Uploaded by Danial Hussain

01-Utilitarianism-and-Consequentialism (1)

Central claim of consequentialism: The rightness or wrongness of an action is determined only
by its consequences.
 A criterion of rightness – answer to the question what makes an act right. Question thus
is – can judging an act by its consequences be a way of determining its rightness?
→ Can be combined with various theories of the good (theories of what makes
one’s life go well). These include hedonism, desire theory, and objective list
theory. It does not presuppose any of these.
Motivating utilitarianism:
 (1) Claim that (act) consequentialism embodies the “compelling idea” that it’s irrational
to choose to bring about a worse rather than a better outcome (SCHEFFLER)
→ PORTMORE 2009: What you morally ought to do is determined by what you
have most reason to do. What you have most reason to do is determined by
the reasons there are for preferring one outcome rather than another.
 (2) Social morality needs to be justified, and the best way to do that is by appealing to
the good that it does.
 (3) Appeal to the moral importance of well-being and impartial concern for others →
consequentialism best able to account for this
→ This motivates utilitarianism in particular – claims (1) and (2) motivate general
forms of consequentialism!
Utilitarianism is consequentialism + hedonism → Rightness of an act is judged by its
consequences, and wellbeing consists in pleasure. Thus, according to utilitarianism, an act is
right IFF (and because) of the actions available, it produces the most pleasure.
An act is right if and only if, among the alternatives, it has the best consequences.
Arguments for act consequentialism:
 Rule consequentialism, properly applied, would collapse into act consequentialism.
→ Always instances where not following a rule has significantly better
consequences than following it
→ Including all these cases in rules (“do not steal unless … or … or …”) will
ultimately lead to act consequentialism
 Arguments against act consequentialism:
 No room for social institutions (e.g. promises)
→ If both parties know that promise will only be kept if doing so leads to best
outcome it loses its value as that is dependent on the assurance that it will be
 These arguments are only specific arguments against act consequentialism. Objections to
consequentialism overall will be looked at in the next part.
An act is right if and only if it follows a rule such that, if everyone were to accept and follow
this rule, it would lead to the best consequences.
 Refers to universal compliance.
Arguments for rule consequentialism:
 Has room for social institutions (e.g. promises)
 Less demanding than act consequentialism (see demandingness objection)
Arguments against rule consequentialism:
 Collapses into act consequentialism if properly applied (see discussion above)
→ Response: We also need to consider the implications of a rule such as “do not
steal unless … or … or …” on compliance with the moral code. Bringing about
widespread acceptance of a simpler code (“do not steal”) is likely to have the
better consequences in total over time because people will be more likely to
actually adhere to the code as it can more easily be used as an action guiding
 Following rules can sometimes lead to a result that is not the best one
→ E.g. – should I keep a promise made on a desert island to someone who
subsequently died?
→ Solution can be inclusion of a prevent disaster rule: Stick to rule unless
breaking it prevents a significantly large disaster
What makes a life good? (I.e.: what should be maximized?)
Hedonism: maximize pleasure and minimize pain
 Obj.: pleasure and pain are distinct from each other – people sometimes feel neither
pleasure nor pain, and sometimes they feel both at once.
 Obj.: higher/lower pleasures (cf. Haydn and the Oyster: prefer very long Oyster live
with small pleasures over shorter life of Haydn with higher pleasures?)?
→ Mill’s qualitative hedonism he suggested as solution is problematic, how to
decide between different combinations of higher/lower pleasures?
 Obj.: not all pleasures are valuable (e.g. pleasure a sadist gets from whipping a victim)
 Obj.: some things are valuable independently of whether they lead to pleasure or
avoid pain (e.g. love for one’s partner doesn’t become less valuable when one can get
less pleasure from their partner because the partner has contracted some horrible
Pluralist theory of value: deny that all values can be reduced to any single ground (such as
pleasure or desire satisfaction) – aim to maximize various values
 E.g. MOORE 1903 – ideal utilitarianism: takes into account the values of beauty and
truth/knowledge in addition to pleasure
 Has many advantages – can e.g. maintain that social institutions such as promisekeeping are valuable because the values of truthfulness are important
Utilitarianism of rights: an act is right if it maximizes respect for (or minimizes violations of)
certain specified moral rights
Consequentialism is implausibly demanding. Two forms:
 (1) Epistemic demandingness objection: under consequentialism, it’s very difficult to
work out what the right thing to do in a given situation would be.
 (2) Deontic demandingness objection: consequentialism makes everything that is
morally suboptimal morally impermissible and requires us to do acts that are or should
be moral options.
