Consequentialism is the term employed to describe the view that consequences are what matter for moral, social, or political justification. The view can be applied to various objects of moral assessment (e.g., to individual actions or to the policies and institutions of the state). What consequentialist theories of justification have in common is that the objects of moral assessment are to be evaluated by appeal to the results to which they give rise. Put simply, the rightness of an action or a political policy or institution turns on its tendency to produce maximally good consequences. Hence, consequentialism takes the form of a general theory of rightness. The theory specifies the right-making criteria for actions, policies, and institutions. As such, consequentialism takes no position on the value of particular outcomes. The outcomes to which consequentialist theories aim might be as varied as trying to maximize profit, welfare, or virtue. Hence, consequentialism does not assume a particular view of what kinds of outcomes are good, but rather can be applied to competing theories of value. Accordingly, consequentialism must be combined with a “theory of the good” to constitute a substantive moral or political doctrine.
For good reason, consequentialism is most closely tied to the doctrine of utilitarianism. In its most traditional utilitarian version, consequentialism is paired with a hedonistic theory of the good. According to Jeremy Bentham, for example, right actions and policies tend simply to maximize pleasure or satisfaction over pain and dissatisfaction. Hedonistic utilitarianism was pointedly criticized by John Stuart Mill, who referred to it as a “doctrine worthy only of swine.” Mill’s alternative utilitarian proposal introduces the distinction between “higher” and “lower” pleasures and assigns to the former, “the pleasures of the intellect, of the feelings and imagination, and of the moral sentiments, a much higher value as pleasures than to those of mere sensation.” Mill’s argument rests on the premise that anyone “competently acquainted with both” types of pleasures would prefer the higher to the lower pleasures. From this argument, he famously concludes that it is “better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” Thus, Mill’s alternative to hedonism aims to answer two perennial questions in the history of utilitarianism: (1) How should utility be characterized? and (2) To what extent is it possible to generalize across the utility functions of individuals?
In moral philosophy, consequentialism contrasts most sharply with deontological theories of morality. Deontological theories hold that the rightness of an action is determined by features of the action, not by the consequences to which the action gives rise. Immanuel Kant’s moral theory is particularly representative of this approach. Kant argued that an action’s consequences are ultimately irrelevant to its rightness or wrongness. The moral worth of an action depends “not on the realization of the object of the action, but solely on the principle of volition in accordance with which, irrespective of all objects of the faculty of desire, the action has been performed.” It is the consistency between the principle of volition and the commands of reason that determines an action’s rightness. According to Kant, the rationality of autonomous agents requires that our actions be “universalizable,” that is, that it be possible for us rationally to conceive of and will a world in which our actions are generally done. Against consequentialism, then, Kant concludes that a particular action can be morally wrong despite the fact that, if carried out, it would lead to maximally good consequences.
Consequentialism has been charged with being morally lax in some circumstances and overly strict in others. It is commonplace to illustrate these charges by appeal to familiar types of examples. First, in some circumstances, it is relatively clear that violating commonsense moral prohibitions (e.g., prohibitions against lying and breaking promises) would lead to maximally good consequences. Generally speaking, consequentialist theories must hold that such circumstances would make these actions morally permissible or, more strongly, morally required. This fact prompts the charge of laxness aimed at consequentialist moral theories and, specifically, at utilitarianism. It is conceivable that there are cases in which, say, lying about an individual’s guilt would lead to better consequences than would telling the truth. But critics of consequentialism charge that surely it would be wrong to punish an innocent person simply because so doing would lead to better consequences. One standard consequentialist reply has been to claim that it is the consequences of rules not the consequences of acts that are relevant to moral assessment. The distinction between rule and act utilitarianism makes it possible to offer the moral argument that one should act on rules of the sort that, if generally followed, maximally good consequences would result. In line with ordinary morality, then, the rule utilitarian is in a position to claim that morality prohibits lying and promise breaking and, moreover, that it does so for good consequentialist reasons.
The second charge (viz., that consequentialism is overly strict) derives from the fact that this theory denies the moral relevance of intentions in assessing the morality of actions. By so doing, it risks winding up committed to a theory of blameworthiness and punishment on which individuals are held accountable for the results of their actions, even when these results were in no sense intended. In other words, some consequentialist theories hold individuals responsible for their actions when ordinary morality tells us that these individuals were not morally at fault. Such theories also stand accused of being overly strict on the grounds that they see all actions as being either morally required or forbidden. For example, if morality demands that our actions maximize utility, it will normally be the case that there is exactly one action that morality allows. All other actions will be prohibited.
As we might expect, the distinction between consequentialist and deontological theories has its parallel in political theory. As applied to this domain, consequentialism is most often set against theories of individual rights. Rights theorists claim that some ends, no matter how good, cannot be legitimately pursued because so doing would violate the rights of individuals. John Rawls put the point succinctly in his A Theory of Justice, claiming that utilitarian forms of consequentialism do not “take seriously the distinction between persons.” But it is important to recall that not all consequentialist theories are utilitarian and, more interesting for our purposes, that consequentialist theories can be consistent with and, indeed, supportive of highly individualist understandings of justice. In fact, rights theorist John Locke makes explicit appeal to consequentialist considerations in his argument for property rights. Locke writes,
he who appropriates land to himself by his labour, does not lessen, but increase the common stock of mankind: for the provisions serving to the support of human life, produced by one acre of inclosed and cultivated land, are (to speak much within compass) ten times more than those which are yielded by an acre of land of an equal richness lying waste in common.
David Hume similarly appeals to consequentialist considerations in his argument for a stable system of property “fix’d by general rules.” Hume tells us that, “however single acts of justice may be contrary, either to public or private interest, ’tis certain, that the whole plan or scheme is highly conducive, or indeed absolutely requisite, both to the support of society, and the well-being of every individual.” Both Locke’s and Hume’s arguments appeal to the benefits that we all receive from a system of justice and so do not lend themselves to the criticism that consequentialist arguments must sacrifice some individuals for the sake of others. As Hume puts the point:
every individual person must find himself a gainer, on balancing the account; since, without justice, society must immediately dissolve, and every one must fall into that savage and solitary condition, which is infinitely worse than the worst situation that can possibly be suppos’d in society.
In fact, many consequentialist thinkers have suggested that the good of the individual and the good of society do not really conflict. Adam Smith, for example, held that the individual, “by pursuing his own interest … frequently promotes that of society more effectively than when he really intends to promote [society’s good].” More recently, F. A. Hayek has argued in support of “property, in the wide sense in which it is used to include not only material things, but (as John Locke defined it) the ‘life, liberty and estates’ of every individual” on the grounds that property is necessary “in order to maximize the possibility of expectations in general being fulfilled.” According to Hayek,
the only method yet discovered of defining a range of expectations which will be thus protected, and thereby reducing the mutual interference of people’s actions with each other’s intentions, is to demarcate for every individual a range of permitted actions by designating (or rather making recognizable by the application of rules to the concrete facts) ranges of objects over which only particular individuals are allowed to dispose and from the control of which all others are excluded.
Admittedly, Hayek’s argument, like all consequentialist arguments, relies on contingent, empirical considerations about the nature of human behavior under different social and political orders. Therefore, if the consequentialist argument is to be convincing, it must show that individualist institutions have the good results that they are purported to have.
Bentham, Jeremy. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1876.
Hayek, Friedrich A. Law Legislation and Liberty. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1973.
Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978.
Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals. New York: Harper & Row, 1956.
Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1980.
Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1957.
Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978.
Smith, Adam. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nature. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Classics, 1981.
Originally published .