Introduction to Consequentialism

Author: Shane Gronholz
Category: Ethics
Word Count: 1000

1. Consequences Matter

Think about something you did today. Chances are, you did it because you wanted to make something happen, to accomplish some goal, to achieve some end, to bring about certain consequences. It could have been an important end: maybe you gave someone CPR to save their life. Or it could have been relatively insignificant: maybe you had Cap’n Crunch cereal for breakfast because you knew you would enjoy it.

Upon reflection, it starts to seem as though everything we do is to bring about some consequence. What does it mean to bring about a consequence? This is a way of changing the world, in a small or a large way: I want the world to be thus-and-so, but it’s not currently thus-and-so, so I will perform this action.

We often, maybe always, do things to bring about certain consequences.1 Why would you do anything if you didn’t think it was going to have some result?2

If all our actions are done for the sake of bringing about some consequence, and the consequences are ultimately what we care about, then it makes sense to judge actions, that is, to determine the moral status of actions (e.g., wrong, permissible, obligatory), by their consequences.

This view is known as consequentialism: that the consequences of an action are all that matter in moral assessment. What should we do, according to consequentialism? Consequentialists typically argue that we are obligated to do whatever action has the best overall consequences, for all who are affected by the action. 

Consequences do seem to dominate our moral thinking. Why should I donate to a charity? Because people in need will be made better off. Why is it wrong to vandalize property? Because you will likely make the space uglier, and it would be costly to fix it. It’s difficult to think of an immoral action that has no bad consequences. Why is lying often wrong? Because if I lie, it might cause you to not trust me in the future, or it might hurt your feelings were you to find out. But many of us think that if a lie would truly be harmless, with no bad consequences, then there wouldn’t be anything wrong with it. That is just what a “white lie” is, and many of us think there is usually nothing wrong with white lies.

2. Problems for Consequentialism

While consequentialism sounds appealing at the outset, it has some troubling implications. If you’ve ever said, “The ends do not justify the means,” you were expressing a non-consequentialist sentiment. There are many actions that consequentialism entails are perfectly fine, or even obligatory, that many people think are very wrong.

Suppose your friend, on her deathbed, makes you promise to spread her ashes in the Rocky Mountains. After her death, you realize it would be much more convenient to simply flush her ashes down the toilet. You would save a lot of time and money, and no one would be harmed. Since this act appears to have no bad consequences, consequentialism entails there would be nothing wrong with this. But most of us think there would be.

Another example: five “A-list” celebrities need transplant organs, or they will soon die. No viable organs have been found so far, but while reviewing your medical records for a routine physical, doctors notice that your organs are perfect matches. A plan is hatched to kill you, in secret, making it look like an accident, to save the celebrities. This is thought to be an overall better consequence than your living and the five celebrities dying, and their millions of fans devastated. It’s hard to see how a consequentialist could explain how this is wrong. And yet, we tend to think this would be profoundly wrong.

There are many more examples philosophers have considered. I invite you to try to think of some of your own.

How might a consequentialist respond to these cases? One strategy is to show that, in fact, these actions will have bad consequences. Perhaps your friend’s mother will find out what you did with her daughter’s ashes. You might be good at keeping secrets, but keeping secrets is mentally and emotionally taxing. And suppose someone found out that the hospital killed an unsuspecting patient. That would have terrible consequences: fewer sick people would visit hospitals now, for fear of being killed.

But these are fairly weak responses. We can sometimes be pretty certain our actions won’t have any bad consequences.3 In that case, the consequentialist must admit that flushing the ashes down the toilet was the right thing to do. But perhaps that’s not so bad. If nothing bad whatsoever follows from your action, why not do it after all? No harm, no foul. This response is more satisfying in some cases than others. It might satisfy some in the ashes case, but it’s much less satisfying when it comes to killing innocent people.

3. Rule-Consequentialism

Another way to avoid these problems is to resort to rule-consequentialism.4 According to rule consequentialism, we should not simply perform the individual action that will produce good consequences. Instead, we should follow rules that, when followed, lead to good consequences.

For example, in general, torture has terrible consequences. Always following the rule “do not torture” would have good consequences,5 so we should follow that rule, even if there could be cases of torture that do not have the terrible consequences torture tends to have.

But this view has a major problem. If what you care about are indeed the consequences, and you realize you could bring about better consequences by breaking the rule, why would you continue to abide by the rule? This view seems to undercut its very motivation.

4. Conclusion

Consequentialism initially seems a promising and intuitive moral theory, but it can yield strange moral results. This might show that consequentialism is false, or that consequences aren’t all that matter in moral assessment. Or maybe consequentialism is true after all, and true morality doesn’t always jibe with our everyday intuitions.

Notes

Of course, sometimes we’re bad at anticipating the consequences of our actions. Maybe I make a bad investment because I am shortsighted. But even in that case, I was thinking about the consequences (getting more money) – I just wasn’t doing a very good job of predicting the consequences.

This has led some thinkers, such as John Stuart Mill, to reason, “All action is for the sake of some end, and rules of action, it seems natural to suppose, must take their whole character and colour from the end to which they are subservient.”

For example: Maybe your friend has no other loved ones, so there is no one who would know about what you did, no one who would get upset, no one from whom you would have to keep it secret.

The view we have been discussing so far is known as act-consequentialism.

Or would at least avoid bad consequences.

References

Benthan, Jeremy, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1823).

Mill, John Stuart, Utilitarianism (1861).

Moore, G. E., Principia Ethicia (1903).

Ross, W. D., The Right and the Good. Ed. Philip Stratton-Lake. Oxford: Clarendon (2002).

Sidgwick, Henry, The Methods of Ethics (1874).

Related Essays 

Introduction to Deontology: Kantian Ethics by Andrew Chapman

The Repugnant Conclusion by Jonathan Spelman

John Rawls’ ‘A Theory of Justice’ by Ben Davies

About the Author

Shane has a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He holds an M.A. in philosophy from the University of Colorado, Boulder and a B.A. from Whitworth University where he double majored in philosophy and religion. Shane is interested in metaethics, ethical theory, practical rationality, and philosophy of religion. He lives in Denver with his wife (Stephanie), son (Maxwell), and dog (Benny). https://trivialorfalse.com

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