Consequentialism is the philosophical thesis that the effects of an action exclusively determine its morality. Different schools of consequentialism, however, disagree on how these effects should be judged; for example, utilitarians measure the increase or decrease of pleasure and pain for sentient beings as the determinant of the morality of an action. Other consequentialist schools may measure effects such as the number of human lives saved or ended by the action being judged, or even the number of people whose preference is satisfied by that action. My belief is that a quality similar to consequentialism is required for any form of morality, but that the adoption of formal consequentialism has serious implication. For lack of better terms, I'm going to refer to this "quality similar to consequentialism" as "informal consequentialism", and to the exact definition of consequentialism as "formal consequentialism", a term I've already used.

What I mean by informal consequentialism is the idea of consequences that are implicit in any moral code. For example, most of the biblical Ten Commandments carry acknowledgment of the importance of consequences - murder is forbidden because a human life is ended; honoring parents is sanctioned "so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you." (Ex. 20:12b NIV) However, the commandments are a very nonconsequentialist moral code - their moral power for adherents stems not from these consequences but from the idea that "God spoke all these words." (Ex. 20:1b NIV) One shouldn't murder, no matter what the benefits of murdering a person would be. Even though many times lying may be advantageous, it simply should not be done.

Immanuel Kant similarly holds to informal consequentialism, although his assertions are very nonconsequentialist. Kant's Categorical Imperative admits no judging of consequences: "Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law." (Kant 174) However, one way in which a maxim is tested against the Categorical Imperative is a postulation of the consequences if the maxim were to become universal law. For example, the maxim "Contribution to the welfare of a human in distress is unnecessary" fails the Categorical Imperative test because of the consequences of its enactment as a universal law. (Kant 176)

A simple table of this argument would be:

  1. All moral codes, either explicitly or implicitly, acknowledge the importance of consequences.
  2. To acknowledge the importance of consequences is to subscribe to a type of informal consequentialism.
  3. All moral codes subscribe to a type of informal consequentialism.

Because of this table, and because I subscribe to a moral code, I cannot help but agree with informal consequentialism. However, I strongly disagree with formal consequentialism - the belief that consequences are the exclusive determinant of morality.

It seems to me that formal consequentialism wishes to find some way, other than goodness, to define what is good. What I mean by this is that consequentialism attempts to take 'good' and find out what supports it, or what makes it tick. It views the term 'good' as a mask behind which a further purpose must lie - there's no such thing as something that's morally good in itself. A consequentialist would disagree with the idea of virtue as its own final cause.

This is precisely why I disagree with consequentialists. As Colin McGinn writes, "Ultimately, what you get from virtue is simply . . . virtue. Virtue may also get you health, wealth, and happiness, but there is certainly no guarantee of that--definitely not--and in any case that isn't the reason you should be virtuous." (McGinn 488) A consequentialist does not agree with this basic idea, at least in a worldwide sense. There is disagreement in a basic axiom, not in a step of logic or a conclusion; consequentialists and nonconsequentialists come from different starting points, so there is no way for one to logically refute the other.

That having been said, there are still reasons to doubt the viability of consequentialism. These reasons would probably not affect a true consequentialist, as they are largely based upon McGinn's axiom, but other persons wondering about consequentialism should understand my points.

First, consequentialism tends toward a form of relativism. This relativism is neither cultural relativism nor subjectivism, but is something like a 'situational relativism'. Any action must not be judged with the action itself in mind, but must be judged according to both the immediate and long-term effects upon the universe. Because of this, any action may be moral in one situation but immoral in another. This smells of inconsistency to any nonconsequentialist, but it's a natural conclusion of consequentialism.

Closely related to this is the accusation that consequentialism can lead a person to perform acts that contradict traditional moralities. It is perfectly valid to torture or murder a person if it makes enough people happy (or meets the preferences of enough people, or causes whatever an action's pertinent effect is). To a true-blue consequentialist, the movie Series 7 may reflect a desirable reality, depending on its effects. This movie is centered around a spoof reality show entitled Contender, in which contestants must murder one another for monetary gain. If the effect of Contender upon its viewers were positive enough, it would outweigh the negative value of deaths caused by the show, thus making it morally good.

Another important critique of consequentialism is that it is impossible in practice. Theoretically, a consequentialist must apply quantities to certain effects of an action based on attributes of the effect such as its quality, duration, and probability. There is no way in practice to predict every effect of an action, and furthermore assign an exact and accurate value to each of these effects in order to completely analyze the action.

The table for this argument would be:

  1. Consequentialism leads into certain actions that are repugnant to traditional moralities.
  2. Consequentialism tends toward a form of situational relativism.
  3. Consequentialism isn't practically applicable.
  4. There can be serious outcomes to the attempt to become a consequentialist.

Those who become consequentialists must be prepared to accept these outcomes. If one can do so, however, one's basic views are radically different from that of general humanity. At first blush, most people would tend to agree with the idea that consequences are the determinant of the morality of an action, but upon further analysis the consequences of consequentialism become very questionable.


Sommers, Christina, and Sommers, Fred. Vice and Virtue in Everyday Life. Fort Worth: Harcourt College Publishers. © 2001.

Kant, Immanuel. "Good Will, Duty, and the Categorical Imperative". Sommers pp. 168-180.

McGinn, Colin. "Why Not Be a Bad Person?" Sommers pp. 488-499.

The biggest challenge of consequentialism is that it is a very difficult creed to follow, if one wishes to follow it (I hate to use the term) religiously, and a self-serving creed otherwise. First of all, nobody can fully foresee the outcome of a given act, as the law of unintended consequences tells us. One can have a desired outcome, and definitely there are very possible outcomes. But even events of measure zero can happen. As one extends the time-scale for forecasting, the possible events multiply rapidly and soon become unmanageable. The second obviously is that it is so easy to justify any act, by creating an appropriate forecast. Since the forecasting is apriori, one can construct a "good" outcome for anything. This is the self-serving angle. A person committing acts of greed and selfishness justifies it by predictions of future charity. A person depriving somebody weaker of something justifies it by saying that it will help the other become stronger. Warmongers justify the death of innocents by saying that, in the future, more lives will be saved.
In all the criticism of objectivism or even utilitarianism that I read, this is an angle that is never explored. That a consequentialist philosophy ultimately is difficult to do right and becomes a vehicle for self-righteous justification.

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