Analytic Philosophy

Analytic Ethics

What is consequentialism?

Consequentialism is the twentieth century version of nineteenth century utilitarianism. The utilitarian moral system held that we should act so that the greatest pleasure or happiness for the greatest number results, with everyone counting for one and no one counting for more than one. G.E. Moore’s (1873–1958) ideal utilitarianism specified that the goods we should seek as the result of our actions are aesthetic experiences and relations of friendship.

Consequentialism is a more general form of utilitarianism that holds that we should act so as to bring about the best consequences, or act to maximize the results. Contemporary consequentialists often speak of “preference-satisfaction” as the ultimate consequence that has intrinsic value. (Preference satisfaction is getting what one wants.) There is also discussion about the distribution of consequences, whether it is better that all involved get equal shares or whether it is sufficient if the total good or average good is increased.

Act consequentialism specifies that we should do the action that has the best consequences, and rule consequentialism specifies that we should do the action that is an instance of the rule that has the best consequences.

All of these issues and others have been discussed in J.J.C. Smart (1920–) and Bernard Williams’ (1929–2003) Utilitarianism: For and Against (1973) and Samuel Scheffler’s (1951–) The Rejection of Consequentialism (1994). There have also been attempts to relate consequentialism to ordinary language philosophy, most notably by R. Hare (1919–2002).


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