A consequentialist assesses the ultimate worth of all the various features of our ethical lives according to whether or not they bring about some specific intrinsic good or goods that the consequentialist judges to be of primary value. All the various valuable features of our lives have their ultimate value with respect to how they contribute in the end to this primary good or goods.
For example, if the consequentialist is a hedonist who thinks that pleasure is the one intrinsically good thing towards which we should aim, then all the other aspects of being a moral person—adhering dutifully to moral principles, having virtuous character traits and dispositions, genuinely caring about others’ well being for their own sakes—derive their morally praiseworthiness from the ways that they eventually, or in general, contribute to increases in pleasure. Utilitarianism is a form of hedonistic consequentialism.
The hedonistic consequentialist judges that if dutifully adhering to moral principles or having various dispositions and traits we consider virtuous or genuinely caring about others for their own sakes led to net losses of pleasure or to net increases in displeasure (pain), then we would not think of dutifulness, virtue, or other-directed motivation as good and desirable things the way we presently do. The only reason why we think so highly of these behaviors, dispositions, and attitudes in the first place, the hedonistic consequentialist argues, is that they contribute to pleasure.
Hedonistic consequentialism, which treats pleasure as the primary good to be maximized, is the most generally known and discussed form of consequentialism, but there is another major kind of consequentialism which I want to advance and that is what we can call perfectionist consequentialism. The perfectionist consequentialist thinks that the intrinsic good that all of our motivations, behaviors, dispositions, calculations, social institutions, formal codes, etc. should maximize is excellence rather than simply pleasure. Creating excellent people is more important than creating maximally pleased people.
Of course, quite often no choice is necessary between excellence and pleasure as being excellent is intrinsically pleasant itself (at least to an extent, even if in some cases, it is manifestly less pleasant overall in someone’s particular situation than being base would be) and often an excellence is an excellence at all to some particular extent because of its contribution to making life more pleasant. So, for a simple example, excellence at preparing delicious meals means excellence at creating pleasurable taste sensations with the food you make.
Consequentialists do not only differ from each other in terms of what good they take to be of primary importance but they also can differ in terms of their views on moral decision-making. There are three more key distinctions worth familiarizing ourselves with and on which I want to stake out clear positions.
The second, and, after the choice of primary good to pursue, the most general of the distinctions between consequentialisms to make is between egoistic consequentialism and universalistic consequentialism.
The egoistic consequentialist assesses all aspects of the moral and non-moral life in terms of how they contribute to his or her own achievement of the primary good towards which his consequentialism aims. So an egoistic hedonistic consequentialist would consider all proposed actions, virtues, proximate goals, etc. according to how well they promise to maximize his personal pleasure. And an egoistic perfectionist consequentialist would consider all proposed actions, virtues, proximate goals, etc. according to how well they promise to maximize her own attainment to excellence.
The universalistic consequentialist, by contrast, judges the value of proposed courses of actions, behaviors, dispositions, proximate goals, etc. by their expected contribution to the greatest number of morally relevant beings’ ability to have the primary, intrinsic good towards which her consequentialism aims. Thus, the universalistic hedonistic consequentialist judges the most moral actions, virtues, proximate goals, etc, to be those which maximize pleasure for the greatest number of morally relevant beings, whereas the universalistic perfectionistic consequentialist judges the most moral actions, virtues, proximate goals, etc. to be those which maximize the excellent thriving of the greatest number of morally relevant beings.
The third key distinction between consequentialists to make is between direct and indirect consequentialists.
A direct consequentialist thinks that not only should all the ethically relevant features of our lives be oriented towards maximizing the intrinsic good, but also that we should conceive of moral decision-making as primarily consisting of calculations by which we determine which courses of actions, which virtues, which proximate goals, etc. can be expected to produce the primary intrinsic good in the most quantities.
In other words, the direct consequentialist thinks that moral thinking requires explicitly thinking like a consequentialist and judging each option for action, virtue, proximate goal to pursue, etc. strictly in terms of how it will create the maximum amount of the primary intrinsic good. So, for the direct consequentialist, the most morally conscientious thinking about ethically relevant actions is explicitly calculative and specifically aims towards the greatest possible creation of the most important good for oneself (if one is an egoist) or everyone (if one is a universalist).
The indirect consequentialist, on the other hand, does not think that it is always ethically best for each individual to explicitly aim for the greatest quantity of the greatest good for himself or for everyone. The indirect consequentialist reasons that wherever the greatest good can be most successfully maximized by individuals not taking on a calculative, explicitly consequentialist attitude, but rather acting out of abstract concerns for duty itself or based on more partial emotions like love or from a devotion to particular intrinsically good things distinct from the primary intrinsic good, people should adopt these other sorts of motivations and means of forming moral decisions instead.
