This is a brief “throwing an idea out there” post: I’d like to coin the term “semi-consequentialism,” for the view that the consequences of our actions on people’s well-being is of central moral importance, without being committed to the theses often associated with consequentialism that (1) maximizing well-being is obligatory or even that (2) it’s always right to trade one person’s well-being for an even greater improvement in another person’s well-being.

Objections finding (2) problematic seem to be the most common objections to consequentialism. But even when you’re not hurting anyone, a lot of people find the idea of maximizing utility way too morally demanding. So you could replace that with the thesis that on the scale of superogatory actions (good but not obligatory actions), it’s generally speaking better to do more good, for example Bill Gates spending over half a billion dollars to fight malaria is better than spending an equal amount of money doing something that’s charitable but less helpful in total.

I can think of a number of possible antecedents to what I’m calling semi-consequentialism:

  • Kant said it’s wrong to act based on what the consequences will be, but even lots of people who aren’t die-hard consequentialists find that absurd so there are Kantians who try to argue that Kant shouldn’t be taken literally or else Kant shouldn’t have said that given the rest of his theory so you can be a Kantian while caring about the consequences of your actions.
  • I think Robert Nozick, in Anarchy, State, and Utopia mentions the possibility of a theory that’s like consequentialism but with some constraints on hurting people for the sake of maximizing utility.
  • I think J. J. C. Smart did suggested a similar possibility in response to criticisms of his version of utilitarianism.
  • This paper is maybe relevant here but I haven’t read it so I don’t know the details.
  • I think I read an article in Philosophy Now! once abut ethical pluralism or something, which might let you combine consequentialism with other considerations. I don’t remember the details, but Googling “ethical pluralism” leads me to this, which I’m not sure is quite what I was thinking of.
  • Oh, and I had a professor once and he said thought the problem with utilitarianism is it takes something important and turns it into the only thing that matters. He may have said this is a general problem with ethical theories.

Okay, so off the top of my head I can find lots of ways in which this is not a totally original thought, but… it still seems like there should be a huge literature on this, and it should be given top billing in undergraduate philosophy classes that cover moral philosophy. If you happen to have studied philosophical ideas in this area, can you fill me in on what ground has already been tread here?

  • Ryan

    “I had a professor once and he said thought the problem with utilitarianism is it takes something important and turns it into the only thing that matters. He may have said this is a general problem with ethical theories.”

    The problem might be that utilitarianism is too reductionist. We might need to stop looking for reductionist theories of morality and start using different sets of ethical rules/criteria for different types of moral situations.

  • MNb

    My problem with analysis like this is that it’s impossible to quantify well-being. Tonight I’ll spend an evening with my female counterpart (she is to old to be called a girl-friend). She likes America’s Next Top Model; I don’t. How do we decide what contributes most to our well-being, watching or not watching?
    My answer is that it’s impossible and therefor it’s useless to make a decision by adding and subtracting non-existing quantities (her and my well-being). What we do is compromise: she’ll watch but another time she will give in when I eagerly want to watch something.
    It works in practice for us and that’s what matters.

  • mikespeir

    I think the important question is, Who do I get to call evil and when? I’ll be squirming in my chair in anticipation of an answer.

  • Laurence

    Virtue ethicist Christine Swanton builds in taking into consideration consequences in her virtue-ethical theory of right action in her book Virtue Ethics: A Pluralistic View (as well as an article whose name I can’t remember right now). I think other virtue ethicists who put forward a theory of right action lean in this direction as well. I think that more and more people in ethics are coming around to the idea that if your theory doesn’t look at the consequences, then it’s deficient in some way. But, then again, we still have people who think that we should have certain rights no matter the consequences.

  • Ed

    The problem with such an idea as I see it. If you accept 1) that maximizing welfare is the main goal of ethics. Then attempts to limit the principle to cases where no one rights are violated, appears to be inconsistent with holding the fundamental principle is to maximize welfare. Utilitarianism/consequentialism can be constrained by adopting rule utilitarianism where formulate general rules which maximize welfare. In formulating such rules you will find that the rules that generally maximize welfare are consistent with respecting peoples rights. The leading rule consequentialist is Brad Hooker who wrote a very good book the subject matter, such a theory also avoids a number of technical problems with classical utilitarianism.

    In regards to Kant as offering one of the alternatives to pure consequentialism, there is a lot of debate in academic circles whether Kantian ethics is not actually a form of consequentialism or much closer to consequentialism. The categorical imperative appears to endorse a type of consequentialism in regards to what actions are morally permissible/impermissible. Where Kantian ethics really distinguishes itself is in the idea that we cannot treat individuals as means to ends, but rather we are required to treat them as ends in themselves. As well as ideas regarding respect for human dignity.

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