Consequentialism: The Granddaddy of All Pro-Con Lists

Unlike virtue ethicists and deontologists, consequentialists believe the ethics of a person or action should be judged by the consequences they produce. In other words, the outcome that most favorably affects the greatest number dictates a particular action. But the notion of favorability requires some standard according to which outcomes may be judged. In the field of economics, the standard is profit; the decision resulting in the greatest net profit is the best option. For those who believe in socialism, the right action is the one that produces the most equitable distribution of goods. The 19th century British philosopher John Stuart Mill put forth perhaps the most prominent variant of consequentialism, which he termed utilitarianism. Mill argued that net utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, should be the standard of consequentialist value:

“The ultimate end, with reference to and for the sake of which all other things are desirable … is an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments, both in point of quantity and quality.”1
Given a choice of possible actions, the ethical action will maximize net utility or net happiness. Though occasional decisions may require weighing the positive and negative utilities of possible actions, common sense rules dictate the correct action in most cases. For example, murder almost always results in a great loss of utility through the death of another human being, so murder is wrong with the possible exception of very extreme cases.
Upon first glance, utilitarianism seems to fit the practical consideration of pros and cons many people employ when making decisions, and it often avoids both the complications of virtue ethics and the strictness of Kantian deontology. For example, imagine I am hiding a Jewish family in my attic when the SS officers knock on my door. If I adhere to virtue ethics, I will find myself divided between the virtues of honesty and compassion, between telling the Nazis the truth and lying to protect the hidden family. For Kantians, no conflict exists. Lying to the officers could not be construed as a universal maxim because if everyone lied, the Nazis would never believe any such denial, including my own. I am bound by duty to admit the truth. Yet for utilitarianism, the answer is clear and seems to fit with what most people would choose. In this case, lying results in the greatest net utility: the family remains safe and the Nazis do not suffer significant harm.
However, other cases exist in which utilitarianism may lead to undesirable decisions. Is it ever right to cruelly torture a known terrorist to gain information to save hundreds, thousands, millions of other people? If the number of lives saved is large enough, then preventing that massive loss of utility would seem to outweigh the negative utility inflicted by torturing one person. But do we want our ethical system to legitimize torture? A strict utilitarian might argue that torturing the terrorist in this case would set a precedent for torture which could lessen net utility down the road. Still, it seems likely we could press the issue by setting the number of potential victims high enough to weight utility in favor of torture. Perhaps some people will accept such a balance, but many others will regard any instance of torture as impermissible.

Contemporary philosopher Peter Singer offers a stricter view of consequentialism. Imagine you pass a small child lying face down in a shallow pool of water. You could easily step into the water and lift the child to safety, perhaps suffering only some minimal cost such as ruined shoes. Under these circumstances, not saving the child hardly seems a morally acceptable choice. In point of fact, there is a child (actually a great many children) dying right now somewhere in the world, and you could save that child by providing food or medicine at some minimal cost to yourself (perhaps the cost of a new pair of shoes). Thus by Singer’s analogy, you are morally obligated to save that child dying somewhere in the world, just as you are obligated to save the child drowning in the shallow pool of water.2

Singer’s argument rests on the consequentialist claim that “if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.”3 People are dying all over the world and the majority of us in Western society could save quite a large number of them without significant cost to ourselves. The sacrifice of new clothes, a meal at a fine restaurant or a few hours of our time pales in utilitarian comparison to the death of a human being. Singer even goes a step further to argue we are morally required “to prevent bad things from happening unless in doing so we would be sacrificing something of comparable moral significance.”4 So not only does morality require us to save one child, but we are obligated to continue our life-saving efforts until doing so would make us less well off than those we aid.

