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A consequentialist moral theory defines normative properties such as rightness, praiseworthiness, and virtuousness, in terms of the promotion of valuable states of affairs (as in normative ethics). Since normative theories tend to focus on the rightness of actions, a consequentialist theory of right action is the most common form of consequentialism; it says that the right action is that which brings about the best consequences overall. Classical Utilitarianism as advanced by Bentham and Mill is a clear example of act-consequentialism, defining right actions as those maximizing the happiness of sentient beings.

Consequentialism encapsulates the thought that morality should be concerned with improving the quality of people’s lives, and as such, can seem to be little more than common sense. However, consequentialism has problems accounting for intuitions concerning justice and rights, the existence of special obligations, and a distinction between what is morally required and morally supererogatory.

Moral theories: Locating consequentialism in normative ethics

The two central concepts of normative ethics are the right and the morally good. The concept of the right is, roughly, the concept of duty, the concept of actions which one ought to perform, which it would be wrong not to perform. The concept of the good (the target of the theory of value, or axiology (Greek: Axios = worthy; logos =study of) refers to which states of human beings, and states of affairs, are desirable or good. Normative ethics is roughly the field of study that aims to determine which actions are right, and which states of affairs are morally good. All normative or moral theories include two components: A theory of value (a theory of the good) and a theory of the right. A theory of value provides an account of what things are intrinsically good, or what states of affairs we would like to have realized. For example, hedonism is a theory of value according to which the happiness (qualitative states) of sentient beings is the only intrinsic good. The second component of a moral theory is the specification of how moral agents ought to responds to the valuable properties specified by the theory of value. This is most often understood in terms of a theory of right action, for modern ethical thinking has tended to focus centrally concerned with what is done, as over above, for example, what sort of persons we should become.

Moral theories may be classified according to how they specify the relation between the theory of value and the theory of right action. The Greek word, telos, means goal, end, or purpose; teleology is the study of goals, ends and purposes; teleological ethical theories, therefore, emphasize that morality is oriented toward bringing about a certain goal. Consequentialism is one important sort of teleological moral theory. Consequentialism in its most general form is the claim that a normative property (such as "rightness," "wrongness," "virtuousness," etc.) depends on the value of consequences. There are various forms of consequentialism. For example, act consequentialism holds that the right act for a particular agent is the one that produces the greatest balance of good over bad consequences. Rule consequentialism justifies moral rules according to the value that the rules tend to promote. Motive consequentialism is the thesis that the moral qualities of an action depend on the overall consequences of actions done from a particular motive. This article will focus most centrally on act consequentialism.

Historically, consequentialism may be understood as a theory of right action emanating from philosophical concerns with Classical Utilitarianism. Consequentialism is one element of Utilitarianism. Philosophers have marked out this element of Utilitarianism with a special label. Interpretations of what is to be included under the rubric of consequentialism are not entirely standard in the philosophical literature. Roughly, consequentialism refers to a variety of theories which derive from and are emendations of Classical Utilitarianism. What they have in common is only the claim that the rightness of an action (or correctness of any normative property in general) is determined by the consequences it brings about.

This characterisation of consequentialism is very broad, and many widely diverging theories may be understood as consequentialist in this sense. For example, most consequentialists would want to differentiate their theory from another consequentialist theory, ethical egoism, which has a superficially similar structure to Utilitarianism. Ethical egoism may be understood as the moral theory according to which right actions are those that bring about the greatest overall good for the agent him or herself. The ethical egoist does not consider right actions as depending on the best state of the world overall, but the best state of the world from his perspective. So although ethical egoism is plainly a consequentialist moral theory, because it makes rightness depend on consequences, it is not an impartial moral theory. The consequences are measured from the perspective of the agent, and are judged best if they bring about the best results for him alone.

In sum, consequentialism covers a wide variety of moral theories. One ought to pay attention to the details of the theories themselves, in order to distinguish between the many forms of consequentialism.

Consequentialism and classical utilitarianism

Jeremy Bentham

The most well known example of a consequentialist ethical theory is Classical Utilitarianism, as articulated in the seminal writings of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Consequentialism may be helpfully understood in terms of its relation to Classical Utilitarianism. Classical Utilitarianism is hedonistic act consequentialism. This means that Classical Utilitarianism is a consequentialist ethical theory that endorses hedonism as a theory of value, and focuses on actions (as opposed to rules, motives, character traits). This is clearly evident in Principle of Utility, which Mill articulates as follows: "The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness" (Mill, 1962, p. 257).

