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Contemporary

Consequentialism
Julia Driver, Ethics: The Fundamentals
pp. 61 – 66; 76 – 79

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• All utilitarians are consequentialists.
• Utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory insofar as it argues that the
morality of an action is to be evaluated by looking at consequences.

• The purpose of utilitarian theories is to increase well-being in the world.


This is a praiseworthy goal. No one could deny that.

• But because utilitarians argue that the only thing that has value in itself
is happiness, or pleasure, or well-being, they end up justifying actions
that common moral sense tells us are immoral, or unjust.

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• Consequentialists are dedicated to the utilitarian project of increasing
well-being in the world, but they also recognize that some of the
arguments against utilitarianism are serious.

• Consequentialists are in general committed to increasing well-being in the


world, but they do not agree that anything goes as long as it is in the name
of increasing well-being.
• Apart from well-being, consequentialists add another value that a moral
action should respect and promote.

• Some of the intrinsic values that consequentialists add apart from well-
being, are friendship or love, freedom, life, virtue, justice, etc.

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• We can distinguish 3 big kinds of consequentialists:
- those who argue that actions should promote another value apart
from well-being
- those who argue that actions that promote well-being are moral to
the extent that they respect some moral rule
- those who argue not for the maximization of well-being, but for the
promotion of certain rights. According to them, nobody is ever justified
in violating rights for the sake of happiness or any other value.

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We will illustrate some issues of the utilitarian theory that consequentialists try to eliminate.
1. Utilitarianism seems to overlook justice and rights.

Utilitarianism seems incompatible with both distributive justice and


retributive justice.

Distributive justice = justice concerning the distribution of benefits and


burdens (health care/taxation)

Retributive justice = justice concerning the distribution of rewards and


punishments

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• Imagine that there is a population of 100 people. If out of them 75
would work really hard, 25 would be able to enjoy lives of luxury and
develop their intellectual capacities. The 75 do not have unhappy
lives, but they would be much happier if they did not have to work
that much. But if they did not work that much the happiness of the
25 would decrease significantly, while the increase of their happiness
would not keep the overall happiness in the world at the same level
as it was when they were keeping the 25 extremely happy.

• Due to their commitment to maximizing utility, the utilitarian might


have to say that the non-egalitarian state is morally superior to the
egalitarian state.
• But common sense tells us that a non-egalitarian state is unjust.

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• Utilitarians end up promoting unjust choices partly because they
don’t treat individuals as ends in themselves. They think of people as
numbers in an equation for calcutating utility.

• Life is one’s most valuable thing. The value of someone’s life should
trump all utility- or other value-increasing calculations.
• Life is not only a value, it is also someone’s right.

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Let us consider the thought experiment called “Transplant”:

• Imagine that there are five patients in a hospital that will die without an
organ transplant. The patient in Room 1 needs a heart, the patient in
Room 2 needs a liver, the patient in Room 3 needs a kidney, and so on.
The problem is that the doctors were not able to find compatible donors.
Until one day, when a person comes to the hospital for routine tests.
Luckily (for them, not for him!), his tissue proves to be compatible with
the other five patients, and a specialist is available to transplant his
organs into the other five. This operation would save their lives, while
killing the “donor”. There is no other way to save any of the other five
patients.

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• 2. Utilitarians judge all acts from the observer's perspective. They
would judge the doctor's refuse to make the transplant to be wrong,
since the world with the transplant is better from an observer's
perspective.

• Agent = the person who does the action


• Observer = the person who does the judging of the action

• Agent-relative consequentialism: requires observers to adopt the


doctor's perspective in judging whether it would be morally wrong for
the doctor to perform the transplant.
• This kind of agent-relative consequentialism is then supposed to
capture commonsense moral intuitions in such cases.
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Friendship and special obligations
- According to utilitarians, we are supposed to promote agent-neutral value.
This is morally praise-worthy, as it encourages equality and impartiality.

- But there are some people with whom we have special relationships
- We value our friends, not simply the pleasure that they produce
- Special relationships involve special responsibilities or partial obligations

- The consequentialist who apart from well-being aims at protecting special


relationships: If we are not partial to some people, then there are no
special/close relationships in the world. The world is better if there are
special relationships in it.

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• 3. Utilitarians tried to eliminate the injustice criticism while still remaining
utilitarians. That is, not admitting that any other thing or right has absolute
value, but well-being.

• Rule utilitarianism: The right action is the one performed in accordance


with a rule or set of rules, the following of which maximizes utility.
- the utilitarian turns particular actions into rules
- if they made the rule that a second value should be protected by moral
actions, it would amount to admitting that something else than well-being
has intrinsic value, and that would contradict the utilitarian principle

- the utilitarian will also allow for the rule chosen to be overridden in
cases in which violating the rule will bring about considerably more utility
than not violating it → the rule is useless
- otherwise, utilitarians end up worshipping the rules, which can also
lead to injustice
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Brad Hooker (1957 -) University of Reading

Develops a form of rule-


consequentialism that is supposed
to avoid the “worshipping of the
rule” problem, as well as avoiding
the collapse back into act
utilitarianism.

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Rule consequentialism - an action is morally right just because it is
required by an optimific social rule.
An optimific social rule meets the following condition: if (nearly)
everyone in a society were to accept it, then the results would be
optimific.

According to Bradley Hooker, there are two, and only two, things of
intrinsic value—happiness and justice.
Optimific social rules will be ones that both increase happiness and
respect rights.

• Rather than determine an action’s morality by asking about its results,


this kind of consequentialist asks whether the action conforms to a
moral rule. But the moral rule is the result of considering what would
be optimific for society over time.
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• Rule consequentialists evaluate the consequences of actions across
longer periods of time.
• In the long run, just policies maximize well-being, even if, in isolated
cases, just actions do not.

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2. Classic utilitarianism seems to require that agents calculate all
consequences of each act for every person for all time. That's impossible.

A second set of problems for classic utilitarianism is epistemological. It


concerns how much does a normal person know; to what extent can
someone foresee the consequences of their actions?
Most consequentialists spell out the necessary and sufficient conditions for
an act to be morally right, regardless of whether the agent can tell in advance
whether those conditions are met.

If the principle of utility is used as a criterion of the right rather than as a


decision procedure, then classical utilitarianism does not require that anyone
know the total consequences of anything before making a decision.
Consequentialists take intention into account to a greater degree than
utilitarians do.
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