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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L013-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2011
Retrieved June 13, 2024, from

Article Summary

Consequentialism is sometimes taken to be a moral view according to which acts are to be assessed solely by the value of their consequences, in contrast to deontological ethical theories, which hold that certain kinds of action are wrong, and others right, independently of the goodness or badness of their outcomes

This account, however, oversimplifies matters. Contemporary consequentialism is a family of moral theories united by their fundamental concern with value. They need not assess acts in these terms; and those that do need not be concerned only with consequences. Act-consequentialism, for instance, although it does assess acts – the right act maximizes the good – need not measure the value of an act only by the value of its consequences: acts themselves may have their own intrinsic worth, for example. Rule-consequentialism assesses rules rather than acts: right acts are those that accord with a set of rules whose general acceptance would best promote the good.

Act-consequentialism builds on what seems to be the merest truism, namely that morality is concerned with making the world a better place for all. Certainly, consequentialist considerations figure importantly in issues of public policy – penal, economic or educational programmes are standardly judged by the goodness or badness of their results. Nevertheless, act-consequentialism is at odds with ordinary moral thinking in (at least) three respects.

First, it seems excessively onerous, because the requirement to make the world as good as possible would demand all our time and effort. Second, it leaves no room for the special duties that we take ourselves to have to those close to us: family, friends and fellow citizens. Third, it might require us, on occasion, to do dreadful things in order to bring about a good result.

Consequentialists standardly try to bring their theory closer to common thinking by amending it in one of two ways: either by tinkering with how we should decide on what to do (the decision procedure), or by assessing something other than our actions. Rule-consequentialism exemplifies the latter strategy: its rules may bear a fairly close resemblance to the moral rules with which we now operate. Indirect act-consequentialism (note that nomenclature varies among authors, so these doctrines may appear in other places under different names) adopts the former approach. Since it is a form of act-consequentialism, it claims that the right act maximizes the good. But, unlike direct act-consequentialism, indirect act-consequentialism denies that we should focus on the maximization of value in deciding what to do. Rather, we should follow ordinary moral thought – we may get closer to making the world as good as possible by caring for our friends and relatives, pursuing our personal projects, and steering clear of radical acts, even when they hold the promise of a better world.

Citing this article:
McNaughton, David and Piers Rawling. Consequentialism, 2011, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L013-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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