DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L013-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 24, 2024, from

3. Indirect act-consequentialism

Because it generates these counter-intuitive results, few consequentialists hold that agents should decide what to do by asking what will produce the best results. There are two theories which offer a less direct link between the overall goal of making things go as well as possible and how one should decide to act on any particular occasion. The first of these is known as indirect act-consequentialism. It retains the claim that the right action is the one with the best consequences, but denies that the virtuous agent need be guided directly by consequentialist thoughts when deciding how to act.

Indirect act-consequentialism builds on the thought that we do not necessarily hit the target if we aim directly at it. The gunner must make allowances for wind, gravity and poorly aligned sights; the moralist may have to direct our thoughts away from the goal if we are to achieve it. Act-consequentialism, on this view, tells us what the target is, but not how to hit it. It is not itself a good guide to action for a number of reasons: the calculations are tricky and time-consuming; we may be tempted to skew the results in our favour; doing the right action may require us to go against dispositions which are both deeply rooted and generally useful. So we may actually do better, in terms of achieving the goals which consequentialism sets us, if we do not aim to do what is right, but follow a few fairly simple moral rules of the traditional type, or encourage within ourselves the development of dispositions, such as kindness and loyalty, which will normally lead us to act in beneficial ways. In adopting such rules, or developing such dispositions, we know that we will sometimes act wrongly when we could, perhaps, have acted rightly. Yet we may still get closer, in the long run, to achieving the consequentialist goal than we would have if we had attempted to aim at it directly.

Some indirect act-consequentialists go further. Since we make better decisions if we eschew consequentialist calculations, it might be best if we rejected consequentialism. It seems possible that agents might behave worse, in consequentialist terms, if they were taught the truth of consequentialism than if they were brought up to believe some other moral theory. In which case consequentialists would do well to prevent its truth being generally known. Opponents see this position as incoherent. If the adoption of consequentialism demands its suppression then in what sense can we adopt it? How could a society be said to be governed by a moral code if no-one in that society believed it?

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

Related Searches


Related Articles