The Buddha taught that one should observe the results of one’s actions, reduce those actions that lead to suffering, and increase those that lead to happiness. This is one form of consequentialism — the philosophy that one should always do whatever will lead to the best consequences. You may have heard the consequentialist motto “the end justifies the means.” Which ends justify one’s actions—whether happiness, health, or freedom, for oneself, or for others, or something else—differ in different consequentialist philosophies, but human happiness is by far the most common.
Consequentialism is a kind of teleological ethics – ethics focused on ends; this is usually contrasted with deontological ethics – ethical philosophies based on rules to be followed regardless of context. For example, “thou shalt not kill” is a deontological ethic. If you think that it could be right to kill one person to prevent the deaths of others, you are, at least partially, a consequentialist.
Consequentialism is controversial because many people believe that certain things, such as justice, truth, selflessness, or obedience to God, embody the highest good. Most consequentialists would not say that any of these principles should automatically be upheld in every situation, unless they believe in a kind of consequentialism where that principle is the end that justifies all means.
Consequentialism is a kind of rationalism. In order to determine the best course of action according to consequentialism, you have to add up the total negative and positive consequences and subtract one from the other, like you do when you use a pro / con list to help you make a decision. For example, you need to consider not only the degree of happiness caused by an action, but also the number of people affected and for how long. And since most actions have both positive and negative consequences, it is often far from clear how to resolve the consequentialist equation. We shall discuss some of these issues in section six.
Most objections to consequentialism revolve around its impartiality regarding the well-being of different people, although not all variants of consequentialism are vulnerable to these criticisms:
Partiality: Most forms of consequentialism imply that one should weigh the happiness of total strangers as heavily as your own happiness and that of your friends and family. So, for instance, consequentialism might imply that a person is morally correct to abandon their children in order to devote themselves to a project that is likely to improve the lives of millions of people. This contradicts the common sense that it is always be wrong to abandon one’s children, no matter how many other people you might benefit. Consequentialists can respond that some partiality towards yourself and your loved ones is rational, because one can be more confident about the results of actions regarding those who are part of one’s life; an hour spent on one’s own children is more certain to lead to positive consequences than an hour devoted to strangers. Another possible response to this objection is to formulate a consequentialism that explicitly defines the highest good as one’s own well-being (ethical egoism), and / or that of one’s loved ones.
Personal rights: Another objection to consequentialism is that it could easily require one to violate others’ rights to happiness and well-being. This is the source of many real moral dilemmas. The question of whether military intelligence agencies should be able to torture prisoners is one example. A consequentialist might argue that the mere chance that torturing a prisoner could reveal information that would save lives, justifies it. Nevertheless, we have, as a nation, agreed that torture is a violation of universal human rights, and so it is currently illegal.
Equality: Others have objected to the idea that only the total net happiness of consequences matters. Say that there is a certain amount of happiness one can bring to others, such as by donating money; does consequentialism imply that it’s just as good to give it all to a few people as it is to distribute it among many people? Consequentialists have responded that equality itself is a cause of human well-being, reducing conflict, and getting more value out of resources; a dollar does more for a poor person than a rich one. So, if one factors in the benefits of equality, it may be better for everyone to distribute sources of well-being rather than hoarding them. Of, course, one could also make “equality” one of the ends in one’s consequentialism: “Do whatever leads to the greatest happiness and equality.”
III. Famous Quotes
“A consequentialist or utilitarian is likely to approach the abortion question in a very different way, by trying to weigh up suffering. Does the embryo suffer? (Presumably not if it is aborted before it has a nervous system; and even if it is old enough to have a nervous system it surely suffers less than, say, an adult cow in a slaughterhouse.) Does the pregnant woman, or her family, suffer if she does not have an abortion? Very possibly so; and, in any case, given that the embryo lacks a nervous system, shouldn’t the mother’s well-developed nervous system have the choice?” ― Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion
Richard Dawkins, known for his popular book on evolution, The Blind Watchmaker, has made another name for himself recently be speaking directly against what he perceives as the irrationality of religious faith and the immorality of some faith-based policies. Here, he presents a consequentialist justification for the legality of abortion. Whether you agree with Dawkins or not, his argument nicely demonstrates the rational approach of consequentialism and its controversial conclusions.
