Analytic Philosophy

Analytic Ethics

How have consequentialists responded to criticism?

Anscombe provided this example: say she meets her mortal enemy on a cliff. If her enemy falls off because she accidentally falls against him, she is blameless, even though the unintended effect of the enemy’s death is welcome to her (after the fact).

Others have criticized the ways in which consequentialism seems to ignore issues of justice in cases where an unjust act or even a human sacrifice might serve to maximize benefits for others.

Some consequentialists, such as philosophy professor and author Kai Neilsen (1926–), have simply bitten the bullet and asserted that whatever saves the most lives is good. Neilson is famous for his 1972 article in Ethics, “In Defense of Utilitarianism,” which provides the example of a fat man wedged in a cave; the waters are rising and his companions are trapped behind him. Nielsen asserts that if the fat man were humanely dispatched by an exploding stick of dynamite (conveniently on the scene) there is no violation of morality.

Consequentialists have responded to the criticism of being unjust by claiming that rule consequentialism can allow for justice because a just rule will result in better consequences, and in the long run unjust behavior will fail to improve people’s lives. For example, in an immediate situation a doctor might sacrifice a healthy patient so that six others who need organ transplants may live. But the rule followed in the sacrifice of the healthy patient would undermine confidence in doctors, and in the long term more harm than good would result from killing the healthy patient.

Others have pointed out the obvious problem of calculating consequences in the future. Another strong objection to consequentialism, voiced by Bernard Williams (1919–2003), is that the focus on results with everyone counting the same undermines the integrity of an agent by ignoring the importance of personal projects to that agent. In a famous example, Williams imagines that a traveler is asked to kill one Indian to save nine more from being shot. He argues that the consequentialist approach violates the importance to the traveler of his own moral identity as someone who does not kill others.


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