It’s impossible that agents calculate all consequences of each act for every person for all time
– but this is what consequentialism seems to require.
Res. – misinterpretation: This is based on the assumption that the principle of utility is
supposed to be used as a decision procedure/guide – but most classic and contemporary
utilitarians and consequentialists don’t propose their principles as decision procedures!
 SIDGWICK 1907: “it is not necessary that the end which gives the criterion of
rightness should always be the end at which we consciously aim”
 Overall utility is the criterion of what is morally right, not intended to provide a
decision procedure
→ Cf. the laws of physics govern golf ball flight, but golfers don’t need to
calculate physical forces while planning shots. → Overall utility can determine
which decisions are morally right even if agents don’t need to calculate
utilities while making decisions.
Cf. RAILTON 1984 – we should be sophisticated consequentialists, i.e. follow the course of
action that leads to the best consequences even if that course of action requires us not to
adopt a consequentialist perspective in practical deliberation.
 More extensive discussion on this below in section on Alienation Objection
Additional point: most people in most circumstances, on a consequentialist account, ought not
to calculate utilities because they’re too likely to make serious miscalculations, leading to
actions that will actually reduce utility
 HARE 1981: most agents usually ought to follow their moral intuitions, because these
intuitions evolved to lead us to perform acts that maximize utility, at least in likely
 This doesn’t make consequentialism self-refuting – there’s nothing incoherent about
having a decision procedure that is separate from one’s criterion of the right!
Consequentialism makes everything that’s morally suboptimal morally impermissible – it
requires us to do acts that are/should be moral options.
 Strange that (a) everything that’s not morally ideal is wrong; (b) there can be no actions
that are morally excellent (i.e. better than what’s morally good)
 Ex.: when I choose to study philosophy rather than working for a charity my choice
probably fails to maximize overall utility. But implausible to claim that studying
philosophy is wrong.
 Why is this a problem? → Moral theories should be action-guiding and attainable, this
just sets an unachievable ideal.
→ Also problematic that it strongly interferes with individual freedom and agency?
Especially problematic with act consequentialism: Donating almost all my income to charity
would lead to best consequences.
 Because of impartiality – does not matter who is affected by the consequences.
Argument: Consequentialism conflicts with conventional morality (and is more demanding
than it) and thus cannot be the right moral theory.
 Obj. – SINGER 1972: Conventional morality is also problematic and has inherent
tensions. In structurally similar cases which appeal to the same principle, conventional
morality gives us conflicting advice, and is thus a bad guide. Therefore, deference to
conventional morality may mean deferring to biases and prejudices which cannot be
rationally supported. Argument:
→ (1) I should save a child drowning in a pond if I can do so at insignificant costs
to me, e.g. just my clothes getting muddy.
→ (2) This supports the principle “if it’s in our power to prevent something bad
from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral
importance, we ought, morally, to do it”.
→ (3) By virtue of this principle, I should e.g. also donate money to charity rather
than buying luxury goods, because that allows me to prevent harm at
relatively little costs. This is against our understanding of conventional
morality but based on the same principle that supported our conventional
understanding (1), so conventional morality is flawed.
Objection less problematic for rule consequentialism that assumes full compliance: consider
the case of donations to charity – if everyone capable of doing so would donate a small
amount to charity that would be sufficient. Therefore, a rule “donate a small share of your
income to charity” would be sufficient, and not be too demanding.
 But: in real world, most people don’t follow the moral code (problem of partial
→ If we react to this by including a prevent disaster rule, then rule
consequentialism could again become very demanding
Is this a valid objection? Maybe the perceived demandingness of morality is a product of the
fact that we inhabit a world that exhibits a great deal of inequality. Would we object these
demands if they were voiced in a more equal world by arguing that, if the world would be
more unequal, they would be very demanding?
 This is for judging the prescriptions of morality (forward-looking) – points made above
are more specifically on the judgements of morality on what’s happened (backwardlooking)
Res. – compliance. Make consequentialism sensitive to facts of human psychology: people
need to have incentives for working, incl. being able to keep a fair degree of their money. A
person who donates everything to charity would end up less incentivized and productive, thus
producing less to give away to the needy – i.e. this wouldn’t be maximally good!
 General argument (HOOKER): a very demanding moral code might be impossible to
demand universally. Given the natural limitations and biases of human beings,
adopting a less demanding morality might have better consequences overall.
 Obj.: this assumes that moral psychology is fixed – but people can potentially be
trained/made to want to be more sacrificing, to take up the welfare of others as a
project that brings happiness to their lives
 Q: how to draw the line between what’s acceptably demanding and what isn’t? Risk of
privileging our pre-existing intuitions about what’d be too demanding.
