In an applied ethics course I taught many times at Arizona State University, I had my students read the following article:
Vallentyne P. 2007. Consequentialism. In LaFollette H (ed.). 2007. Ethics in Practice: Third Edition. Malden, MA: Blackwell, chapter 1, pp. 22-30.
This is a version of the notes I took on that article for my students. I am continuing to update the notes occasionally, even though right now I no longer work for ASU or teach this course.
The three most prominent types of ethical theory are consequentialism, deontology, and virtue theory. We will be reading articles covering the first two, but we will skip virtue theory since it rarely shows up in the applied articles we will be reading later. Vallentyne, who we cover this week, describes and defends consequentialism. McNaughton and Rawling, up next time, do the same for deontology.
Vallentyne does a good job in most of his article, so I will leave many of the particulars to him. These notes will just try to clarify what I think are the most confusing parts.
First, understand that consequentialist ethical theories, in the broadest sense possible, simply are ethical theories for which the rightness and wrongness of actions are determined by consequences that are in some way connected to the action. What kinds of consequences and how they are the connected to the action change radically from one specific consequentialist theory to another, but all are concerned with consequences of some form.
With this in mind, let’s look at the broad layout of Vallentyne’s article.
Vallentyne considers three general types of theories that allege to be consequentialist: (i) act consequentialism, (ii) constrained act consequentialism, and (iii) rule maximizing consequentialism. He also spends a lot of time on a subset of act consequentialism called act utilitarianism. It may be difficult to see how all of these fit together, so to try to help you I will give you a more comprehensive schema than Vallentyne’s.
Varieties of consequentialism
Consequentialism can be divided into act consequentialism and rule consequentialism. Each of these can be divided further into a maximizing subset, and a non-maximizing subset. Finally, the maximizing subsets can be divided yet further into a utilitarian subset, and a non-utilitarian subset. Here is the layout we get:
What does all of this mean? I will explain quickly here, and then we will slow down as we look at the specific categories that most interest Vallentyne:
Act consequentialism vs. rule consequentialist:
- A consequentialist theory is act consequentialist if it holds that the moral permissibility of an action depends on the consequences of that action itself.
- A consequentialist theory is rule consequentialist if it holds that the moral permissibility of an action depends upon the consequences that would result from general conformity to the rule upon which the action is based.
- A consequentialist theory is maximizing if it requires the consequences referenced above to be no worse than those resulting from any alternative (from any alternative action in the case of maximizing act consequentialism; from general conformity to any alternative rule in the case of maximizing rule consequentialism).
- A consequentialist theory is non-maximizing if it requires only that the consequences pass some less-than-maximal threshold of goodness (where the exact threshold depends on the exact theory).
Utilitarian vs. non-utilitarian:
- A consequentialist theory is utilitarian if it is (i) maximizing and (ii) defines the good (that which is to be maximized) in terms of what Vallentyne calls total individual well-being: the sum of everyone’s well-being, taken over the entire future of the universe. Of course, as Vallentyne is careful to point out, the exact definition of well-being can vary from one specific utilitarian theory to another.
- A consequentialist theory is non-utilitarian if it is either (i) non-maximizing, or (ii) defines the good in terms of something other than total individual well-being.
You may have noticed the absence of constrained act consequentialism in my schema; it is absent because Vallentyne (correctly) considers constrained act consequentialism a hybrid of deontology (which we will talk about next time) and consequentialism, rather than a proper form of consequentialism.
Hopefully, this has helped to orient you. I will now follow Vallentyne more closely as we push into details.
According to act consequentialism,
- “the permissibility of an action is based on how good its consequences are compared with those of its feasible alternatives” (Vallentyne 2007: 22), and
- “an act is permissible only if its consequences are morally good enough” (Vallentyne, 2007: 27).
Act consequentialist theories judge the moral permissibility of each action by whether or not the actual consequences of that action pass some threshold of goodness. In itself, mere act consequentialism does not specify what “the good” is, or what it means for a consequence to be “good enough”—that is left up to the specific theory.
