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Consequentialism: The Consequences of an Act Make It Right or Wrong

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Consequentialism: The consequences of an act make it right or wrong.

Definition Utilitarianism:

An act, rule or principle is right, if, and only if, it promotes the greatest good for the greatest number of persons (or perhaps sentient beings).

Utilitarianism includes the theory of the right and the theory of the good. The theory if the right is its consequentialist principle: the promotion of the best consequence defines morally good actions. The theory of the good is its utility principle: the best consequence is the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

  • Q.: Why do we need morality?  
  • Utilitarian Answer: To make the world a better place.

Consequentialist theories are concerned with consequences rather than with intentions.

The consequentialist way of being concerned with consequences is to promote the desired ones.

One of the distinctions between consequentialist and non-consequentialist theories is the distinction between promoting values and holding values.

Promise-keeping case: A non-consequentialist, would hold the value of keeping promises by indeed keeping promises, whether or not other people keep them; while a consequentialist would promote the keeping of promises by making sure that as many people as possible keep their promises, even if to do so she would have to break some promises herself. The non-consequentialist might argue that by breaking her promises the consequentialist fails to act in accordance with the good she herself values. The consequentialist would reply that her actions will bring about more promise-keeping in the world than her opponent ever could.

The point of contention between the consequentialists and the non-consequentialists is whether to “produce the goods or to keep one’s hands clean.” (Philip Pettit, 1991)

Utilitarians are consequentialists.  That is to say, they want to promote that which they value as the good.  Since they believe that the purpose of morality is to make the world a better place, they consider an act, rule or principle as right, if, and only if, it promotes the greatest good for the greatest number of persons.

Since utilitarianism is concerned with promotion of values rather than holding of values, utilitarianism is a suitable moral theory for policy making. Governments perform utilitarian calculations every day.  Utilitarians can provide a practical, tangible answer to the question of “what we ought to do”.

Hedonist Theories: Pleasure is the only thing that is intrinsically valuable.

The value of an outcome is determined only by the quantity of pleasure it contains. A person is happy the greater the quantity of pleasure their life contains. Pleasures can be assigned numbers, in terms of their intensity, duration, likelihood of producing other pleasures, and the like, and mathematical operations can be performed on those numbers.

One of the problems with hedonism is that it is very difficult to ascribe a single mental state to pleasure. What listening to an opera, solving a puzzle, or playing hockey have in common? Yet many people can describe all these as pleasurable experiences. One way hedonists respond is to concede that there is no unified phenomenal state of pleasure; pleasure is simply any mental state that is desired. That is to say, the content of the desires that are pleasures are mental states of the agent e.g. the state I’m in when I listen to an opera, as opposed to a desire for some event outside of me, like saving the spotted owl.



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