Darwall (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002) ISBN 0631231080.

Famous Consequentialists

  • Jeremy Bentham
  • John Stuart Mill
  • Henry Sidgwick
  • Amartya Sen

See also

  • Ethics
  • Egoism
  • Utilitarianism
  • Ethical fitnessism
  • Deontology
  • Virtue ethics
  • Altruism (ethical doctrine)

External links

  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
    • Consequentialism
    • Rule Consequentialism
  • Utiliarianism Resourcesfi:Teleologinen etiikka
Retrieved from "http://en.wikipedia.org/Consequentialism"

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