The hedonism of Classical Utilitarianism has always been controversial, and many philosophers have rejected hedonism as a theory of value without rejecting the insight the morality ought to be concerned with promoting valuable states of affairs. Philosophers have then tended to articulate alternative accounts of value, without abandoning the consequentialism in Classical Utilitarianism. More generally, the varieties of consequentialism are helpfully understood as revisions of Classical Utilitarianism in an attempt to accommodate its basic insight while avoiding the objections to which the hedonism of Classical Utilitarianism seems susceptible.

All Utilitarian theories are versions of consequentialism, since consequentialism is a key element of Utilitarianism. However, Utilitarianism is sometimes understood as a species of consequentialism, which endorses theory of value that is specifically concerned with the welfare of individual human beings. On this definition, Utilitarianism is welfarist consequentialism. Some welfarist theories are subjectivist, including hedonism and desire and preference satisfaction theories. Other welfarist theories are objectivist, or pluralist such as G.E. Moore’s Ideal Utilitarianism. Perfectionist Consequentialist theories would not, on this definition count as forms of Utilitarianism. But this usage is not standard across the philosophical literature.

Objections to consequentialism

Justification and deliberation

A normative theory such as consequentialism aims to answer the question: "What makes actions right or wrong?" A related aim of normative theory is to provide principles of right action that may be employed as a moral guide to human beings in their lives. But this aim of normative theory—that it formulates principles of conduct which can guide person in their actual conduct—generates a problem for consequentialism. The objection was first stated by Mill’s in his seminal work, Utilitarianism, and it is this: “There is not enough time, previous to action, for calculating and weighing any line of conduct on the general happiness.” Therefore, consequentialism, which says that the rightness of an action depends on the consequences is practically useless.

To see the problem, consider that the Principle of Utility is a fundamental moral principle according to which right actions are those that maximize happiness. This is an account of which actions are right and which are wrong in terms of a basic moral principle. But if moral theories are meant to provide guidance for human conduct on the basis of particular rules, then the Principle of Utility does not seem to be very well suited to this. It would seem to be self defeating to use the Principle of Utility as a decision procedure; by using it one would probably be prevented from actually doing about the best action. Consider an example when someone has to act quickly in order to save another person from drowning. If he or she had to use the Principle of Utility to calculate whether (for example) jumping into the ocean was indeed the right thing, the opportunity of saving the life would be lost, and he or she would end up not having done the right thing. So, the objection says that Utilitarianism fails as a moral theory because it does not provide a rule which can actually be used be people to guide their own conduct. Note that this objection is directed to the consquentialism (a theory of right action) in Classical Utilitarianism.

John Stuart Mill

Mill’s reply to this objection say that the “… there is ample time [for calculation], namely, the whole past duration of the human species.” Mill's response is to say that ordinary morality should used as rules of thumb, guidelines that will help one in navigating through his daily life, and that one should not (always) rely on the Principle of Utility as a decision procedure. This is important because it opens up a gap between how one ought to think in contexts of moral deliberation, and those properties of individual acts, which confer rightness or wrongness on the action. If the principle of Utility is a criterion of rightness, and not a decision procedure, then Utilitarianism does not entail that one ought (always) to try to calculate the greatest utility of one’s action. It will often be better to act in accordance with common sense moral rules rather than trying to calculate the expected outcome of one’s action.

This move may easily be transferred into the more general Consequentialist theories. If consequentialism is meant to be only a theory of justification (of what makes actions right), rather than an account of deliberation, then it is quite coherent for a consequentialist to maintain that the best way of doing the right thing is not to calculate consequences but follow other policies and rules of thumb.

Conflicts with Ordinary Morality

Other problems for consequentialism arise from the fact that consequentialism is in conflict with ordinary moral thinking in a number of ways.