Res. – satisficing consequentialism (SLOTE 1984): give up maximization requirement, instead
hold that we morally ought to do what creates enough utility.
 It’s not morally wrong to fail to contribute to a charity if one contributes enough to
other charities and if the money that one could contribute does create enough good,
i.e. isn’t wasted.
 Allows for supererogatory actions (morally superior but yet optional actions) and also
for importance of agent-relative values (e.g. caring more about family members)
Res. – SOBEL 2007: the demandingness objection presupposes that there is a morally
relevant distinction between causing harm and allowing harm to occur which consequentialism
cannot accommodate. It’s this distinction that grounds the objection in this case, not the
demandingness of consequentialism in terms of its absolute costs.
The distinction is required as a premise to justify that the demandingness objection
treats the sacrifices the agent is asked to make differently from the sacrifices e.g.
patients are asked to make.
→ Ex.: suppose Joe has two healthy kidneys and can live a decent but reduced
life with only one. Further suppose that Sally needs one of Joe’s kidneys to
live. Demandingness objection would state that it’s too demanding to ask Joe
to give up a kidney. But consider things from Sally’s point of view: she could
complain about the excessive demands a different moral theory would impose
on her by permitting others to allow her to die when they could aid her.
→ Thus, can only show that this is a demanding case by focusing particularly on
Joe, but this limited focus needs to be justified! That’s why the premise is
Therefore, because it needs to presuppose the objection that consequentialism
wrongly holds that there is no distinction between causing harm and allowing harm to
occur, the demandingness objection isn’t argumentatively forceful on its own.
Consequentialism fails to take the personal characteristics and attributes of the agent into
account. (i.e. things that matter to the agent besides the objective maximization of some goal
as the consequence of his actions.) (WILLIAMS)
 Strong claim: the consequentialist procedure entirely looses sight of the fundamental
importance of personhood!
 Arg.: there’s no such thing as impartial agency in the sense of impartiality that
utilitarianism requires. Practical deliberation is always first-personal, and we’re thus
not “agents of the universal satisfaction system”. No agent can be expected to be
what a utilitarian agent has to be – i.e. someone who’s abandoned their own particular
life and projects for the impartial point of view of morality.
 “utilitarianism leaves no room for integrity in the sense of the value to be found in a
person’s sticking by what the person regards as ethically necessary or worthwhile”;
utilitarianism doesn’t understand integrity because “it cannot coherently describe the
relations between a man’s projects and his actions”
Doctrine of negative responsibility: we’re as responsible for things that we allow/fail to
prevent than we are for things that we actively bring about (has to be endorsed by
consequentialists as, in terms of consequences, agency doesn’t matter).
 This is what WILLIAMS is especially concerned with: utilitarianism cannot make sense
of the distinction that exists between my agency and that of other people!
Why is agency/integrity important? → Because any world-view which loses sight of the
nature of agency doesn’t make sense because it involves deserting one’s individual position to
“the point of view of the universe” (SIDGWICK 1981).
 WILLIAMS: “there is simply no conceivable exercise that consists in stepping
completely outside myself and from that point of view evaluating in toto the
dispositions, projects, and affections that constitute the substance of my own life”
→ I.e. we cannot understand the world except through the perspectives of
individual agents, and these will always be connected to their agency
→ Worry isn’t that impartiality as an ethical consideration is not conceivable (it
is) but that we cannot reach a point of view of absolute impartiality (the “point
of view of the universe”)
 George and the Warfare Laboratory: George is offered a job in a chemical warfare
laboratory, something he is strongly opposed to. If he declines the job, someone else
will take it and continue the research more intensely than George would have. Should
George take the job?
 Jim and the Indians: Jim comes into a village where a general is planning to kill twenty
innocent Indians. The General makes Jim an offer – either he kills one of the Indians
and the other 19 will be left alive, or all 20 are killed by the military. Should Jim kill one
Indian, despite his strong opposition to killing someone?
Problematic that all that matters for assessing what George/Jim should do are the
consequences of their actions, without considering the consequences of the actions on them
at all, and the importance of them acting.
 The consequentialist prescriptions (take the job, kill the Indian) are conflicting with
the common idea that agents have a special responsibility for what they do.
→ E.g. Jim might argue that morality requires him not to kill.
 This is the core of the objection – it’s not about utilitarianism being counterintuitive!
(WILLIAMS even states that the utilitarian is right in holding that Jim should kill the
one Indian.)
Squeamishness objection: people not acting if their action could prevent some harm are just
 E.g. if I’m conducting scientific research on a beach, and see a child drowning in the
sea, I should give up the research to save the child.
