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Consequentialism (Earlier called "Utilitarianism")

This is the view that acts can only be right or wrong in as much as their experienced consequences are desirable or undesirable. So if there are many different consequences, in principle these have to be weighed up and added or subtracted to get a net harm or benefit to compare with the harm or benefit from alternative acts (or from inaction).

The view was originally summarised as "the greatest happiness of the greatest number", but many people think that "happiness" is too narrow or shallow a term to express all the kinds of benefit that may need to be taken into account.

It is usually recognized that there can be different 'classes' of good or harm which can't be added together, but a significant class can always "trump" a more trivial class - so in any particular case it is the consequences of the most significant class that have to be weighed in the balance.

In practice such a calculation is very often impossible - due to time limitations, or imperfect information, or the impossibility of maintaining a consistent scale of consequence valuations - the latter especially because of our natural tendency to rationalise in our own favour. This doesn't prove that the theory is wrong, just that making the best decision is often very difficult.

So, many people think that the best way for an individual to apply the theory is to commit oneself to following certain rules of behaviour, if one judges that the consequences of following those rules are on balance better than following other rules or avoiding rules altogether. Of course, it is always possible to make exceptions, where those exceptions are governed by further rules, such as:-

  • Only make exceptions if the circumstances are genuinely not the sort of circumstances that were envisaged when the rule was formulated.
  • Remember that making frequent exceptions to a rule fundamentally weakens the habit of following it, and this too is a consequence to be included in the balance.
  • Never make exceptions in your own favour, as such a judgement can never be trusted.

In personal cases, one weakness of consequentialism is that it leaves out the value of morally good motivation. The harmful consequences of one individual not voting in a safe seat are minute, but the experience of identifying with fellow voters may be judged a good thing in its own right, although it isn't a "consequence". Consequentialism seems often to be unavoidable in public decision making, when calculating the consequences in specific cases by something like "cost-benefit analysis" is often the only way of avoiding extreme anomalies or taking the risk of granting authorities opaque and easily abused powers of very broad discretion.