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Consequentialism

"The term was first used for (1) a theory concerning responsibility, but is now commonly used for (2) a theory concerning right and wrong.
(1) the view that an agent is equally responsible for the intended consequences of an act and its unintended but foreseen consequences. Elizabeth Anscombe created the new term consequentialism for this view in her article "Modern Moral Philosophy" (Philosophy 33 (1958), and often reprinted) and criticised Sidgwick and later utilitarians for holding it. The view differs, according to her, from the versions of utilitarianism proposed before Sidgwick. These had not rejected the distinction between foreseen and intended consequences as far as responsibility is concerned. Her objection to consequentialism is that since it looks at consequences only, the character of the act itself is left out of account, and this has the unacceptable consequence that an agent is equally responsible for the foreseen but unintended consequences of an act, no matter whether the act is courageous or cowardly.

(2) the view that an action is right if and only if its total outcome is the best possible. This is the basic form of consequentialism; there are, however, many varieties, a few of which will be noted below. What they all have in common is that consequences alone should be taken into account when making judgements about right and wrong.

This is how the term has been used since the late 1960s. Previously, "utilitarianism" was the term commonly used for consequentialism, and that use remains; but many writers now use the term "utilitarianism" to designate a kind of consequentialism. Some of them reserve the term "utilitarianism" for the view that combines consequentialism with the hedonistic assumption that pleasure alone has intrinsic value. Others reserve the term for the view that combines consequentialism with the eudaimonistic assumption that happiness (welfare, well-being) alone has intrinsic value. These two views are not always clearly distinguished. Others again use "utilitarianism" for the kind of consequentialism that takes preference-satisfaction alone to have intrinsic value.

Another way of making a terminological distinction between utilitarianism and other kinds of consequentialism is by reserving the label "utilitarianism" for those consequentialist theories that include the maximising assumption: that only the best is good enough.

A survey (no doubt incomplete) of some of the varieties of consequentialism can be obtained by starting with Bentham's principleA of utility: an actB is rightC if and only if itD tendsE to maximiseF the net overbalancing sum totalG of pleasure over painH for all parties concernedI (superscript letters refer to paragraphs below).

(a) Bentham's principle can be understood in two distinct ways: as a guide for decision as to what action to take, or as a guide for the evaluation of an action (one's own or someone else's). If the principle is taken as a guide to decision-making, it invites the objection that there is not enough time to consider all the consequences and perform, for each set of possible consequences, all the necessary calculations of their value. If the principle is taken as a guide for evaluation, there may be less time-pressure. (Even so, evaluating all the possible consequences will take a very long time.)

(b) Some versions of consequentialism evaluate things other than acts - attitudes, for instance, or rules.

(c) Some formulations do not use "right" but introduce other words: "ought", "obligation" or "duty".

(d) Act-consequentialism considers the consequences of the act. Other theories consider the consequences of adopting a rule under which the act falls, or adopting an attitude that will result in acting in a certain way. Again, does the rightness of my keeping a promise depend on the fact that my adoption of the rule of promise-keeping tends to promote the good, or on the fact that the adoption by people generally does?

(e) There is a diversity of consequentialist theories as the actual, or the probably, or the foreseen consequences are held to be the relevant ones. Moreover, the very notion of a consequence varies. Some authors even include the very performance of an action among its consequences and hold that one of the consequences of performing an act of loyalty is the fact that an act of loyalty has occurred.

(f) Maximising implies comparison with all relevant alternatives. Some criterion is needed to tell which alternatives are relevant; different criteria can be devised. Moreover, some versions of consequentialism reject maximising and settle for less. They hold the view that not only the best is good enough and favour satisficing. See also SATISFICE.

(g) In what way, and to what extent, can one individual's goods be compared with one another? If they can be compared, can they be added together, like financial assets and liabilities? Answers to these questions differ. Again, to what extent are interpersonal comparisons or summations possible? Can B's loss be outbalanced by A's gain? In so far as we deny this we are insisting on the distinctness or separateness of persons. Distributive principles can also vary. Consider a situation in which ten persons are all quite happy. Five of them enjoy 20 units of the good, and the other five enjoy 60 units of the good. Compare this with a situation in which, again, they are all quite happy, all ten enjoying 40 units of the good. Is one of these situations preferable to the other? There are a variety of answers to this, and to a vast number of similar questions of distribution.

(h) The value to be maximised was, in Bentham's hedonistic utilitarianism, pleasure and the absence of pain. Moore's ideal utilitarianism takes experiences of beauty and relations of friendship to have intrinsic value. The most common present-day variety is preference-utilitarianism: the good consists in the satisfaction of preferences, i.e. in people having what they want. In other formulations welfare is said to be the good.

(i) Consequentialist theories also differ in yet another respect. On the "total view", an increase of the total number of people is an improvement (other things being equal), as long as the additional individuals have a positive welfare or happiness score, however marginal. On the "average view", the important thing is to seek to increase average pleasure, happiness, welfare, or the like. A situation in which there are a larger number of people would not be better (other things being equal) if the average welfare remained the same."

The Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy
ed. Thomas Mautner
ISBN 0-14-051250-0

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