Consequentialism


Consequentialism, as its name suggests, is the view that normative properties depend only on consequences. This general approach can be applied at different levels to different normative properties of different kinds of things, but the most prominent example is consequentialism about the moral rightness of acts, which holds that whether an act is morally right depends only on the consequences of that act or of something related to that act, such as the motive behind the act or a general rule requiring acts of the same kind.

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What is Consequentialism?

This array of alternatives raises the question of which moral theories count as consequentialist (as opposed to deontological), and why. In actual usage, the term ’consequentialism‘ seems to be used as a family resemblance term to refer to any descendant of classic utilitarianism that remains close enough to its ancestor in the important respects. Of course, different philosophers see different respects as the important ones. Hence, there is no agreement on which theories count as consequentialist under this definition.

To resolve this vagueness, we need to determine which of the various claims of classic utilitarianism are essential to consequentialism. One claim seems clearly necessary. Any consequentialist theory must accept the claim that I labeled ‘consequentialism’, namely, that certain normative properties depend only on consequences. If that claim is dropped, the theory ceases to be consequentialist.

It is less clear whether that claim by itself is sufficient to make a theory consequentialist. Several philosophers assert that a moral theory should not be classified as consequentialist unless it is agent-neutral (McNaughton and Rawling 1991, Howard-Snyder 1994, Pettit 1997). This narrower definition is motivated by the fact that many self-styled critics of consequentialism argue against agent-neutrality.

Other philosophers prefer a broader definition that does not require a moral theory to be agent-neutral in order to be consequentialist (Bennett 1989; Broome 1991, 5-6; and Skorupski 1995). Criticisms of agent-neutrality can then be understood as directed against one part of classic utilitarianism that need not be adopted by every moral theory that is consequentialist. Moreover, they argue, the narrower definition conflates independent claims and obscures a crucial commonality between agent-neutral consequentialism and other moral theories that focus exclusively on consequences, such as moral egoism and recent self-styled consequentialists who allow agent-relativity into their theories of value (Sen 1982, Broome 1991, Portmore 2001, 2003).

A definition solely in terms of consequences might seem too broad, because it includes absurd theories such as the theory that an act is morally right if it increases the number of goats in Texas. Of course, such theories are implausible. Still, it is not implausible to call them consequentialist, since they do look only at consequences. The implausibility of one version of consequentialism does not make consequentialism implausible in general, since other versions of consequentialism still might be plausible.

Besides, anyone who wants to pick out a smaller set of moral theories that excludes this absurd theory may talk about evaluative consequentialism, which is the claim that moral rightness depends only on the value of the consequences. Then those who want to talk about the even smaller group of moral theories that accepts both evaluative consequentialism and agent-neutrality may describe them as agent-neutral evaluative consequentialism. If anyone still insists on calling these smaller groups of theories by the simple name, ‘consequentialism’, this narrower usage will not affect any substantive issue.

What matters is only that we get clear about exactly which claims are at stake when someone supports or criticizes what they call “consequentialism”. Then we can ask whether each objection really refutes that particular claim.


Much much more at:  Consequentialism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

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