Consequentialism is part of the teleological ethics and constitutes the set of moral theories which maintain that it is the consequences of a given action which must constitute the basis of any moral judgment of the said action. Thus, from a consequentialist point of view, a morally right action is one whose consequences are good. More formally, consequentialism is the moral point of view that takes the consequences as the only normative criterion. Consequentialism is generally contrasted with deontological ethics, which emphasize the type of action rather than its consequences, and the ethics of virtue, which focuses on the character and motives of the agent.
The term “consequentialism” was coined by G.E.M. Anscombe in his article Modern Moral Philosophy published in 1958, critical essay towards this moral point of view. Since then, the term has largely invested the English-speaking moral theory. It is in utilitarianism that its historical roots are found, although earlier moral theories have often considered the consequences of an action as relevant to a moral debate. Because of this historical link to utilitarianism, these two terms are sometimes used (wrongly) as synonyms, which can be understood because utilitarianism has the formal characteristic of any consequentialist theory: it emphasizes the action consequences.
Consequentialism, as its name indicates, asserts that in a moral debate, one must assign more weight to the results of an action than to any other consideration. Most consequentialist theories focus on optimal situations: after all, if something is good, a larger amount of that thing is usually better. However, not all consequentialist theories adopt this idea. Some argue that the moral agent must act in such a way as to produce good consequences, even if it does not produce the best possible results.
Apart from this basic core, little can be said about consequentialism in general. However, some questions are found in many consequentialist theories, among others:
- What determines the value of the consequences? In other words, what determines a ‘good’ state of affairs?
- Who is the main beneficiary of a moral action?
- Who judges, and how, what are the consequences of an action?
What kinds of consequences?
One way of classifying the different consequentialisms is to observe for each one what kind of consequences matters the most, in other words, which results are judged to be good states of affairs. From the point of view of classic utilitarianism, an action is good if it results in an overall increase of happiness, and the best action is that which gives rise to the maximum of pleasure and the minimum of pain. Quite close at first sight is the eudemonic consequentialism, which considers a fulfilled, flourished life as a goal, which can go hand in hand with a great collective happiness. In the same vein, there is also aesthetic consequentialism, which aims to produce beautiful. However, it is also possible to consider non-psychological effects as relevant. Thus, one can seek to increase material equality, or political liberty instead of more ephemeral pleasures. Other theories simultaneously adopt several goods, all of which must be promoted without one having priority over the others. Since there is no supreme consequence in this case, the conflicts between the different goods must be resolved by the intuition and discernment of the agent, depending on the context. However, even in a consequentialist system targeting a single good, one must expect to face difficult choices between several good states of affairs. We can finally follow the path traced by G.E. Moore by asserting the impossibility of analyzing what is good, and concluding that the good states of things do not necessarily have any other common property than that of being good.
Consequences on whom?, on what?
An action always has an effect, the consequences, on living beings and/or on things. We can distinguish various types of consequentialisms according to the affected beings that they take into account and to what extent:
The first cleavage separates the theories allowing the agent to follow, at least partially, his own interest or motivation and the theories requiring that the agent pursue certain ends independently of his own interest and motivation. We speak respectively of theories centered on the agent or on the contrary, neutral for the agent.
Neutral consequentialism for the agent ignores the specific value that a state of affairs may have for a given agent. Thus in a neutral theory for the agent, my own goals do not count more than those of others in the moral evaluation determining what action I should choose to perform.
An agent-centered consequentialism, on the contrary, emphasizes the particular needs of the moral agent. So, from an agent-centric point of view like the one put forward by Peter Railton, I can worry about general well-being, but I’m more concerned with my own immediate well-being as well as with from my friends and family. These two approaches can be reconciled by reporting tensions within the agent’s interests as individuals or as members of different groups, and seeking some optimization between these different interests. For example, one might think that action is good for someone as an individual, but bad for him as a citizen of his country.
Many consequentialist theories seem to take into account only humans and their relationships with other humans. Some philosophers, however, argue that we should not limit ourselves, in our moral questioning, to consider the interests of only human beings. For Jeremy Bentham himself, often perceived as the founder of utilitarianism, non-human animals are the subject of real moral questioning. He defended this point of view by asserting that these animals are capable of feeling pleasure or pain, and that the consequences that a certain line of action may have on them are therefore directly taken into account in a moral reflection. More recently, Peter Singer argued that it was irrational not to accord animal interests, when choosing how to treat them, a consideration equal to that of humans. It should be noted, however, that equal consideration of humans and non-humans does not imply identical treatment (it is not in the interest of a pig to give him a computer), nor does an equal consideration of all human beings does not imply an identical treatment of them.