The indirect consequentialist is, therefore, concerned that the primary good is attained as much as possible, but not always that people directly aim for it in those cases in which aiming at it would somehow undermine their ability to actually attain the most successfully.
The fourth major distinction is between act consequentialism and rule consequentialism.
An act consequentist, in the most extreme possible formulation of the type, is one who thinks that we should make each choice based on a consideration of its immediate consequences for creating the intrinsic good. Taking the case of act utilitarianism, which concerns itself with maximizing pleasure, the extreme act utilitarian would always choose actions based on their actual expected pleasure return and based on no further concern for general duties or principles. So, if I were an extreme act utilitarian and I were working for a very wealthy person and I realized that I could steal $2000 from without either she or her dependents ever knowing the money is gone, ever missing it, or ever experiencing any other pain over its loss, I should then steal this money if it would make my life more pleasurable.
Of course, were I simply an egoistic, hedonistic consequentialist, only concerned with my own pleasure in the first place, I would make this choice regardless of whether it would eventually pain the woman from whom I stole, as long as it increased my personal pleasure.
But even were I a universalistic, hedonistic utilitarian who was concerned with creating the maximum pleasure for the maximum number of people, being an extreme act utilitarian would require me to judge stealing the money as morally necessary because it would create the outcome that would maximally increase the pleasure in the world (assuming all things were equal). If I am more pleased to have this $2,000 than the woman who does not even notice it is gone was to have it, say because it substantially improves my life for a month whereas it made no difference to hers, then the total collective pleasure among all the relevant moral beings has gone up and the intrinsically best outcome has, therefore, been achieved.
One might object that the extreme act utilitarian should still not steal the money because her guilty conscience would cause her more pain than the pleasures she can buy with $2,000 can compensate for. But that assumes that the extreme act utilitarian thinks what she does is wrong. But, as long as she considers the matter rationally and applies her extreme act utilitarian moral reasoning properly, she soothes her conscience when she realizes that she is actually doing the best thing for creating the greatest pleasure of the most people (or, if she is an egoist, she has done the best thing for her own pleasure) and that is, ultimately, all that morally matters.
Foreseeing the potential misery that such an ethics would repeatedly lead to, rule utilitarians (and some more reasonable shades of act utilitarians) judge that at least some rules of thumbs or nearly always unwavering principles must guide most of our ethically relevant actions, even when adhering to those rules of thumb or principles leads to short term dissatisfactions. The rule utilitarian reasons that a world in which people generally did not have general principles in place that forbade generally pain-inducing behavior like lying, cheating, stealing, murdering, etc., would be a less pleasurable world in which to live.
The rule utilitarian judges that even though there might be some cases in which one could get away with lying, cheating, stealing, murdering, etc. and both on the short and long term, one’s pleasure or the total pleasure in the world would increase, the principles which rule out these behaviors are themselves more important since were they to deteriorate, the result would be increases in general misery. So, the rule utilitarian upholds the principle and foregoes participating in what are usually harmful actions even when in those cases when refraining from them results in actual reductions in (both short and long term) total pleasure in the world and, even, increases the actual total pain in the world. So, for the sake of the general rule, the rule utilitarian sacrifices the actual achievement of what he takes to be the primary intrinsic good (pleasure). The rule utilitarian judges that overall more achievement of pleasure is possible in a world in which certain kinds of actions are nearly always forbidden and so refuses those actions on principle.
Where do I stand?
I am a consequentialist because I think that the ultimate determinant of the potential ethical value which anything whatsoever has for us, as humans, is the extent to which it will maximize human flourishing. Everything, from our virtues to our governments to our moral rules to our athletic achievements to our reason to our emotions to our interpersonal relationships to our professional relationships to our sexual relationships to our diets to our genes, ultimately contributes in any given instance to increasing or decreasing our total flourishing in power and is ethically assessable as relatively good to the extent to which it provides an increase and relatively bad to the extent to which it provides a decrease.
I am an indirect consequentialist though in that I think that there are many other intrinsically valuable things which it is better to focus on attaining for their own sakes if we are to attain maximal overall power. In other words, I think that in many cases, psychological reality dictates that we will function more excellently by focusing our explicit attention away from our own excellence, abstractly conceived, and towards the various intrinsically good projects in such a way as to treat them as of intrinsic value and primary importance to us.
While in general our maximal individual and collective thriving in power is our good, to attain this, in most situations we must be focused on more proximate ends as desirable in themselves in order to care enough about them that we indirectly make ourselves excellent. Our total power can only grow through the specific powers which embody it and these can only exercise themselves through the pursuit of particular goals which we take to be important enough and desirable enough for themselves that we can have adequate psychological motivation to invest ourselves in them.
