DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L013-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved February 29, 2024, from

1. Act-consequentialism

Although the term ‘consequentialism’ is a recent coinage – it appears to have first been used in its present sense by Anscombe (1958) – it refers to a type of theory which has a long history. Consequentialism builds on what may seem to be the merest truism, namely that morality is concerned with making the world a better place for all. Consequentialist considerations certainly figure importantly in issues of public policy. Penal, economic or educational programmes are standardly judged by the goodness or badness of their results.

All moral theories offer an account both of the right and of the good. They all tell us, that is, both what makes an action right or wrong, and what kinds of thing are good or valuable. It is characteristic of consequentialist theories to assess whether an action is right in terms of the amount of good it produces (see §4). Deontological ethical theories, by contrast, hold that the right is independent of the good: certain kinds of action are wrong, and others right, independently of the goodness or badness of their consequences (see Deontological ethics; Right and good).

Act-consequentialism, the simplest form of the theory, holds that the right action – the one you should do – is the one which would produce the greatest balance of good over bad consequences; that is, the one which would maximize the good. (Where two or more actions come out equal best, then it is right to do any one of them.) Which action is in fact the right one will depend on what account of the good any particular act-consequentialist theory offers.

A theory of the good is an account of those things which are intrinsically good, good in themselves, and not merely good as a means to something else which is good (see Good, theories of the §2). A visit to the dentist is only extrinsically good, because it leads to healthy teeth and the avoidance of toothache, but it is not in itself a good thing; it is a necessary evil. By far the most popular and influential account of the good within the consequentialist camp is that offered by utilitarianism (see Utilitarianism). On this view, usually known as hedonism or welfarism, the good is pleasure, happiness or wellbeing (see Hedonism; Happiness). The act-utilitarian holds, therefore, that the right action is the one which maximizes happiness.

Many consequentialists reject hedonism. A pioneer in this respect was G.E. Moore (1903), whose theory, somewhat confusingly, used to be referred to as ideal utilitarianism, in contrast to the hedonistic variety (see Moore, G.E. §1). Among the things which have been held to be intrinsically good are knowledge, virtue, beauty, justice, and the flourishing of the environment as a whole. Many of these alternative accounts of the good are pluralist: that is, they claim that there are several different kinds of good thing which cannot all be brought under one head (see Moral pluralism). Pluralist act-consequentialism faces a difficulty. In order to determine which of the possible actions is the right one, agents must be able to rank the outcomes of each action, from the worst to the best. But if there are several distinct values which cannot be reduced to a common measure, how can one kind of value be compared with another in order to produce a definitive ranking? This is the problem of incommensurability of value.

The term ‘consequentialism’, though hallowed by frequent philosophical use, may be misleading since it might naturally be taken to imply that an action itself can have no intrinsic value; its value is all to be found in its consequences. Utilitarianism is indeed committed to this view – for what matters on the utilitarian account is not the nature of the act itself but the pleasure which it produces in anyone affected by it – but it is not an essential feature of consequentialism as such. Some consequentialists wish to leave room for the thought that certain kinds of action, such as lying, cheating, and killing the innocent, are intrinsically bad, while other kinds of act, such as generous, loyal, or just ones, are intrinsically good. Consequentialism can take such values into account in calculating which course of action produces the best results. In deciding whether one course of action is preferable to another, a consequentialist needs to know the total value that would be produced by taking each course of action, and that will include not only the value of the consequences but the value, if any, which attaches to the action itself.

Consequentialism is sometimes described as a teleological theory, because it conceives of a moral theory as setting a goal which we should strive to achieve (see Teleological ethics). The goal which consequentialism sets is to bring about a world containing the greatest balance of good over bad. Such a classification risks confusion, however, since a virtue ethics, such as Aristotle’s, is also usually classified as teleological, yet Aristotle’s theory differs from consequentialism in at least two crucial respects. First, the good at which agents aim, on Aristotle’s view (outlined in Nicomachean Ethics), is not the best state of the world, but the good life for humans; agents are to seek to realize distinctively human goods in their own lives. Second, Aristotle’s theory, unlike consequentialism, does not define the right in terms of the good. On the contrary, a full understanding of the good life rests on a prior conception of the right, for an important part of the good life consists in acting rightly (see Aristotle §§21–6; Right and good §2; Virtue ethics).

We also need to distinguish the kind of consequentialism with which we are here concerned from ethical egoism, which is sometimes classified as a consequentialist theory (see Egoism and altruism). Ethical egoism, which holds that the right action is the one which would best promote the agent’s own interests, is structurally similar to consequentialism in that the right action is the one which maximizes a good, in this case, the agent’s own good. What distinguishes egoism from the sort of consequentialism discussed here is that the latter is an impartial theory, giving equal weight to each person’s good (see Impartiality).

Citing this article:
McNaughton, David and Piers Rawling. Act-consequentialism. Consequentialism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L013-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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