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Consequentialism (Utilitarianism)

A critical assessment of consequentialism and its role in Utilitarian moral theory

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? Hedonism is not essential to Utilitarianism

"The theory's most fundamental idea is that in order to determine whether an action would be right, we should look at what will happen as a result of doing it" (Rachels, p. 105).

There are other ways of specifying the non-moral value relevant in ascertaining whether an action has brought about good or bad results.

? However, consequentialism is essential to any theory called 'Utilitarianism'.

This is the idea that the moral rightness of (say) an action is defined in terms of results, or in terms of the non-moral value brought into existence.

If it were to turn out that some other matter is also important in determining rightness, Utilitarianism would be undermined at its very foundation" (Rachels, p. 105).


? The following criticisms attempt to show that Utilitarian prescriptions about right action conflict with some of our most fundamental intuitions about moral right and wrong.

Critics therefore maintain that Utilitarianism is to be rejected as a moral theory.

? The conflict between the prescriptions of a moral theory and our ordinary way of thinking raises a question about how moral theories are to be evaluated.

? If a moral theory conflicts with our commonsense, pre-reflective morality, it could be that

(1) The theory is wrong
(2) Our moral convictions are wrong

Do we revise our practices, our morality, to accord with the theory?

Do we reject the theory, and try to find another one that fits better with our moral convictions?

? Based on considerations similar to those that follow, critics have urged that Utilitarianism is indefensible as moral theory.

They claim that Utilitarianism prescribes actions that are abhorrent to our moral sensibilities.


OBJECTION: "There is not enough time, previous to action, for calculating and weighing any line of conduct on the general happiness."


? The principle of Utility is a criterion of rightness, not a decision procedure.

? This means that Utilitarianism does not entail that one ought (always) to try to calculate the greatest utility of one's action.

Clearly sometimes it will be better to act in accordance with moral rules rather than trying to calculate the expected outcome of one's action.

? Mill says, "The answer to the objection is that there is ample time, namely, the whole past duration of the human species".

Ordinary morality may then be used as rules of thumb, guidelines that will help us in navigating through our daily lives.


(Example adapted from Sinnott-Armstrong 2003):

Miriam finds a runaway teenager who asks for money to get home. Miriam wants to help and reasonably believes that buying a bus ticket home for this runaway will help, so she buys a bus ticket and puts the runaway on the bus. Unfortunately, the bus is involved in a freak accident, and the runaway teenager is killed."

? If actual consequences ...