DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L013-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 14, 2024, from

2. Criticisms of act-consequentialism

How should consequentialists set about deciding what to do? A natural answer is: by calculating, as best they may, what would produce the most good on any particular occasion when they are called upon to act. Of course, lack of time and knowledge limit what they can do by way of calculation, but they must do the best they can. So interpreted, however, act-consequentialism can be criticized for running counter to our intuitive moral convictions in a number of ways.

First, it seems excessively demanding; I shall only be acting rightly in so far as I maximize the good. Given all the bad things in the world, and the fact that few of us do much to improve them, it is clear that, in order to do what act-consequentialism requires, I would have to devote virtually all my energy and resources to making the world a better place (see Help and beneficence §2). This would give me no time or money to pursue my own interests, or even to relax, except to refresh me ready to redouble my moral efforts on the morrow. The degree of self-sacrifice required would make the lives of the saints look self-indulgent. Ordinary morality is surely not as demanding as this; it gives us permission to pursue our own goals, provided that we are not in breach of any of our fundamental duties. Some have proposed, in order to meet this point, that the theory be modified so that an act is right if its consequences are good, or good enough, even if they are not the best. This suggestion has not been widely adopted, for it is usually held that a rational agent will always prefer the greater good to the less.

Second, act-consequentialism appears to leave no place for the duties we take ourselves to have to our family and friends (see Family, ethics and the; Friendship). Such duties are often classified as agent-relative: each of us should help their own family and friends, so that the persons to whom the duties are owed vary from agent to agent. Act-consequentialism, however, is an agent-neutral moral theory; the goal at which we should aim does not depend on who the agent is. I should direct my efforts towards those for whom I can do the most good; their relationship to me is irrelevant. Even if act-consequentialism places special value on the cultivation of certain relationships, such as friendship, this will still not yield a duty of friendship, as traditionally understood. If friendship is a great good, then my duty as a consequentialist is to promote friendship in general between all persons; that will not necessarily require me to give special attention to my friends, as distinct from helping others to give special attention to their friends.

Third, if act-consequentialism is too demanding in one respect it seems too permissive in another. For it leaves no room for the thought, central to much ordinary moral thinking, that there are certain constraints on our action, certain kinds of act, such as cheating, torturing and killing, which we ought not to contemplate, even if acting in one of these forbidden ways would maximize the good. The end, as we often say, does not justify the means. Once again, constraints seem to be agent-relative. Each of us is required not to kill or torture the innocent ourselves even if, by doing so, we could prevent two such tortures or killings.

Citing this article:
McNaughton, David and Piers Rawling. Criticisms of 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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