 Res.: this isn’t analogous to integrity objection cases which argue that people shouldn’t
be morally required to do things that are normally very bad in order to save others
 Obj.: we do intuitively accept that doing bad things to avoid greater harm is the right
course of action. E.g. telling someone who’s trying to murder my friend a lie about my
friend’s whereabouts. → I’d just be squeamish if I wouldn’t do that due to my
objection to lying!
Difference integrity/demandingness objection: issue here isn’t that act of e.g. killing is too
demanding, but that morally requiring it would fail to take the personal characteristics and
attributes of the agent into account
Following a consequentialist morality can alienate the agent from their personal
commitments, feelings, from other people, or even from morality itself. (RAILTON)
 Ex. (STOCKER): person visits friend in hospital, friend is grateful to the visitor. But the
visitor points out that he’s only visiting because he knows that doing so will have the
best consequences.
→ Problem: personal character of the relationship is diminished and replaced by
an objective requirement.
Focus here on consequences of acting rather than failure to respect the inherent importance of
integrity/autonomy? Is this what distinguishes it from other objections, e.g. integrity objection?
Suppose I have $100 and can either give them to my child or to a stranger who will derive
slightly more utility from it. Our intuition would be that I wouldn’t be wrong to give it to my
child – but consequentialism would claim that I ought to give it to the stranger.
Arg.: this shows that consequentialism is in conflict with what makes a life worth living
because it would render the morally good life not worth living. The morally good life for
consequentialism with an agent-neutral theory of value would be the one in which we
constantly strive to maximize neutral value. But our personal relationships and life projects are
the things that give meaning and value to our lives, and that make them worth living.
(JACKSON 1991)
 PARFIT 1984: such consequentialism is indirectly collectively self-defeating: if several
people would try to achieve their aims as given by it, the aims would be worse
→ If we all consistently try and succeed in maximizing neutral value, this requires
that our strongest desire is that for maximizing neutral value. But if this was
our strongest desire, our lives would end up being worse (→ worse
consequences!), because it makes our lives go better if we at least sometimes
have the desire that benefits are allocated to our nearest and dearest.
Response – Agent-relative consequentialism (JACKSON 1991): the right action is determined
by (a) its consequences and (b) the probability that an agent can bring about that outcome. It’s
more likely that agents can produce a good outcome when they’re able to act according to
their inner motivations and pay special attention to their nearest and dearest, thus, the right
action to take does depend on individual characteristics of the agent and can include special
attention being paid to the agent’s nearest and dearest.
 Crowd Control Example: a policy inspector using his squad to control a large crowd at a
football match will achieve the better results by allocating a specific sector to every
member of the squad for which they’ll be responsible compared to telling every squad
member that they’re responsible for the entire crowd.
→ It’s thus better to have policemen specialize – for various reasons, including
that this improves coordination, assigns feelings of special responsibility,
allows the emergence of personal relations, etc. → All of these increase the
probability that the best possible outcome will be brought about.
→ Same is true in our lives – better to have everyone specialize and assign
special value to their own personal relations and projects than try to have
everyone care about all problems at the same time.
 Can be response to other objections (e.g. integrity) too!
 But: fact that we arrive at this conclusion because it’s the best way of maximizing neutral
value is insufficient because it doesn’t mean that the theory now accounts for the
importance of close personal relationships; or the inherent importance of autonomy…
 Obj. (SMITH 2009) – this argument is based entirely on the empirical claims that there
are certain relevant limits to our knowledge and self-control. But we can imagine
situations in which agents are not so limited.
→ Suppose a community made up of individuals willing and able to act in ways
that increase expected neutral value for a group that they’re not close to,
even if that comes at a cost to them. Agent-relative consequentialism would
demand from them that they don’t pay special attention to their nearest and
dearest, and they’d act wrongly if they’d do so.
