Use caution over “Consequentialism”

I think we need to be careful with this term “consequentialism.” I used in the very loose sense that what it is reasonable or “sensible” to do is what seems to be required given objective X and set of conditions Y. This is to me the in the area of the much-disputed term “ought,” which people seem to think refers to only to “ought” as a moral requirement. But in my usage the idea would be used in an argument against any sort of collectivism or utilitarianism, save only — PERHAPS !!! — in the most extreme of circumstances.

Consequently, she says grinning, I thought we should have a definition of the term in the context of moral philosophy which will provide a good grounding so that we are all talking about the same thing when we say “consequentialism” or “consequentialist.”

Here is the first bit of a discussion of the term in the article on “Utilitarianism,” from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong of Duke University:

2. What is Consequentialism?

This array of alternatives raises the question of which moral theories count as consequentialist (as opposed to deontological), and why. In actual usage, the term ’consequentialism‘ seems to be used as a family resemblance term to refer to any descendant of classic utilitarianism that remains close enough to its ancestor in the important respects. Of course, different philosophers see different respects as the important ones. Hence, there is no agreement on which theories count as consequentialist under this definition.

To resolve this vagueness, we need to determine which of the various claims of classic utilitarianism are essential to consequentialism. One claim seems clearly necessary. Any consequentialist theory must accept the claim that I labeled ‘consequentialism’, namely, that certain normative properties depend only on consequences. If that claim is dropped, the theory ceases to be consequentialist.

[Snip of exploration of broader meanings, which might even include my own usage. Interesting but not germane to the immediate point. –J.]

What matters is only that we get clear about exactly which claims are at stake when someone supports or criticizes what they call “consequentialism”. Then we can ask whether each objection really refutes that particular claim.

[End excerpt; remainder of article continues to explore the idea of consequentialism, along with other ideas and terms regarding utilitarianism.]

Copyright © 2011 by
Walter Sinnott-Armstrong


  1. I think that the English language leads to “category mistakes” in ethics – the most obvious one being the confusing of “good as in pleasant” and “good as in moral” . We use the same word “good” to apply to both pleasure and moral good – and that is silly (really silly).

    For example rapists feel pleasure from the act of rape – that does not mean that rape is morally good. Nor is it a matter of the “pain of the victim being greater than the pleasure of the rapist or rapists” the very act of trying to do such a calculation is an obscenity (a wild example of bad faith – of utterly missing-the-point).

    Nor is this a case of “act utilitarianism” versus “rule utilitarianism” – because thinking based upon “well if we allow people to rape each other [to stick with the rape example] will tend to lead to a society where there is less pleasure than if we do not allow this”. It is all still missing-the-point – good as in pleasure and good as in moral are NOT the same thing. Doing what is right is NOT about “making people happy”, either in a specific case or as a “general rule”.

    For example, one does not sit their calculating whether allowing THEFT (new example) will tend to lead to greater “pleasure” than it does “pain”.

    Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard were right (NOT wrong) when they said that being opposed to THEFT and ENSLAVEMENT (making someone work for others by the threat of force – as in the “Civil Rights” laws, the most recent of which is the GOVERNMENT backed “Gay Marriage” movement) is not a matter of pleasure and pain calculation – not in a specific case or as a “general rule”. This has got nothing to do with private ceremonies – and everything to do with the use of FORCE.

    I simply will have dealings with people who think it is (for example) FORCE people to bake cakes or take photographs or rent rooms for events they do not want to get involved in – this “Civil Rights” is really SLAVERY and slavery is WRONG. It is not a matter of a pleasure pain calculation – not a matter of “well people at the wedding will be really upset if you do not bake them a cake – so we are going to whip you [or fine you] till you do bake them cake”. Slavery is wrong – no matter how much some people enjoy having other people as slaves. Not because the “consequences” are bad (most pain for the slaves than pleasure for the masters), but because the act itself is bad – it is an aggression (therefore bad by definition).

    Theft is wrong also – and not because the plunderers will manage the land or other property worse than the existing owners. Even if they manage the property better than the person (or club, or church, or charitable trust, or whatever) they stole it from the act of theft is still wrong – it is still an aggression.

    That does not mean that the argument “your ancestors stole this – so I can steal it from you” position is correct, of course it is not, But one should be very wary of arguments for theft (or other aggression) based upon consequences. Of course people who wish to engage in mass theft (such as the French Revolutionaries) do not say “we want to engage in mass theft” they say things such as “this land was not “justly acquired” a thousand years ago” or “breaking up these estates with land reform would improve productivity” – but we should not let such sophistry fool us.

    Does this mean it is all up for arguments based upon consequences?

    Not totally – NO.

    For example, what if there are no good alternatives?

    What if, whatever you do, someone is going to have their body and goods violated?

    Say that an invading army is coming to enslave or exterminate everyone and one needs a clear firing line from one’s position and that means destroying a private house?

    And the owner of the private house objects?

    According to the late Murray Rothbard destroying the private house is, therefore, unacceptable – and that is that.

    However, the Rothbardian rules of war mean automatic defeat.

    If the defeat can be shown to lead to greater violation of property (of lives and goods) than the tactics needed to prevent defeat (to achieve victory) then, I would argue, arguments based upon consequences have a place.

    But what one does is NOT good – it may be a “necessary evil” to prevent more violation of lives and goods, but it is NOT good.

    Sometimes one does evil to avoid greater evil – but one still does evil. The consequences do not make what one does good.



  2. Glad you found it useful, Simon. Thanks. :>)

    (But you closed comments! Wah! I had TONS more to say! –Oh, I get it, that’s what you were afraid of. *g*)



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