Firstly, consequentialism seems unable to accommodate justice and rights. J.J.C Smart’s (1978) formulates the problem for consequentialism with respect to justice as follows: “The most poignant sort of case, of course, is that of the punishment of an innocent man. Suppose that in order to prevent a riot in which thousands would certainly be killed a sheriff were to frame and execute an innocent man. On utilitarian principles would not the sacrifice of one life in order to save thousands be justified?” (Smart’s discussion is with particular reference to Utilitarianism, but, again, Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism.) The point of the example is that if the sheriff frames the stranger he will bring about more good consequences than bad consequences. One may simply stipulate that this is so. According to consequentialism, therefore, this is the right action to perform. However, an innocent man does not deserve to be punished. So, it seems, consequentialism does not accommodate justice.


A structurally very similar problem arises with respect to consequentialism and rights. The concept of a "right" has to do with protecting a person’s important interests. Rights place limits on how an individual may be treated; they are basic constraints which set limits on what may be done to persons. Once again the problem here is that a utilitarian moral theory is apparently committed to the claim that nothing that is ultimately prohibited, so long as the good consequences of this action outweigh the bad. Rape, torture, and all manner of horrific acts may in principle be required whenever the overall consequences are good enough. This clashes with the idea that persons have rights which limit what may be done to them, even in the pursuit of good consequences.

Special obligations

Another problem for consequentialism is accounting for the existence of special ties of obligation. Special obligations include those acquired by entering into contracts, obligations acquired in virtue of occupying a certain occupational role, and family ties. For example, a teacher is obligated to certain sorts of actions related to satisfying occupational duties, and these actions are required of him or her only because of the special duties incumbent on a teacher. Similarly, a mother or father is usually thought to be obligated to her or his children in a way she or he is not obligated to other people’s children. These are sometime called agent-relative duties. Consequentialism, however, is usually understood to be an agent neural moral theory, and so, one is obligated to bring about good for those who would benefit from it most, irrespective of their relationship to oneself. This consequence is at odds with ordinary thinking in that it seems that a person reasonably displays concern for her family that she does not display for others. But consequentialism requires one to promote the good in general, and does therefore not accommodate the common sense intuition that special obligations generate special duties, and that (for example) a father is required to do things for his own family that he is not required to do for people in general.

On a closely related point, W.D. Ross has argued that if breaking a promise brings about slightly more happiness, then the Classical Utilitarian must prescribe that the promise is to be broken. Imagine that one made a promise to give a friend a ride to the airport. However, at the last moment, someone asks the first person to come away for the weekend, making it impossible to give provide the ride for the second person. Imagine that there would be a slightly greater balance of gain overall if the promise were broken. Ross’s point is that consequentialism says one should break the promise even if the overall gain is only slightly greater. But this seems to imply that consequentialism cannot accommodate the point that one is obligated by the promise, and a slight gain in overall pleasure does not seem to trump this obligation.

Consequentialism is too demanding

Another important objection to consequentialism is that it is too demanding as a moral theory. To understand this objection, it is necessary to spend a moment considering some key features of common moral beliefs. In ordinary morality, there is a distinction between what people are morally required to do (or not do) and what is good or morally significant to do, but what is not strictly required. For example, "Thou shall not murder" entails that people are required to refrain from intentionally killing innocent people. By contrast, acts of charity are morally praiseworthy, but people are not, it is usually thought, strictly required to be charitable. Rather, charity is something that goes beyond the bounds of duty. One would not normally be blamed for failing to give to charity, although one would be morally praised for acts of charity. Actions that are morally admirable to do but not strictly required are called supererogatory actions.

The problem for consequentialism is that it eliminates the distinction between actions that are morally required and morally supererogatory actions. The consequentialist criterion (in its barest formulation) for right action is maximization of a specified value: One is doing the right thing only insofar as one is maximizing the good. However, people often take themselves to be acting in a way that is morally permissible even when it clearly is not one which brings about the most good. Spending money on a holiday, for example, seems to be a candidate for a morally permissible action although there are other courses of action that would serve a much greater good overall. For instance, giving the money to an agency like the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) may help to save lives, a much greater good than a few days spent lazing about on a beach. If people are doing the right thing only if they are maximizing the good, it seems that almost all of human actions are wrong. Critics contend that consequentialism is too demanding as a moral theory. It does not seem right to say that one is doing wrong by going out for dinner on Friday night or sitting around chatting with friends.

Consequentialist replies to objections

The conflict between the prescriptions of a moral theory and the ordinary way of thinking raises a question about how moral theories are to be evaluated. If a moral theory conflicts with commonsense, pre-reflective morality, it could be that the theory is wrong or the moral convictions are wrong (or both).