 Underlines point above that just because outcomes align in certain
cases this theory can’t account for the inherent importance of close
relationships, integrity, …
RAILTON – the paradox of hedonism: Adopting as one’s exclusive ultimate end in life the
pursuit of maximum happiness may well prevent one from having certain experiences or
engaging in certain sorts of relationships or commitments that are among the greatest sources
of happiness
Proposed solution by RAILTON 1984: distinguish between criterion of the right and decisionmaking procedure. Consequentialists don’t need to endorse consequentialist attitudes and
deliberative strategies which are the key source of the alienation problem. Distinguish
between objective and subjective consequentialism:
 According to subjective consequentialism, one should adopt the hedonistic point of
view as a guide to action: Whenever one deliberates on what to do, one should do
whatever seems to contribute to one’s happiness
 According to objective consequentialism, one, should follow the course of action that
would contribute the most to one’s happiness – even if that course of action would
require one not to adopt a hedonistic perspective in practical deliberation
 A sophisticated consequentialist will adopt objective consequentialism and not be
committed to subjective consequentialism (“is prepared to eschew the hedonistic
point of view whenever taking this point of view conflicts with following an
objectively hedonistic course of action”)
→ Compare a chess player who realizes that not playing with the sole objective
to win but rather out of an enjoyment of the game increases his chances of
→ Note that RAILTON talks of hedonism, but can apply the same distinction to
 Arg.: To avoid the alienation problem, we should become sophisticated
consequentialists, endorsing objective consequentialism and recognizing that
sometimes we will be required to therefore reject a characteristically consequentialist
mode of deliberation
→ E.g. if there is a gas leak it’s better to react immediately rather than first
calculate which reaction would have the best consequences – until it is too
late, which would mean that overall, the possibly worst consequences were
But: Ultimately, the same problem remains: What is the ultimate root reason for you visiting
the friend in hospital? It might be that you’re their friend (not that you’re adopting a hedonistic
perspective in practical deliberation), but if the root reason for you being their friend is that it
has the best consequences, then the problem isn’t avoided.
Obj. – STOCKER 1976: Sophisticated consequentialism is psychologically incoherent.
 Arg.: assume that there’s a division between what makes an act right and what
motivates an agent to act (sophisticated consequentialism). If the agent would
completely ignore what’s right in deciding his actions, the decision procedure would
never change to maximize good consequences. Thus, the agent would be forced to
constantly decide between doing what they’re motivated to do (as endorsed by the
theory) and doing what the theory directly says is the right thing to do (something
they need to be sensitive too to some extent).
A lot of ‘moving parts’ here – arguments and solutions (e.g. agent-relative consequentialism,
sophisticated consequentialism) can be used in response to various arguments/objections!
If question gives an argument to discuss, make sure to identify and discuss all the premises!
 E.g. “Consequentialism is impossibly demanding. So, it cannot be correct.” (2014) – two
premises here: (1) Consequentialism is impossibly demanding. (2) A moral theory that
is impossibly demanding cannot be correct. (suppressed premise) → Need to talk
about both! If just (1) would have been relevant, the question would just have stated
“Consequentalism is impossibly demanding, discuss”.
There are many different forms of consequentialism with distinct motivations → due to these
distinct motivations be cautious about trying to present one theory as the solution to problems
with another: good solutions to problems for a theory address the problems without sacrificing
what makes the theory attractive in the first place
Do demandingness objections to consequentialism illicitly assume that a moral requirement to
X implies an all-things-considered requirement to X? (2018)
Is satisficing consequentialism an adequate response to the worry that maximizing
consequentialism is too demanding? (2017a)
“Consequentialism is impossibly demanding. So it cannot be correct.” Discuss. (2014a)
“Unless we are to be allowed to rewrite our moral duties to suit our convenience, there can be
no truth in the claim that consequentialism is too demanding.” Discuss. (2010b)
(a) Can a consequentialist make sense of the idea that I should be more concerned with my
wrongdoings than with yours? Does she need to? OR (b) Suppose that Charity A and Charity B
avert the same number of deaths per unit of money donated, but that Charity A works by
campaigning for peace while Charity B works by immunising against life-threatening diseases.
If killing were worse than letting die, would this ground any case for donating to Charity A
rather than Charity B? (2016)
Must consequentialism misunderstand the value of close personal relations? (2012a)
Can a utilitarian be a good friend? Does it matter whether or not she can? (2011b)
How much of a problem is it that we can’t foresee all the consequences of our actions?
Does act-consequentialism better approximate the demands of beneficence than commonsense morality? (2016)
“Since a deontologist can always hold that rule-breakings are intrinsically bad, there is no
serious question over whether consequentialism is true – the question is only which
consequences are important.” Is that so? (2014b)
(a) “Consequentialism is not a complete moral theory since it only talks about right action and
not about our duties to other people.” Discuss. OR (b) “Consequentialism is false, since the
consequences of teaching it would be bad.” Discuss. (2013)
“Consequentialism can make no sense of excusable wrongs, so consequentialism is false.”
Discuss. (2012b)
Can it ever be morally right to bring about a worse rather than a better state of affairs?
“Consequentialism is a good theory for bureaucratic planners, but unless every aspect of life
should be bureaucratically planned, it cannot be a good ethical theory.” Discuss. (2010a)