Act utilitarianism is a subset of act consequentialism. Act utilitarian theories accept the following two principles:
- Maximizing Act Consequentialism: “[A]n action is permissible if and only if its consequences are maximally good” (Vallentyne 2007: 23).
- Utilitarian Value: “[O]ne state of affairs is morally at least as good as another if and only if the total individual well-being it includes is at least as great as the total individual well-being included in the other” (Vallentyne, 2007: 23).
These principles fill in the blanks left by mere act consequentialism: the first principle stipulates that “good enough” means maximally good; the second principle stipulates that the good should be cashed out in terms of total individual well-being. However, there still is some room left for play, since different specific act utilitarian theories can define well-being differently: for instance, some define it in terms of experiencing pleasure or happiness, others in terms of having one’s preferences satisfied, and yet others in terms of having objective properties (such as being healthy or educated) which one may not even want.
Do remember, though, that whatever else it means, total individual well-being means the sum of everyone’s well-being—if you imagine a utilitarian trying to figure out what will maximize his or her own well-being, even at the expense of others, you have not understood the theory.
Constrained act consequentialism
Act consequentialism judges the moral permissibility of each action by whether or not the consequences of that action pass some specified threshold of goodness. If the consequences are good enough, then the action is permissible; otherwise, the action is not permissible. Constrained act consequentialism is slightly more complicated. A constrained act consequentialist theory provides a list of actions that are absolutely forbidden, no matter what the consequences, but requires that all other actions be evaluated in the normal act consequentialist way. For instance, a particular constrained act consequentialist theory might contain a constraint against killing. If so, then the theory as a whole says that one ought to maximize total individual well-being to the extent possible without killing.
Vallentyne argues that because of the presence of constraints, constrained act consequentialism does not qualify as a consequentialist theory at all; rather it is a hybrid of consequentialism and deontology.
Rule maximizing consequentialism
Rule maximizing consequentialism (my schema switches the order of the first two words, just to maintain symmetry with Vallentyne’s maximizing act consequentialism) shifts the main focus from acts to rules. In rule maximizing consequentialism, the moral permissibility of an action does not depend on the consequences of that particular action. Rather, rule maximizing consequentialism sets up rules which one must follow, no matter what; most importantly, one must follow those rules even in situations where breaking one or more of them will produce better consequences than following them. The selection of the rules themselves, however, is governed by consequentialist considerations: whether or not it is morally permissible to follow a given set of rules depends on how good the consequences would be if (hypothetically) nearly everyone generally followed those rules (regardless of whether or not they actually do)—if the consequences of general acceptance of some set of rules would be no worse than the consequences of general acceptance of any other set of rules, then it is permissible to act in conformity with that set of rules.
Let me give you an example that hopefully will make this clearer. Many of you have probably heard people arguing with another like this before:
Mortimer: You’re not supposed to walk on the grass.
Balthazar: I know, but I’m in almost late for my appointment. One person walking over the grass won’t cause nearly as much harm as my being late for my appointment.
Mortimer: If everyone thought like that, then we would end up with an ugly dirt trail running through the grass.
Balthazar: But not everyone thinks like that. It’s just me, this one time.
Mortimer: You’re a bad person.
Mortimer is offering rule consequentialist reasons for Balthazar not to walk on the grass. Balthazar may very well be right that the consequences of his walking over the grass will not be nearly as bad as the consequences of his being late, but this is irrelevant to Mortimer. Mortimer doesn’t care about the actual effects of Balthazar’s actions; instead, he appeals to what would happen if people generally acted the way Balthazar does. Since those consequences presumably would be worse than the consequences of people generally following the rule “Keep off the grass,” Mortimer thinks that no one should ever walk on the grass, period. Notice also that Balthazar’s second response is irrelevant to Mortimer: the fact that people do not in fact generally act like Balthazar makes no difference to Mortimer. The two gentlemen disagree fundamentally about how to determine whether an action is right or wrong: Mortimer’s criteria are rule consequentialist, Balthazar’s are something else (possibly act consequentialist, but possibly not consequentialist at all).