HomePage | RecentChanges | Preferences

The notion that what ultimately matters in evaluating actions or policies of action is the consequences that result.

Consequentialism is sometimes conflated with UtilitarianIsm?, which is a mistake, as UtilitarianIsm? is but one kind of consequentialism. 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?" EgoIsm? can be understood as individualist consequentialism according to which the consequences for the agent herself is taken to matter most. Utilitarianism, on the other hand, can be understood as collectivist consequentialism according to which the consequences for some large group (humanity perhaps, or the sum of sentient beings) is of the greatest moment. These views, while both consequentialist, can be in stark contrast. Individualist consequentialism may license actions which are good for the agent, but are deleterious to general welfare. Collectivist consequentialism may license actions that are good for the collectivity but deadly for individuals. Some environmentalists seem to take 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.

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. However, one might fix on some non-psychological good as the preferred consequence of actions. For instance, certain ideologues seem to be consequentialists with regard to material equality or 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 is often contrasted with deontologism. However, this may be mistaken. Many forms of consequentialism at bottom are deontological, demanding that we simply have a duty to produce a certain kind of consequence, whether or not that kind of consequence personally moves us. And even paradigmatic deontological theories, such as Kant's, at times seem consequentialistic. For instance, one might argue that for Kant, the more expression of rational nature, or the good will, the better. It is difficult to find a theory that posits an intrinsic good (such as the good will in Kant)in which it is not better to have more of the intrinsic good. A more fundamental distinction is between theories that demand that agents act for ends in which they have some personal interest and motivation (actually or counterfactually) and theories that demand that agents act for ends perhaps disconnected from their interests and drives. - WillWilkinson

Your account of consequentialism seems a little unusual. For starters, I don't think egoism is normally considered to be a kind of consquentialism. For example, in Consequentialism and its critics, the editor Samuel Scheffler starts off by saying that

Consequentialism in its purest and simplest form is a moral doctrine which says that the right act in any given situation is the one that will produce the best overall outcome, as judged from an impersonal standpoint which gives equal weight to the interests of everyone. Somewhat more precisely, we may think of a consequentialist theory of this kind as coming in two parts. First, it gives some principle for ranking overall states of affairs from an impersonal standpoint and then it says that the right act in any given situation is the one that will produce the highest ranked state of affairs that the agent is in a position to produce. (emphasis added).

There may be a few people who talk differently, but this certainly appears to be the standard conception of consequentialism (the less "pure" forms alluded to presumably being indirect forms of consequentialism, or views where the welfare of some individuals (but still individuals impersonally considered) are considered to be more important (as in, for example, the kind of consequentialism David Brink presents in "The Separateness of Persons, Distributive Norms, and Moral Theory").

I think the same problem arises in your blurring of the distinction between consequentialist theories and deontological, or, more generally and simply, non-consequentialist theories. It has in fact been argued, by David Cummiskey in Kantian consquentialism, that although Kant was firmly against consequentialism, Kantian moral theory, "properly understood, generates an extremely compelling consequentialist normative theory". However, I believe this is a very unusual position to take, and even if it makes sense, there is still a sensible class of positions to put up against consequentialist positions.

This class of positions is characterized by the idea that there are agent-relative or agent-centered reasons for action, whereas for consquentialism, as defined above, reasons for action are ultimately agent-neutral. Then egoism and deontology are seen as characteristically non-consequentialist.

These days it has become standard to distinguish between agent-centered restrictions and agent-centered prerogatives. I am tempted to agree, with Scheffler, that ultimately, agent-centered restrictions are difficult to defend. As you suggest against Kant, why should I not kill one innocent person if, by doing so, I can save the lives of many more innoncent persons in exactly the same objective circumstances? On the other hand, agent-centered prerogatives seem much easier to defend, on the familiar grounds that consequentialist theories are morally too demanding. Given the protean nature of indirect consequentialism, however, the field is very murky. --CalvinOstrum

I think it's common enough to regard EgoIsm? as a variety of consequentialism. Just as data points, see [this article] and [this one]. This is how I've been taught the notion and how I taught it (as a T.A.) to Ohio State undergrads. But, granted, it does sound a little bit strange. I would add some sort of note, at the very least, that not everyone would consider EthicalEgoism? a variety of consequentialism. -- LarrySanger

Hmm, those two citations are of very poor quality. In looking at standard collections of recent higher-quality essays from the research literature, such as those contained in the aforementioned Consequentialism and its critics, or Philip Pettit's 1993 edited volume of 26 papers, it seems to me that all of them either implicitly or explicitly assume that consequentialism ultimately countenances only agent-neutral reasons. I think the issue of agent-neutral versus agent-relative reasons is the crucial issue here, in any case. I think WillWilkinson is right about this, and I think the community of moral philosophers essentially agree. Consequently, I would submit that the term "consequentialism" should only be used to refer to theories which say that ultimately only agent-neutral reasons are of import. Consequentialism should be the view that only consequences matter. Consequences, period, not consequences for me when I act, or you when you act. -- CalvinOstrum

I'm very suspicious of any claim to the effect that words, particularly jargon, ought to mean anything; either they do or they don't. If, as I think is clearly the case, there is some reasonably large portion of philosophers who use "consequentialism" to mean a broader concept than that meant by your sources, then the word is, as a matter of fact, whether you like it or not, ambiguous. And the article should reflect that fact. (While perhaps also acknowledging some popular distaste for one of the uses of the term.) Besides, some word is needed, after all, for the concept that actions are to be evaluated based on their consequences, whether for everyone or for the agent only. Utilitarianism and egoism have something in common that deontological theories don't have. That's why "consequentialism" is sometimes used in this broader way. -- LarrySanger

Suit yourself. I don't expect much in an "encylopedia" run by Objectivists! -- CalvinOstrum

Just for the record, I don't regard myself as an Objectivist, and I will do my best not to let it be overrun by them. :-) Not that I have any serious beefs with Objectivists. This wiki will become whatever its participants make it. --LarrySanger

You are at least a Fellow Traveller, as WillWilkinson seems also to be. -- CalvinOstrum

Maybe--but officially, I hold no views. ;-) -- LarrySanger

HomePage | RecentChanges | Preferences
This page is read-only | View other revisions
Last edited February 1, 2001 12:05 pm by LarrySanger (diff)