“Pacifists have usually regarded the use of violence as absolutely wrong, irrespective of its consequences. This, like other ‘no matter what’ prohibitions, assumes the validity of the distinction between acts and omissions. Without this distinction, pacifists who refuse to use violence when it is the only means of preventing greater violence would be responsible for the greater violence they fail to prevent.” ― Peter Singer, Practical Ethics
Peter Singer was the third great theorist of utilitarianism, after Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mills. Here, he provides a consequentialist argument against the deontological idea that violence is always wrong. His argument emphasizes the opposition of consequentialism to universal (”no matter what”) rules. His quote also alludes to the fact that utilitarianism weigh the consequences of acts equally with the consequences of non-acts (“omissions”) whereas deontological ethics allow one to consider the rightness of an act or non-act without considering the other side; the idea that “violence is always wrong” does not consider the possible negative consequences of non-violence.
- State consequentialism: The most important consequence is the welfare of the state.
- Hedonism: One should always act to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.
- Utilitarianism: “the greatest good for the greatest number” – where “good” means human well-being and happiness.
- Rule consequentialism: One should follow whatever ethical rules, which if everyone in one’s society obeyed them, would lead to the greatest good for the greatest number most often.
- Two-level consequentialism: One should generally follow rules which are expected to lead to the greatest good, but also evaluate specific actions according to their consequences.
- Negative consequentialism: The consequence of reducing suffering is emphasized over the consequence of increasing happiness.
Buddhism is one of the earliest forms of consequentialism. Some would call it “negative consequentialism” because it focuses more on reducing suffering than increasing happiness, which seems to be a feature of most ancient philosophies (life was rough then). But what makes Buddhism most unique is its belief that, ultimately, reducing suffering, for both oneself and others comes from years of meditation.
This might be contrasted with Confucianism and Mohism, two consequentialist philosophies of China, sometimes called “state consequentialism” – where the most moral actions are those with the best consequences for the state. This isn’t necessarily as anti-individual as it sounds; most Chinese philosophies assume that’s what’s best for the individual is whatever is best for society; this is the nature of collectivism.
In the western world, the ancient Greeks fielded some consequentialist philosophies, such as Epicureanism, which prioritized the pursuit of pleasure and reduction of pain. But for the most part, the west was dominated by the deontological ethics of Judaism and Christianity until the 17the century when rationalism became popular again.
Starting in the 18th Century with Jeremey Bentham, and later John Stuart Mill and Peter Singer, consequentialism has become almost synonymous with utilitarianism, which is now the most thoroughly thought-out of consequentialist philosophies. As such, utilitarianism depends on a variety of principles beyond “the greatest good for the greatest number”; for example, it includes the assumption that the sufferings and pleasures of all beings are equally important.
VI. Consequentialism versus Virtue Ethics
Virtue ethics is the idea that actions (or non-actions) are right if they embody certain human virtues, such as kindness, rationality, and courage. This sounds quite different from consequentialism however their relationship is subtle and complex. Especially if one refers to Aristotle, who argued that the greatest human happiness is to be achieved through the fulfillment of human virtues. This would seem to make Aristotle both a consequentialist and virtue-ethicist at the same time. It’s also worth noting that many virtues, such as benevolence, compassion, and altruism are considered virtues because of their positive consequences. So, one could argue that virtue ethics and consequentialism partially imply each other although they may lead to different conclusions in specific cases.
VII. Consequentialism in Pop Culture
Example #1: Breaking Bad’s Walter White
Consequentialism seems one of the many ethical issues examined by this popular show. Walter White is a family man and high school chemistry teacher who learns that he has terminal lung cancer. In an effort to leave his family with financial security, White turns to manufacturing and selling crystal methamphetamine, a powerful street drug. White seems to justify his actions according to a consequentialist ethic in which the well-being of his family weighs highest; he seems to believe he is doing the right thing at first, although it gradually becomes apparent that White is, in fact, a monster, using his cancer and family to rationalize increasingly immoral actions. It would be easy to see Breaking Bad as a critique of consequentialism, although not of utilitarianism, since it is clear that the suffering of strangers does not weigh highly in Walter’s calculations. His is a more self-centered consequentialism.
Example #2: The Avengers: Age of Ultron
This superhero film explores an idea that’s become well-known; that an advanced artificial intelligence, created by human beings, might decide to wipe out humanity – in this case, because of consequentialist ethics. In the film, the machine’s creator has programmed it to establish complete peace on Earth, at all costs. The machine rationally decides that the only way to do so is to eliminate or subjugate humanity. This is an old idea in science-fiction, appearing also in the 50s film The Day the Earth Stood Still in which enlightened extra-terrestrials come to the same conclusion.