Historical Introduction to Philosophy/Consequentialism
Consequentialism is a moral theory and the belief that what ultimately matters is the morality of producing the right kinds of overall consequences. "Overall consequences" of an action mean the action itself and everything the action brings about. Thus, from a consequentialist's view, the morally right action is would be the action that produces good consequences. It is the results of the action that are looked at, not necessarily the means to produce the action. It is nearly impossible for anyone to come up a standard, universal definition of consequentialism, but by looking at its roots it is possible to create a clear picture of this moral theory. The majority of consequentialist theories focus on maximizing good states, while other theories follow the stance that agents should try to produce good consequences, even if they might not produce the best possible results. With regards to philosophers, some notable consequntialists are: [Jeremy Bentham], Henry Sedgwick, Peter Singer, and John Stewart Mill. We will later discuss many of these thinkers. Although there are several different forms of consequentialism, we will discuss the most prevalent in this course.
G.E.M. Anscombe coined the term "consequentialism" in 1958 in her essay "Moral Modern Philosophy." This theory's roots are in utilitarianism and since the 1960's, many writers have used the term "consequentialism" instead of "utilitarianism" for the view that the extent of the rightness of an action depends on the value of its consequences. Due to this distinction, utilitarianism is now used to describe different forms of consequentialism. Therefore, let's dicuss some of the many forms of consequentialism.
Types of Consequentialism[edit | edit source]
Plain Consequentialism- At any given moment, of all the things that a person could do, the morally right action is the one with the best overall consequences. So, if we were to decide that the good is happiness, the right action would be the action that caused the most happiness, more so than would have been caused by any other alternative action. A good example of this would be the rationality of setting speed limits, which takes into account accurately balancing many considerations.
Reasonable Consequentialism- An action would be morally right if and only if it has the best reasonably expected consequences.This says that for any of my actions to be right, I should first come to a conclusion that is reasonable about the consequences.
Dual Consequentialism- The word "right" is ambiguous in that it has a moral sense and an objective sense; the action with the best consequences is the objectively right action and any action with the best reasonably expected consequences is the morally right action.
Double Consequentialism- Again, the word "right" is ambiguous in that it has a moral sense and an objective sense; the action with the best consequences is the objectively right action and any action that can be reasonably estimated to be objectively right is the morally right action.The difference between dual consequentialism and double consequentialism is the idea of a morally right action. Whereas Dual Consequentialism discusses any action with the best reasonably expected consequences, Double Consequentialism talks about the morally right action that is estimated to be objectively right.
Rule Consequentialism- An action is morally right if and only if and only if it doesn't violate the set of rules of behavior that is generally accepted in the community as creating the best consequences- which is at least as good as any competing set of rules or no rules. With this theory, an action is not judged as being right or wrong by its own consequences; it is right or wrong depending on if it violates the collective rules that would carry the best consequences.
Agent-neutral Consequentialism- Ignores the specific values a state of affairs has on the agent. Therefore, when evaluating what action I should take, my own personal goals don't count more than anyone else's goals.
Agent- focused Consequentialism- Focus is on the needs of the agent; being more concerned with the immediate welfare of myself, my family and friends, than with the general welfare. Both of the agent-centered approaches focus on the interests of an agent as an individual and as having membership in different groups, thus acknowledging the tension from trying to balance everyone's interests. Personal interests or motivations reflect how agents may act for an ends disconnected to their own drives and interests.
Hedonistic Consequentialism- A good action is one that results in an increase in pleasure, and that the best action is one in which creates the most pleasure possible. In this case, the term "happiness" refers to the maximization of pleasure and the minimization of pain. This form of consequentialism emphasizes the collective happiness; the happiness of everyone and the not happiness of a particular person.
What is a Consequence?[edit | edit source]
As was mentioned above, in consequentialism the consequences of an action include everything the action brings about, which includes the action itself. The consequences of an action include 1) everything the action causes and 2) the action itself. In most theories of consequentialism, the focus is on the moral quality of actions, and intentional actions are the actions that can be morally right or wrong. In this context, intentional actions are things that we do deliberately. Therefore, it could be understood that most consequences of most actions are not actual outcomes, but merely probabilities of outcomes. In many cases, the very concept of a consequence varies. Some writers may even include the performance of an action into the consequence and that performing an act is one of the consequences of the end result. On the same note, some claim that rather than moral rightness depending on actual consequences, it depends on foreseen/foreseeable, intended, or likely consequences. So, if a bad consequence is foreseeable and a person still performs the action to produce the bad consequence, then that person is morally wrong. Objective consequentialism is the name given to moral theories that focus on actual or fairly likely consequences. Adversely, subjective consequentialism focuses on intentional or anticipated consequences.
Consequentialists[edit | edit source]
Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) is best known as an early advocate of utilitarianism- the roots of conseqentialism. Not only did Bentham propose numerous political and legal reforms, he also pronounced a moral principle on which the reforms would be based. He argued that the best action or policy is one that would cause the "greatest happiness of the greatest number." Soon, Bentham primarily focused on what he called "the greatest happiness principle", which is commonly referred to as the principle of utility.Bentham's principal of utility- an act is right if and only if it tends to maximize the net overbalancing sum total of pleasure over pain for all parties concerned. There are a few allowable interpretations of Bentham's principle and it can be understood in two definite ways: the first being a guide for decision to decide what action to take, and the second being a guide for the evaluation of an action- yours or someone else's. Also, if the principle is used as a guide for decision-making, it provokes the objection that there is not a large enough time frame to consider all of the consequences before acting. Also, some interpretations examine other things besides acts, such as rules or attitudes and others annote the usage of the word "right" and instead use the words "obligation" or "duty".
John Stuart Mill ( 1806-1873) was a student of Bentham and also an advocate of Utilitarianism. Mill' s interpretation of "the greatest happiness principle" is hedonistic in nature; it states that there is a hierarchy of pleasures, which means that the pursuit of specific kinds of pleasure is of higher value than the pursuit of other pleasures. Whereas Bentham treats every form of happiness as being equal, Mill contends that moral and intellectual pleasures are preferable to the ones that are more physical forms of pleasure. Mill also claims that "happiness" is of more value than "contentment".
Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900) was an English philosopher as well as a Utilitarian who held views that were along the same lines of Bentham and Mill. The position that Sidgwick adopted was one that can be described as ethical hedonism; the illustration of goodness in any action is that it produces the greatest amount of pleasure possible.This hedonism is not limited to the self, but extends to the pleasure of others, which would make the principle universalistic.
Peter Singer (1946- ) is a more modern utilitarian thinker and has turned his ideas about universalization into a form of utilitarianism. Singer argues "on the strength of my thought that my own interests cannot count for more than the interests of others." Singer also advocates the principle that it is morally required to abandon a small pleasure to alleviate someone else's considerable pain.
Criticisms of Consequentialism: Consequentialism has been heavily criticized in the past. One of the major arguments, made by G.E.M. Anscombe, against it is that the moral theories of consequentialism hold agents accountable for unintended consequences of their actions, which in turn, questions the moral character of the agents involved. Bernard Williams Another major argument is that consequentialism estranges the agent because they are left to put too much distance between themselves and their own commitments and duties.