Consequentialism and Related Concepts
Revised: January 16, 2003
Normative Ethical Theories are general approaches or strategies to moral deliberation and decision-making. They are future oriented as well as past oriented. As future-oriented, they provide us with guidelines for decision-making; as past-oriented, they provide criteria for evaluation of choices or decisions already made. Each normative ethical theory typically includes its own philosophical justification, worked out by its advocates, together with criticisms of alternate approaches for being in some way inadequate.
Normative Ethical Theories are generally divided into two groups: Consequentialist and Non-Consequentialist Theories. For the definition and subdivisions of the latter, see Non-Consequentialist Theories.
Consequentialism is a set of ethical strategies that share the following feature: they tell us to maximize the sum of good consequences and minimize the sum of bad ones, or if some are good and some are bad, maximizing the net consequences, i.e., the good ones minus the bad ones.What I refer to here as "net consequences" is also sometimes known as the "balance"--in the checkbook sense--of the good over the bad, or the benefits over the costs.
(Note. Merely knowing that someone has adopted a consequentialist strategy does not tell us whose good or bad consequences the person believes she should consider. It leaves open whether she thinks she should consider only consequences for herself, or only consequences for her family, . . . or consequences for all humanity or even all sentient beings.)
Two subtypes of consequentialism are (ethical) egoism and what we may call "social consequentialism," the best known versions of which are called utilitarianism.
Ethical egoism is the type of consequentialism that instructs every moral agent or person to choose the act or policy (out of the available set of acts or policies) that would produce the best over-all outcome for the person doing the choosing.
Let us call social consequentialism the type of consequentialism that tells us to maximize good consequences and minimize bad ones taking into account the effects on every member of the human race or every sentient being. (Some social consequentialists also include only effects on humans in their reasoning while others also include effects on nonhuman animals.)
Stephen Potts' version of social consequentialism seems focused on the value of the duration of human life. The longer people live, the larger the positive social consequences. (S. Potts, "Objections to the Institutionalization of Euthanasia," in T. Mappes and J. Zembaty, eds., Social Ethics, 80 ff.)
Some versions of social consequentialism are called utilitarianism. The best known is hedonistic utilitarianism. In hedonistic utilitarianism, what is supposed to be measured is not duration of life but pleasure and pain. At least one of Potts' arguments, the first, seems to be taking a hedonistic utilitarian approach. He fears that institutionalizing euthanasia would take the pressure off medicine to improve palliative (pain-reduction) care.
For more on utilitarianism see Utilitarianism: Some Basic Observations. (This was originally composed for use with another course.)