Some hard line consequentialists argue that moral common sense is mistaken and ought to be revised. Smart expresses this view as follows:

Admittedly utilitarianism does have consequences which are incompatible with the common moral consciousness, but I tended to take the view “so much the worse for the common moral consciousness.” That is, I was inclined to reject the common methodology of testing general ethical principles by seeing how they square with our feelings in particular instances.

With respect to the case in which an innocent man was framed in order to avert a riot in which many more people would be killed, a consequentialist might point out that all options are terrible in this sort of scenario and insofar as common sense moral judgments dictate that framing an innocent man ought not to be done, there is no reason to suppose that these common sense judgments are to be preferred over the result given by consequentialism. Similarly, with respect to the problem that consequentialist is committed to saying that since almost all actions (including watching TV) fail to maximize utility, almost all actions are wrong, some philosophers are inclined to accept this consequence. Peter Singer is probably the most influential defender of this sort of position.

This sort of hard line commitment to the revision of common moral practices is probably not the most popular response taken by consequentialists. Most philosophers are uncomfortable with a large-scale revisionism of moral practices as a result of a moral theory. As a result, they attempt to modify the theory to bring closer to ordinary moral thinking on certain key matters. The philosophical literature on consequentialism is enormous, proliferating with attempts to avoid the problems outlined above, and others, and bring consequentialism more into line with moral common sense. One of the most influential strategies of reply is articulated below.

Rule consequentialism

One common move in bringing consquentialism more in line with ordinary moral thinking is to specify the relation between consequences and right action indirectly. Classical Utilitarianism defines rightness directly. An act is right if and only if it increases aggregate happiness. Direct act consequentialism says that the moral rightness of an action depends on the consequences of that very action. By contrast, indirect act consequentialism says that the moral rightness of an act depends on the consequences of something else, such as motives or rules. (The direct/indirect distinction may be applied to any normative property.)

One influential form of indirect consequentialism is rule utilitarianism. According to rule utilitarianism, the moral rightness of an act depends on its conformity with a rule, which itself is justified because it produces the best consequences overall. So rule consequentialism defines right action indirectly in terms of rules that tend to promote the non-moral good. In order to ascertain whether an action is right, one has to take into account the consequences of following the rule against which the action is assessed. In this respect, Rule Utilitarianism is indirect act consequentialism because it makes the rightness of an action dependent on the results of following a rule, rather than the action itself. A right action is one which conforms to a rule, which is justified because the consequences of following this rule are better than the consequences of following alternative rules.

Rule Consequentialism seems to be able to answer the objections from rights and justice outlined above. With respect to the framing of an innocent man in order to prevent a riot, a rule Utilitarian will reason that a society in which people adhere to the rule "don’t punish the innocent" is bound to be better that a society in which this rule is not followed. The rule "don’t punish the innocent" produces greater overall good. Punishing the innocent man is wrong because it does not accord with the rule which would bring about the best consequences overall. Secondly, the rule consequentialist may accommodate intuitions about special obligations by arguing that the consequences of following these sorts of rules will tend to be better than those generated by not adhering to agent relative duties. It seems reasonable to think that rule consequentialism will generate moral prescriptions quite closely in accordance with those of common sense.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bentham, Jeremy. 1996. An Introduction to the Principles of Moral Legislation. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198205163.
  • Carlson, Erik. 1995. Consequentialism Reconsidered. Springer.
  • Crisp, Roger. 1997. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Mill on Utilitarianism. Publish London: Routledge.
  • Darwall. 2002. Consequentialism. Blackwell Publishing.
  • Duff, R.A. 2003. Punishment, Communication, and Community. Oxford University Press.
  • Johnson, Conrad D. 1991. Moral Legislation. Cambridge University Press.
  • Mill, J.S. 2003. Utilitarianism and on Liberty: Including 'Essay on Bentham' and Selections from the Writings of Jeremy Bentham and John Austin. Blackwell Publishing.
  • Mulgan, Tim. 2002. The Demands of Consequentialism. Oxford University Press.
  • Nozick, Robert. 1974. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 0-465-09720-0.
  • Scheffler, Samuel. 1994. The Rejection of Consequentialism. Oxford University Press.
  • Smart, J.J.C., and Bernard Williams. 1973. Utilitarianism: For and Against. Cambrodge: Cambridge University Press.

External Links

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