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Ethics Explainer – Consequentialism

by The Ethics Centre
15 February 2016
Consequentialism is a theory that suggests actions are good or bad depending on their outcomes. The most famous version of this theory is Utilitarianism. Actions that generate more benefit than harm are good actions while actions that cause more harm than benefit are unethical.

Although there are references to this idea in the works of ancient philosopher Epicurus, the modern origins of this ethical theory lie in the work of English philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Bentham’s theory of ‘utilitarianism’ was focussed on which actions were most likely to make people happy. He believed that pleasure was defined by the experience of pleasure and the absence of pain, and therefore he defined ethical actions as ones that cause the most possible happiness and the least possible pain.

He even developed a calculator – which he called the ‘felicific calculus’ to work out which actions were better or worse. The key thing to note here is that every person's pleasure and pain count the same 
– rich, poor, old, young, etc. – all the same. In this sense, Utilitarianism is a radically egalitarian approach. 

Bentham’s views are most closely aligned with act utilitarianism.  This basic form of consequentialism holds an action right or wrong depending on whether it brings about more beneficial/pleasure-causing outcomes than negative/pain-causing ones. Whenever we are faced with a decision, an act consequentialist will expect us to ask that question.

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John Stuart Mill, a student of Bentham’s, developed an approach known as rule utilitarianism. Mill believed it was too difficult for a society to run if it had to consider the specific costs/benefits of every single action. How could we have speeding laws, for example, if it would sometimes be ethical to break the speed limit? Instead, Mill believed we should figure out which set of rules would create the most happiness over an extended period of time and then apply those in every situation.

So, even if nobody would be hurt if you sped on an empty street at two o’clock in the morning, less people are harmed overall because we have speeding laws, so it would be unethical for you to break those laws.

Consequentialism is an attractive ethical approach because it provides clear and practical guidance – at least in those situations where outcomes are easy to predict. The theory is also impartial. By asking us to maximise benefit for the largest number of people (or, for Peter Singer and other 'preference utilitarians', any creature who has preferences), we set aside our personal biases and self-interest to benefit others.

One problem with the theory is that it can be hard to measure different benefits to decide which one is morally preferable. Is it better to give my money to charity or spend it studying medicine so I can save lives? Consequentialism can struggle to compare different moral values.

The other concern people express is the tendency of consequentialism to use ‘ends justify the means’ logic. If all we are concerned with is getting good outcomes, this can seem to justify harming some people in order to benefit others.

Is it ethical to allow some people to suffer so more people can benefit?

EXPLAINER DISCLAIMER: These explainers introduce ethical topics without detailing academic debates. 

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