Consequentialism is a theory of normative ethics that states that the moral value of an action or decision should be judged based on its consequences.
In other words, it means that the result or outcome of taking a certain course of action will determine whether or not it was morally sound.
Consequentialism can be broken down into two core beliefs:
- That the consequences of an act are what ultimately matter when assessing its moral worth
- That this evaluation should focus on the overall good for society as a whole rather than on individual gains or losses.
Today, consequentialism has many different forms – from utilitarianism to rule consequentialism – and has been applied in various contexts, from business decisions to criminal justice.
Consequentialism is a theory of normative ethics that states that an action’s value is determined by its consequences.
In other words, ethical judgments should be based on the outcome or consequence of a particular course of action rather than on one’s intentions or beliefs.
According to Fiet (2022), consequentialism:
“…is a philosophical approach, one of a class of normative, teleological ethical theories, which posits that the consequences of one’s conduct are the ultimate basis for judging it, either its rightness or wrongness” (p. 225).
The concept of consequentialism has been widely discussed in philosophical circles for centuries, and its implications are far-reaching.
For instance, consequentialist theories are often cited when discussing the morality of euthanasia, capital punishment, and animal testing.
Moss-Wellington (2021) states that
“…consequentialism holds that a moral act should be judged by its outcomes rather than by any inherent moral value encapsulated in the act itself” (p. 43).
Simply, consequentialism means that the moral worth of an action is determined by the result it produces rather than by any predetermined principles of morality.
10 Consequentialism Examples
- Harsh Punishments: A consequentialist may support harsh punishments for contravening laws because the consequence of the punishment acts as a deterrent. Some people will be punished perhaps unfairly, but in total, less people will break the law, so the harshness of the punishment is justified.
- Animal Testing: Animal testing is used by scientists to test the safety and effectiveness of new products and medicines. Even though it can cause harm to animals, it is often justified based on its potential benefits for humankind as a whole.
- Factory Farming: Factory farming is a method of raising livestock commercially on a large scale. Despite its potential environmental impacts and animal welfare issues, it remains popular due to its efficiency in producing food for mass consumption at a low cost.
- Vaccination: Vaccines have been proven effective at reducing infectious diseases, thus making them an example of consequentialism because their positive outcome outweighs any potential risks.
- War: It may seem counterintuitive, but war can sometimes be seen as an example of consequentialism when it serves to achieve some sort of greater good. Even if a lot of suffering occurs, it’s justified if the consequence for everyone outweighs the suffering of those who die. For instance, if war results in peace or prevents more suffering than it will inflict, it can be argued that this is an acceptable consequence.
- Capital Punishment: Capital punishment has long been debated due to its ethical implications. Proponents argue that the consequences justify its use since those found guilty are punished accordingly, and those innocent are spared from execution.
- Stem Cell Research: Stem cell research has the potential to unlock treatments for diseases that were previously considered incurable. Even though there are moral implications associated with using embryonic stem cells, many believe that the positive outcomes outweigh any potential risks or objections based on morality alone.
- Free Trade Agreements: Free trade agreements benefit global economic growth but can also negatively affect certain nations’ economies. However, supporters argue that these consequences are outweighed by the gains made by all parties involved in trade agreements when they work well together.
- Genetic Modification: Genetic modification has become increasingly popular due to its potential applications in medicine and agriculture. While ethical concerns are associated with this technology, proponents point out that its benefits may far outweigh any drawbacks in certain cases where a particular gene could cure a life-threatening illness or improve crop yields significantly in areas facing famine or drought conditions.
- Immigration Policies: Immigration policies have become controversial lately due to their impact on individual rights and freedoms. However, their supporters claim that proper enforcement can reduce crime levels and benefit society overall through increased economic growth and better integration into national culture and values.
Forms of Consequentialism
Today, consequentialism has many different forms developed over the years. From utilitarianism and hedonism to egoism and act consequentialism, each form seeks to maximize the net benefits or minimize the harm caused by a decision or action.
Here is a brief overview of the main forms of consequentialism:
Utilitarianism is a type of consequentialism that states that an action should be judged based on its ability to maximize happiness for most people.
It is often used as a moral tool for decision-making and emphasizes the importance of consequences to determine the morality of an action (Driver, 2014).
For example, killing one person to save five others would be considered moral according to this theory because it would result in greater overall happiness than if no one was killed.
Hedonism is a type of consequentialism that states that the pursuit of pleasure should be the highest moral priority.
It differs from utilitarianism in focusing more on individual pleasure than collective good (Scheffler, 2009).
For example, if eating a certain food will bring an individual pleasure but harm others, it is considered moral according to this theory.
3. Rule Consequentialism
Rule consequentialism holds that rules should be written regarding their likely outcomes, not necessarily on their inherent good or bad nature.
This form of consequentialism suggests that following established rules, even when they may lead to negative outcomes, will produce more desirable results in the long run than acting without any rules at all (Hooker, 2002).
For instance, obeying highway speed limits might cause some individuals to miss their destination on time. Still, it will help reduce car accidents, potentially saving many lives.
4. State Consequentialism
State consequentialism looks at how government laws and policies can affect citizens’ lives positively or negatively, depending on their outcome (Scheffler, 2009).
