A Brief Introduction to Consequentialism Ethics


In my article exploring when the end justifies the means, I noted that the origins of this phrase go back to consequentialism, with consequentialism theory holding that the moral quality of an action is completely determined by its consequences; thus the end justifies the means in all circumstances.

This definition of consequentialism theory, while by no means incorrect, doesn’t allow for a full picture of consequentialism ethics.

In this article, I’m going to give you a brief introduction to consequentialism ethics, diving first into a definition of consequentialism (including a definition of non-consequentialism, and the arguments against consequentialism ethics as a whole), before looking at examples of consequentialism in everyday life, and the difference between consequentialism and other popular types of moral philosophy, including utilitarianism, hedonism, and deontology.

Let’s get started.

What is Consequentialism?

Consequentialism is a type of normative ethical theory which states that the moral quality of an action is completely determined by its consequences, and nothing else. In this way, consequentialism ethics provide criteria for the moral evaluation of actions, while also recommending rules or decision-making criteria for future actions.


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While this definition of consequentialism brings this ethical theory to light in its purest form, many students of consequentialism practice it in a watered-down form, a term that has been coined “satisficing consequentialism.”

This way of thinking has been developed in order to allow practitioners of consequentialism theory to follow consequentialism ethics under a less stringent umbrella. For “satisficers,” rather than the right action always being the action that produces the most good, the right action(s) are those that produce enough good. For example, a strict student of consequentialism theory could only donate to the charity that they believe is producing the most good in the world. Satisficers, on the other hand, would recognize that most charities produce enough good, and donating to any of them (assuming you do some basic homework) is better than not donating to any.

Non-Consequentialism

While consequentialism theory would argue that the only goal of consequentialism ethics is to make the world a better place, this definition of consequentialism doesn’t always hold up to much scrutiny.

The opposite of consequentialism, known as non-consequentialism, argues that the potential consequences of a given action should not be taken into consideration when determining the moral quality of an action. Certain readings of non-consequentialism state that the consequences of an action can partly be taken into consideration, but they shouldn’t be the driving force of any decision.

Examples of Consequentialism Ethics

Consequentialism ethics give consequentialists guidance whenever they are faced with a moral decision; with this guidance coming in many forms.

It should be noted that in the below examples of consequentialism, and throughout this article as a whole, I am looking at this philosophy from the point of view of “rule consequentialism” rather than “act consequentialism.” A consequentialist who follows rule consequentialism uses a set of ethical rules, such as the aforementioned “the moral quality of an action is completely determined by its consequences,” as the rule they apply to many different, if not all, actions. A consequentialist who follows act consequentialism, on the other hand, assess each moral action or decision on a case-by-case basis.

Here are three examples of consequentialism ethics playing out in three very different areas:

Baby Hitler

If you could go back in time and kill Hitler as a baby, would you do it?

This question has been posed to many years, and it is a classic example of consequentialism philosophy in action. Consequentialists would answer that yes, they would absolutely kill Hitler as a baby, as they know that while murder is generally frowned upon, by killing baby Hitler they will be saving the lives of millions upon millions of people; thus killing baby Hitler is morally justified.

Non-consequentialists, on the other hand, would argue that murder is wrong under all circumsrances, and therefore despite their knowledge of what not killing baby Hitler will bring, they cannot morally allow themselves to kill Hitler as a baby.

Healthcare

Another example of consequentialism philosophy in action is that of consequentialism in healthcare. If you worked in a hospital and only had enough dosage of a particular drug to either keep one patient who is severely sick from dying, or five patients who are less sick and could share the dosage from dying, which would you choose?

A consequentialist would choose the five patients who require less of a dosage to receive the medicine, allowing the sixth patient to die, as this produces the most moral good. A non-consequentialist, on the other hand, would infer no judgement over who is more worthy of the medicine, and would simply administer the necessary medicine on a first come, first serve basis, until it runs out.

Self-Driving Cars

Finally, a modern-day example of consequentialism philosophy in action would be the ethics associated with self-driving cars.

The algorithms that power self-driving cars have to make constant choices. Does the car need to slow down? Is it safe to merge into the next lane? Should it swerve and hit one child, or stay its course and hit two seniors? The tragedy of the consequences that self-driving car algorithms have to contend with on a daily basis are no different from the choices that human drivers have to make in a fraction of a second, but the fact that these algorithms must be programed by humans with time on their hands to ponder these questions would give any consequentialist pause.

Alternatives to Consequentialism Ethics

Alternatives to consequentialism differ over what the good, most moral thing is that should be maximized. Here are three alternatives to consequentialism ethics:

Consequentialism vs. Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism argues that all decisions or actions should maximize human well-being above all else. Or to put it another way, utilitarianism philosophy states that the most moral decision or action is that which produces the most happiness, or the least unhappiness, for the largest amount of people.

While this is similar to consequentialism in that for most consequentialists, the most moral consequences of an action is likely centered around human happiness, utilitarianism spells out this result.

Consequentialism vs. Hedonism

Hedonism argues that people should maximise human pleasure above all else. When making determinations of an action’s moral qualities, a hedonist considers only if the action is likely to produce human pleasure. When deciding between two or more actions, a hedonist considers only which action will produce the most human pleasure.

Similar to utilitarianism, consequentialism and hedonism (also known as hedonistic act utilitarianism) contrast in how they define consequences. While hedonists consider only the maximization of human pleasure, consequentialists take a much broader view.

Consequentialism vs. Deontology

Deontological ethics state that an action’s morality is based entirely on whether the action would be considered “right” or “wrong” according to a certain set of pre-determined rules. (Think bad to the baby Hitler example above; the non-consequentialists in that example could also be called deontologists.)

In violent contrast to consequentialism, deontological ethics determine that the consequences of an action hold no value in determining an action’s moral value.


I hope this brief introduction to consequentialism ethics has been helpful in increasing your understanding of this fascinating moral philosophy.

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Benjamin Spall is the co-author of My Morning Routine (Portfolio/Penguin). He has written for outlets including the New York Times, New York Observer, Quartz, Entrepreneur, Business Insider, CNBC, and more.