Great consequentialism t-shirt.5
Ethicists traditionally distinguish between three classes of actions: impermissible actions, like murder, which one may never commit; permissible actions, like stealing bread when starving, which may be committed in certain circumstances; and supererogatory actions, like charity, which are considered good to do, but not wrong if avoided. But Singer’s argument eliminates the class of supererogatory actions. Utilitarianism requires each individual to act to maximize net utility, and charity maximizes net utility until it reduces the giver’s utility below that of the recipient. Therefore, charity is morally required until it lessens net utility by lowering the giver to the level of marginal utility.

Applying Mill’s utilitarianism to health and fitness requires us to balance all the consequences of our actions. Lounging in my recliner with a beer in one hand, a bowl of chips in the other and a mindless action flick on TV might offer some small uptick in my immediate utility, but will likely decrease my utility (and perhaps that of others should my ill health affect them) in the long run if I continue this slothful behavior over time. On the other hand, Singer’s call to prevent bad things from happening unless we have to make an equal sacrifice leads me through a progression of obligations, first to the most-suffering and on down to the least, until suffering is erased or I am reduced to the level of marginal utility. Somewhere along this ladder of utilities I may find myself, and if I am ill at health I am required to make the requisite sacrifices to improve my overall utility, i.e. curbing my sugar intake if I am pre-diabetic, performing the requisite recovery and rehabilitation treatments if I am injured. Even if I reach the level of marginal utility where I have nothing left to give to others, I can still improve my own utility through learning and healthy living until I begin to lose my vision from poring over academic tomes or become injured through overexercise.

At this point, Singer’s brand of consequentialism starts to look just as severe as Kant’s deontology. One might raise a similar objection to Singer, that the ascetic lifestyle of living at the borderline of marginal utility is hardly desirable and that some amount of self-indulgence should be acceptable even at a slight cost to universal utility. Yet if we accept Singer’s analogy, it is hard to dispute the moral force of his argument.

However, one can raise a counterargument against almsgiving in particular. Between 2007 and 2010 I lived for ten months near Cape Town, South Africa. Large economic gaps remain in South Africa even after the fall of apartheid, and as a well-to-do American I was often approached by alms-seekers. One day an adolescent boy and his younger brother asked me for some food so I took them into a shop to buy them some meat pies and drinks. The owner of the shop looked the elder boy over and asked him why he had no money and no job. The teen responded by asking the shop owner for work, but when the owner told him he could start the next day at 6:00 am, the boy complained the hour was too early.

Despite his lower position of utility, I find it hard to raise an argument that I was morally obligated to help this teenager who refused to work for himself. A consequentialist might argue that feeding the teen and his brother increased their utility in the short term, but worsened their situation long-term by allowing them rely on the charity of others, and would not be the correct utilitarian action. In any case, I certainly had less moral obligation to help these boys than, say, a victim of a natural disaster. How a person arrives at his level of utility makes a difference.

Yet this counter fails against consequentialist arguments for self-improvement. The right action under consequentialism/utilitarianism produces the greatest increase in net utility. If a choice of actions concerns myself, then the option producing the greatest increase in my own utility, whether at present or in the future, is the right action. Under this theory, the moral person elevates herself to the greatest possible utility by promoting her own fitness, intelligence and well-being. The idea that one’s path to utility can influence another’s decision to give aid does not apply to cases where no outside aid is expected. Indeed if everyone followed the principle of maximizing their own utility, the need for obligatory charity as advanced by Singer might be limited to unforeseen catastrophes. While charity toward others may be required in certain situations, each individual person is responsible for making himself as physically, mentally and socially capable as possible without detracting from his own utility or the utility of others.


1 Mill, John Stuart. “Utilitariansim.” Ethical Thoery, Ed. Russ Shafer-Landau, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007, p. 457.
2 Singer, Peter. “Famine, Affluence and Morality.” Ethical Thoery, Ed. Russ Shafer-Landau, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007, p. 506.
3 Ibid, p. 506.
4 Ibid, p. 511.
5 “Consequentialism: It’s Duty Free! (ethics) T-shirt.” Image. Zazzle. lulasail. Online. 24 Mar. 2013.