For example, introducing a minimum wage law could potentially increase economic growth while reducing poverty levels if it is successful – thus making it an effective policy from a state-consequentialist point of view.
5. Ethical Egoism
Ethical egoism is a type of consequentialist theory that states that individuals should act out of self-interest and pursue what is best for their own well-being rather than considering what might benefit others or society (Shaver, 2019).
A real-life example of this would be someone who chooses to invest in stocks with higher potential returns, even though doing so has the potential to have unintended consequences on other investors or markets in general.
6. Ethical Altruism
Ethical altruism carries the opposite sentiment from ethical egoism.
It looks at scenarios where individuals’ actions are motivated by the desire to benefit others rather than themselves and places value in those acts regardless of their outcome or consequence (Scheffler, 2009).
For instance, according to this theory, choosing to donate money to charities without expecting anything back other than knowing you helped make someone’s life better would be considered an act of altruistic behavior.
7. Two-Level Consequentialism
Two-level consequentialism combines elements from both rule and state consequentialist theories.
It suggests two distinct levels when assessing whether an action is morally permissible – its immediate effects (rule) and long-term impact (state) (Goodman, 2017).
An example here would be providing medical aid during wartime.
While it may violate certain international humanitarian laws due to immediate risks associated with these activities (rule level), they ultimately benefit humanity if peace can be brought about (state level).
8. Motive Consequentialism
Motive consequentialism looks at how an individual’s motivations can shape the consequences associated with their actions (Slote, 2021).
For example, if someone commits a crime out of necessity rather than greed, their punishment may differ significantly from another criminal whose motivations were purely selfish and maliciously intended.
9. Negative Consequentialism
Negative consequentialists focus exclusively on avoiding unfavorable outcomes when evaluating decisions or behaviors (Scheffler, 2009).
They reject any notion that positive results justify negative means, as every action carries its own costs and benefits regardless of the intent or purpose behind them.
An example could be taking away someone’s freedom due to suspected terrorist activities. This course of action is justified only if their actions can be proven to be a threat to society, regardless of their intentions or potential benefits.
Critique of Consequentialism
Key criticisms of consequentialism:
- Consequentialism has been criticized for ignoring individual rights in favor of collective outcomes.
- It is argued that consequentialism relies heavily on calculation and prediction, which can be time-consuming and difficult.
- The philosophy also fails to consider certain values, such as justice or fairness, in determining the morality of an action.
Researchers identify many criticisms of consequentialism, such as its lack of consideration for individual rights, reliance on calculation and prediction, and failure to consider certain values, such as justice or fairness.
One criticism of consequentialism is that it ignores individual rights in favor of collective outcomes (McElwee, 2010).
So, an action may be deemed morally right even if it harms certain individuals or violates their rights as long as the overall outcome is beneficial.
Such a situation has been seen in cases where governments have implemented policies with negative consequences for some people to benefit society.
Another criticism of consequentialism is its reliance on calculation and prediction. To determine whether an action will produce the best overall outcome, one must consider all possible outcomes and weigh them against each other (Bufacchi, 2009).
It requires much time and knowledge, which many people do not possess. Additionally, predicting the future can be difficult due to unforeseen circumstances or changes in context.
Finally, some argue that consequentialism fails to consider certain values, such as justice or fairness when determining the morality of an action (Stubbs, 1981).
These values may not necessarily result in the best overall outcome. However, they are still important considerations when making moral decisions.
Consequentialism is one of three thories of normative ethics, alongside virtue ethics and deontology. Consequentialism states that an action’s moral value is determined by its consequences.
It emphasizes the importance of outcomes in determining the morality of an action rather than relying on predetermined moral principles or personal beliefs.
Consequentialism has many forms, including utilitarianism, hedonism, rule consequentialism, and many more, each emphasizing how to maximize net benefits or minimize harm.
While consequentialism has been applied to many contexts, from animal testing to war, it has also faced criticism for its lack of consideration of individual rights, reliance on prediction and calculation, and failure to consider values such as justice or fairness.
Despite its flaws, consequentialism remains a valuable framework for ethical decision-making, especially when used in conjunction with other ethical theories and considerations.
Bufacchi, V. (2009). Violence and social justice. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Driver, J. (2014, September 22). The history of utilitarianism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Fiet, J. O. (2022). The theoretical world of entrepreneurship. London: Edward Elgar Publishing.
Goodman, C. (2017). Why would two-level consequentialists punish only the guilty? Criminal Justice Ethics, 36(2), 183–204. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/0731129x.2017.1345221
Hooker, B. (2002). Ideal code, real world: A rule-consequentialist theory of morality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
McElwee, B. (2010). The rights and wrongs of consequentialism. Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition, 151(3), 393–412. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40926832
Moss-Wellington, W. (2021). Cognitive film and media ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Scheffler, S. (2009). Consequentialism and its critics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Shaver, R. (2019, January 15). Egoism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/egoism/
Slote, M. A. (2021). Common-sense morality and consequentialism. New York: Routledge.
Stubbs, A. (1981). The pros and cons of consequentialism. Philosophy, 56(218), 497–516. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3750884