Consequentialism is one of the major theories of moral philosophy. Moral philosophy is the study of what makes an action moral or ethical. Deontology teaches that an action is moral if it adheres to established rules. Ethical relativism claims that morality is dependent on the circumstances or the culture. Virtue ethics is based on a person's character—virtuous people will naturally act morally. Consequentialism looks at the end result of the action. If the consequence is good, the act was moral.
How does consequentialist ethics define morality? What is consequentialism?
Consequentialism teaches that the act itself, the motivation for the act, and the relevant rules regarding the act have little to no bearing on whether the act is moral. An act is moral if and when it produces a good result. This ethic is immortalized in the saying "The ends justify the means." But any philosophy based on something as subjective as "good" will inevitably lead to arguments about the specifics.
What is "good"? - The problems with a standardized system of consequentialism begin right away with the definition of "good." How can a morality be based on good when what is beneficial for one person may be harmful for another? In response, philosophers have various definitions of what "good" refers to.
Utilitarianism: good is simply increased pleasure or reduced pain
Hedonism: pleasure is the greatest good
Qualitative hedonism: some pleasures have greater value than others; aim for the highest all-around pleasure
Preference utilitarianism: the fulfillment of a preference is better than outright pleasure
Welfarist consequentialism: the actual welfare of an individual is greater than their desires, preferences, or perceived needs
Utilitarianism of rights: the protection and advancement of human rights is the greatest good
Holistic consequentialism: "good" refers to good for all people and all society, not the individual circumstance; this definition is similar to contemporary deontology
Negative consequentialism: if a choice must be made between increasing pleasure or decreasing pain, the agent should always choose to decrease pain
Mohist consequentialism: good is that which benefits the state; if an act helps society remain stable, strong, or profitable, the act is moral
Good for whom? - Whether "good" refers to increased pleasure, decreased pain, or human rights, there can still be a paradox. It is good for a man with heart failure to get a transplant—but not so good for the donor.
Ethical egoism: an act is moral if it most benefits the acting agent
Ethical altruism: an act is moral if it benefits others
Egalitarianism: an act is moral if it benefits the greatest possible number of people
Who determines what is a good consequence? - Is there an objective view of "good," or does it depend on the point of view of the acting agent?
Agent-relative: the agent is responsible for determining the ultimate good and the value of the good of their actions
Agent-neutral: an objective outsider is responsible for determining the ultimate good
What about "good" intentions? - Consequentialism admits that we cannot know the ultimate outcome of our actions. In response, there are various quantifiers for the intent of the acting agent.
Motive: combines with Kantian deontology by giving credit to those who intended to do good despite the results
Actual: an act is moral or not based on the actual result, not the intended result
Objective: an act is moral if an objective third party deduces there was a reasonable chance that it would lead to good
Subjective: an act is moral if the acting agent believed there was a reasonable chance it would lead to good
Proximate: an act is moral if it leads directly to good; the agent is not responsible if chance or another's choice stood in the way of a clear, reasonable determination of the outcome
Rule: an act is moral if it follows a rule that can reasonably be believed to result in the greatest good; if no rule applies, all the rules may be rejected (similar to deontology)
Ironically, consequentialists do not recommend that people use consequentialism to attempt to be moral. It is impossible to determine the likely outcome of every single action. Indeed, applying the standards of consequentialism will likely result in an unfavorable result. Instead, consequentialists believe our behavior should either be guided by instinct or a general knowledge of which action should lead to the most favorable outcome (which approaches a natural law stance), or allow experts to determine for us and follow their guidance (see: Pragmatic Ethics).
God developed ethics and law to lead to a good consequence—community with Him. Like deontology asserts, the Bible does spell out specific rights and wrongs. But creation and God's law are grounded in Logos—logic and reason (John 1:1). Those rights and wrongs have reasons and consequences more than just the need to blindly obey God. His rules protect us (Psalm 119:21), comfort us (Psalm 119:50), bring us closer to Him (James 4:8), ensure His blessings (Genesis 22:18), and grant us salvation (John 3:36). And, in the end, the "greatest good" is God's blessings (Ephesians 3:20)!
What is the philosophy of ethics?
How does normative ethics develop a framework for defining right and wrong?
How does virtue ethics define morality?
How does pragmatic ethics define morality?
How does deontological ethics define morality? What is deontology?
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