Consequentialism is perhaps the most developed view of ethics, according to which the ethical worth of an action is proportional to its consequences. In particular, consequentialism holds that among all the possible courses of action, an agent should pursue the one that, overall, brings about the greatest amount of good – or, in jargon, the one that maximizes good. Although it may have had precursors, this view did not play a major role in ancient philosophy.
Let us start our illustration of consequentialism with one example. Suppose that a government has $100,000 to spend in food aids for its citizens; and suppose that the government has the option of choosing between two different policies. POLICY 1: invest the $100,000 in agriculture, thereby raising by 10% the income of one hundreds families over the next year. POLICY 2: invest the $100,000 in food stamps to be distributed to one thousand families, thereby raising by 10% their yearly funds for food. Which of the two policies should the government adopt? POLICY 2, according to consequentialism, as it will bring about an increase of 10% fund for food for the greatest number of families.
Three lessons shall be drawn from this story.
Consequences Over Time
The time frame that is used to assess the moral worth of an action is crucial. In the example above, it may turn out that POLICY 1 will bring about a greater amount of good than POLICY 2 over the course of two years; but, alas, the judgment was made by looking at the overall amount of good produced in one year. As it is often difficult, when not impossible, to foresee the consequences of a single action over a long period, consequentialists calculate the worth of an action with respect to limited time frames; the choice of the frame, however, may make a difference.
Consequentialism is neutral with respect to specific agents. It makes no difference whatsoever whether the agent will benefit of the goods of her action, or whether someone else will instead. As well as it does not matter whether the beneficiaries live in an area or another, belong to a certain group or other (gender, ethnicity, political party, …) Of course, under specific forms of consequentialism, those parameters can be taken into consideration. Thus, egoism is that form of consequentialism according to which the action that a person ought to do is the one that brings about the greatest amount of goods for that person.
Judgment of the action vs. judgment of the person
Consequentialism judges the moral worth of an action; such judgment should be kept separate from the judgment of the moral worth of a person. Although it is often the case that a morally bad action is the outcome of a morally bad person’s intentions, this need not be the case. By allocating the money as in POLICY 2 the government may intend to do what’s morally best, but the outcome may be miserable for unforeseeable reasons (e.g., a natural calamity strikes the population, or a sudden and unexpected epidemics.) Thus, the fact that an action is morally bad does not entail that the person was morally bad on that occasion: the two judgments shall be kept separate according to consequentialism.
The main current of consequentialism is utilitarianism, which was first formulated by Jeremy Bentham and lately developed by authors such as John Stuart Mill, Henry Sidgwick, and G.E. Moore. Utilitarianism comes in different forms, depending of different parameters that are used to assess the worth of an action.
Varieties of Utilitarianism
According to hedonism, the key parameter is pleasure, at times referred to also as ‘happiness;’ in other words, the ethically right action is the one maximizing pleasure. Hedonists hold that pleasure is the only good in itself, that is, the only good which we value not for its consequences. For this reason our calculation should stop at it.
G.E. Moore criticized hedonism on the score that pleasure is not the only good in itself. Beauty, for instance, is also valued in itself rather than for its consequences. Thus, according to Moore, utilitarians should assess the moral worth of an action in terms of the overall goods.
An interesting version of utilitarianism has been defended in the second half of last century by Indian philosopher and economists Amartya Sen. According to Sen, the utilitarian calculus should be based on a list of goods, called capabilities. Capabilities include all sorts of things that an action can enable a person to do. The list includes items such as: access to public transportation, to libraries, to career opportunities, to food options, and to public parks. The right action will be the one that, overall, maximizes the amount of capabilities.