7 Consequentialist Ethics

Annette Holba

Consequentialist ethics involves focusing on the consequences/outcome of an action or a decision, instead of the character of a person (virtue ethics) or universal application of a set of rules (deontological ethics). According to Neher and Sandin (2007), there are multiple kinds of consequentialisms. In general, act consequentialism and rule consequentialism are essential distinctions to understand before moving forward to think about the kinds of consequentialisms that inform ethical decision-making. For the purpose of this course, we are only concerned with act consequentialism. Act consequentialism evaluates individual actions related to consequences. We will focus on act consequentialism under the label of utilitarianism and egalitarianism.

Utilitarianism involves the idea that actions should be guided or evaluated by the notion, the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people. This is very general, but here is a video that can explain in more detail.

There are many newly emerging nuances under consequentialisms that blend with the principle of utility but for our purposes in this course, we will focus only on the outcomes and how we reason about and through them. Questions of motive, ego, and telos (the aim or ends) can be side considerations and help us reason through making judgments about behavior or impending behavior.

According to Neher and Sandin (2007), Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) developed an elaborate system for calculating quantities of pleasure in terms of their duration, intensity, certainty, remoteness or nearness in time/space/place. This was a quantitative, objective methodology.  He then determined the number of people who benefited or who were harmed by the action. Every person counted as one person. The counting had to be impartial. Additionally, you could not consider only what made your family happy but instead, you had to consider happiness of all people effected by the action. This sound objectively sound but with human beings involved, this was difficult to actually do without making certain guesses and judgments that diminished the objectiveness.

Utilitarianism asserts “the greatest good for the greatest number” (Neher and Sandin, 2007, p.60). Rightness or wrongness is determined by totaling the positive and negative outcomes of an action. The action that resulted in the highest number of positives/goods, is the right thing to do.

Considering Bentham’s historical moment, the English lived and worked in deplorable conditions and Bentham and his friend James Mill wanted to apply utopian principles in government, education, and in general social conditions in order for the most people to derive the best benefit.

This sense of Utilitarian Ethics was deemed most applicable in public communication where the effects would be upon the whole community. Bentham attempted to come up with quantification of every specific principle he could but was unrealistic (and less objective). People criticized his attempts at reducing human pleasures to animalistic tendencies (Neher & Sandin, 2007).

According to Neher and Sandin (2007), James Mill’s son, John Start Mill (1806-1873), wanted to change things. He contributed the following:

  1. Replaced the quantification approach with an emphasis on quality of pleasure or happiness;
  2. Maintained that there were important differences in the quality of kinds of pleasures;
  3. Pleasures related to higher faculties of human beings, particularly pleasures of the mind and contemplation, which were superior pleasures to lower faculties that referred to pleasures from the flesh or bodily appetites.

Mill placed human pleasures in a similar hierarchy to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that involves lower levels starting at basic bodily needs up to higher levels of self-actualization. Here is a quick recap of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Neher and Sandin, 2007) indicate that in breaking Bentham’s rule of quantification, Mill created some inconsistency in utilitarian philosophy. There needs to be some criteria outside of utility alone to determine which are higher pleasures and which are lower pleasures. Mill relied upon subjectivity, moving away from Bentham’s objectivity.

The biggest criticism of utilitarian ethics has to do with determining what is the greatest good (highest principle). In some sense, it is a relative good – individually based. In egalitarianism (we will get to this in a minute…), everyone’s opinion is equally valued. In Utilitarianism, those with power determine what is good and there is no input from all people involved. It can be preferential.

Another criticism is that a strict application of Utilitarian ethics might also lead to outcomes we do not want or expect.

For Example: We might feel that wrongfully accusing one person or group of people with a crime in order to prevent panic may bring the greatest good for the greatest number of people but the accusation is not based upon a proposition of fact (the truth). So, in some cases, lying is justified (but it is a morally good thing to advocate? Opinions will differ on this question).

Egalitarianism suggests an equality or fairness for all people (some theorists think these theories are deontological, but they actually do look at consequences first, which makes them more explicitly consequentialist). Here is a short video explaining egalitarianism. Egalitarianism originated out of the social contract. Martha Nussbaum, professor and contemporary philosopher, introduces the social contract here.

According to Neher and Sandin (2007), the social contract refers to contractualism; negotiating together as a society to determine how we should be treated. In this perspective we look at John Rawls and the ethics of social justice which advocated for taking an original position. You can access his theory of justice here. According to Neher and Sandin (2007), the original position necessitates the following:

  • putting selves in other people’s shoes
  • the veil of ignorance: people do not know their individual bias, so start with a blank slate and separate oneself from one’s experiences, and accepts
  • there is going to be some inevitability of inequality – the difference principle, dictates there can be differences in distribution in society

Now another consideration from Neher and Sandin (2007):

Related to utilitarianism and egalitarianism, ethical egoism and ethical altruism can also be considered. Generally, it is difficult to determine the difference between these two because we cannot see into the hearts of others.

Ethical Egoism (psychological egoism) suggests one should do what is in one’s interest without regard for others. Though, the idea of doing what is in your own self-interest does not mean you do whatever you want. If we do what is in our own best interests, we seek pleasure through self-discipline and concentrated reasoning, it does not have to be cut-throat toward the other. And, it can also appear as ethical altruism.

Ethical Altruism is when one puts others needs before oneself at the expense of one’s own needs. An Ethical Egoist would say that Mother Teresa put others before herself at risk to her own health because she had an ego-driven need to do so but the ethical altruist would say Mother Teresa acted selflessly because she undoubtedly loved others more than herself and she put their needs before her own.


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