What is consequentialism?

Consequentialism is the twentieth century version of nineteenth century utilitarianism. The utilitarian moral system held that we should act so that the greatest pleasure

In novels like Atlas Shrugged author Ayn Rand put forth her ideas that people should selfishly pursue their own happiness (AP).

In novels like Atlas Shrugged author Ayn Rand put forth her ideas that people should selfishly pursue their own happiness (AP).

or happiness for the greatest number results, with everyone counting for one and no one counting for more than one. G.E. Moore's (1873-1958) ideal utilitarianism specified that the goods we should seek as the result of our actions are aesthetic experiences and relations of friendship.

Consequentialism is a more general form of utilitarianism that holds that we should act so as to bring about the best consequences, or act to maximize the results. Contemporary consequentialists often speak of "preference-satisfaction" as the ultimate consequence that has intrinsic value. (Preference satisfaction is getting what one wants.) There is also discussion about the distribution of consequences, whether it is better that all involved get equal shares or whether it is sufficient if the total good or average good is increased.

Act consequentialism specifies that we should do the action that has the best consequences, and rule consequentialism specifies that we should do the action that is an instance of the rule that has the best consequences.

All of these issues and others have been discussed in J.J.C. Smart (1920-) and Bernard Williams' (1929-2003) Utilitarianism: For and Against (1973) and Samuel Scheffler's (1951-) The Rejection of Consequentialism (1994). There have also been attempts to relate consequentialism to ordinary language philosophy, most notably by R. Hare (1919-2002).

Who was R. Hare?

Richard Mervyn Hare (1919-2002) was a professor of moral philosophy at Oxford University, and he later taught at the University of Florida. In his The Language of Morals (1992) he argued for the prescriptive nature of moral judgments and their "universalizability," or ability to be generalized.

In Freedom and Reason (1963) and Moral Thinking, Its Levels, Method, and Point (1981), Hare held that ethical concepts are used according to logical rules that support the truth of utilitarianism. The utilitarianism propounded by Hare was "two-tier," providing for both act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism. Act utilitarianism requires that we do singular actions that will result in the best consequences, whereas rule utilitarianism requires that we follow rules that will result in the best consequences.

Have some philosophers criticized consequentialism?

Elizabeth Anscombe (1910-2001) in a 1958 article, "Modern Moral Philosophy," coined the term "consequentialism" when she criticized twentieth century versions of utilitarianism that did not distinguish between intended and unintended consequences. Anscombe argued that only intended consequences have moral value.

Anscombe is also famous for her defense of Thomas Aquinas' (c. 1225-1274) doctrine of double effect (DDE). According to DDE, an action is morally permissible if it

What is applied ethics?

Applied ethics is the study of existing ethical principles in practical fields of human endeavor, such as medicine, engineering, business, law, and environmentalism. Applied ethics also extends to new moral rules for new situations, such as the rights of airline passengers and disaster victims, moral issues involved in human cloning, and consumer protection. In this sense, applied ethics is practical ethics—it is a study of ethics of practice.

In addition, applied ethics can be more critical as it applies theoretical moral systems and moral theories to practices and fields outside of philosophy. Existing rules and behavior in a given field may be theoretically justified or criticized by philosophical ethicists. In some cases, new moral directions may emerge. Environmental ethics is a good example of the theoretical dimension of applied ethics.

has known bad consequences but it is not the intention or goal of the person performing the action to bring about those consequences. In Jesuit moral reasoning about performing craniotomies (operations to crush a baby's skull so that the baby can be extracted to save its mother's life), DDE has been used. If it is not the obstetrician's goal to kill the baby but merely to extract it, craniotomies are deemed permissible.

Anscombe provided this example: say she meets her mortal enemy on a cliff. If her enemy falls off because she accidentally falls against him, she is blameless, even though the unintended effect of the enemy's death is welcome to her (after the fact).

Others have criticized the ways in which consequentialism seems to ignore issues of justice in cases where an unjust act or even a human sacrifice might serve to maximize benefits for others.

How have consequentialists responded to criticism?

Some consequentialists, such as philosophy professor and author Kai Neilsen (1926-), have simply bitten the bullet and asserted that whatever saves the most lives is good. Neilson is famous for his 1972 article in Ethics, "In Defense of Utilitarianism," which provides the example of a fat man wedged in a cave; the waters are rising and his companions are trapped behind him. Nielsen asserts that if the fat man were humanely dispatched by an exploding stick of dynamite (conveniently on the scene) there is no violation of morality.

Consequentialists have responded to the criticism of being unjust by claiming that rule consequentialism can allow for justice because a just rule will result in better consequences, and in the long run unjust behavior will fail to improve people's lives. For example, in an immediate situation a doctor might sacrifice a healthy patient so that six others who need organ transplants may live. But the rule followed in the sacrifice of the healthy patient would undermine confidence in doctors, and in the long term more harm than good would result from killing the healthy patient.

Others have pointed out the obvious problem of calculating consequences in the future. Another strong objection to consequentialism, voiced by Bernard Williams (1919-2003), is that the focus on results with everyone counting the same undermines the integrity of an agent by ignoring the importance of personal projects to that agent. In a famous example, Williams imagines that a traveler is asked to kill one Indian to save nine more from being shot. He argues that the consequentialist approach violates the importance to the traveler of his own moral identity as someone who does not kill others.

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