I am a rule consequentialist insofar as I think that well-formed moral and legal codes of general conduct in matters of potentially severe interpersonal or civil conflict are both psychologically and socially stabilizing. And I think that the ultimate justification for moral and legal rules is their ultimate contribution to actual human flourishing. Even should adherence to such rules on some occasions lead to net detriments to human flourishing if the consequences of abandoning such rules (or a particular rule) altogether would be more detrimental to general human thriving, it is worth it to us to take the lesser hit and accept some avoidable actual failures.
Yet, even though I accept some degree of rule consequentialism in moral and legal decision-making and, therefore, acknowledge as a basic fact that much of our explicit moral and legal reasoning does concern judgments about greatest consequences (be they for pleasure or for excellence or other intrinsic goods), I also see a great deal of wisdom in incorporating into my moral thinking more Kantian-styled formalistic concerns about avoiding acting in practically contradictory ways.
While Kant would argue that we should never act in ways that involve formal contradictions, even when such actions would increase pleasure or decrease pain, I think that certain practically irrational actions are permissible when they are ultimately, in the total tallying of matters, justified by their contribution to our fundamental human thriving itself. I take it to be a practical and existential contradiction to act in ways that, ultimately, go against our own most fundamental conditions of thriving. That particular formal practical contradiction is the essential one to avoid, even if it means committing other practical contradictions to do it.
Other formally and practically contradictory actions (such as lying, bribery, theft, loan forgiveness, bank bailouts, etc.) are always on their own terms, strictly speaking, irrational actions and unworthy of us insofar as we are rational beings. But insofar as we are more than merely rational beings, sometimes our total functioning in the sum total of all our powers combined, and not just our flourishing functioning as rational, entails that we bite the bullet and do these things for the greater thriving.
Finally, we come to the question of whether I am an egoistic or a universalistic consequentialist. Whose thriving must we maximize and why? Do I only have ethical reason to pursue my own thriving such that it is irrational, even a practical contradiction, to pursue others’ well-being at my own expense? Or do I have a reason to subordinate my own thriving to the general thriving of a larger group of morally relevant beings—be they my community, humanity, other species, etc.?
So, I think that in the first instance we must be egoistic consequentialists. But I think that examination of the nature of our human powers, and what thriving in them substantively entails, indicates at least two key reasons why maximally fulfilling our egoistic ends of individual thriving necessarily involves contributing to the maximal thriving of others beyond ourselves.
There are two reasons for this. On the purely egoistic level, the development of our own powerful functioning depends to an incalculable extent on others’ flourishing. To maximally realize our potential, we need the conditions of stability and prosperity which others’ thriving creates and sustains for us and we need the cultivation of our powers by those already powerful who can advance us far beyond where we would ever have been in isolation and make it so that our own efforts can attain to even greater extents than would otherwise have been possible.
But not only does our thriving happen to benefit from the powers of others’ nurturing it but our thriving itself in innumerable areas happens in others’ thriving. The doctor has intrinsic powers to manipulate the body in numerous ways as she desires. But her most powerful functioning as a doctor is not to be able to simply manipulate a patient’s body for whatever ends she can but rather to maximally increase the unencumbered bodily flourishing of her patients. Her power functions in the body which is stronger and more capable as a result of her medicinal practice. Every leg she heals walks through her power, every life she saves lives on powered by her interventions in an indispensable way.
Great rulers are only great and only intrinsically powerful through the thriving of those they rule. Comedians can only be powerful if they can increase others’ laughter. Teachers’ powers to inform and engage students are limited compared to their powers to effect the world through their students’ eventual uses of the skills and information they teach.
And, finally, the ways in which we more powerfully thrive remotely, through others, and “outside” of our own bodies and minds when we empower others could be so great as even to justify sacrifice of our own bodies and minds altogether in tremendous deeds of self-sacrifice. This is because, ultimately, I judge our intrinsic good and intrinsic interest in terms of our powerful functioning, not necessarily in terms of our own experiences of pleasure or our direct experience of our powerful effective functioning as it exerts effects we will never ourselves even know about.
For the above reasons, therefore, I am a perfectionistic, egoistic and universalistic, indirect consequentialist who sees a place for rule consequentialism and stricter, deontological moral formalism and virtue-based thinking in his moral judgments. I take the perfectionist excellence to maximize to be power and our intrinsic incentive to realize it to be the avoidance of the practical and existential contradiction according to our most fundamental nature that occurs whenever and to whatever extent we do not.
The considerations spelled out in the above post should offer a greater context and justification for the ideas in the following, roughly logically ordered, posts. Listed below are some of the most salient posts I have written on problems in value theory, metaethics, moral psychology, practical ethics, and normative moral theory. There are a lot of them but you do not need to read them all to understand any of them whose titles interest you in particular. So don’t avoid all of them for fear you cannot read all of them.