So far, we have been discussing about consequentialism theories of ethics with particular focus on utilitarianism – the ethical theory of the highest possible good for the greatest possible number for the longest possible time. Consequentialism ethical theories, however, are criticized for either downplaying or totally ignoring the importance of the method of achieving morally good results.
The Machiavellian precept of “the end justifies the means” is the extreme form of consequentialist ethics. It implies that morally repugnant and illegal methods are acceptable as long as the goals and results of certain actions are ultimately good. Our previous example of the 1945 dropping of nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which killed more than 125,000 civilians in an instant, is an extreme example of consequentialist ethics applied in war.
The consequentialism category of ethical theories is typically contrasted with deontological category of ethical theories, which put emphasis on the objective goodness or wickedness of a particular act regardless of the consequence. Deontological ethical theories focus on the rules and obligations rather than the outcomes.
On the other hand, consequentialism ethical theories are also different from virtue ethical theories, which emphasize the character of the agent rather than the effect of an agent’s actions on others.
For instance, Aristotle’s treatise, the Nicomachean Ethics, focused on virtues. Although Aristotle started with the concept of “eudaimonia,” a Greek word often translated as well-being or happiness as the aim of any rational being, he encouraged students of ethics to strive for the mastery of the highest possible virtues. He also advised against pure hedonism or seeking pleasure for the sake of pleasure.
Consequentialism theories are also contrasted with pragmatic ethical theories, which treat morality as a practical and progressive science. Pragmatic ethical theories view morality as something that evolves over time as society accumulates new knowledge. At certain levels of social progress, morality requires to be reexamined and revised. For instance, slavery gradually became economically unnecessary and morally reprehensible in the views of industrialized nations at the turn of the 18th century. The abolition of slavery in industrialized countries was made possible by the invention of machineries and the development of libertarian ideas among the enlightened intellectuals and members of the ruling class.
Other Consequentialism Theories
Other theories of ethics under the consequentialism category include Mohist ethics, ethical egoism, rule consequentialism, two-level consequentialism, motive consequentialism, and negative consequentialism. These may superficially overlap or may seem very similar in many aspects but each has specific focus.
Mohist ethics, otherwise known as state consequentialism, is an ethical theory that evaluates the worthiness of an action based on how much it contributes to the collective welfare of the state. Sustainable population growth, law and order, and increase in national wealth are among the ideals of Mohist philosophy. Mohist ethics, however, should not be confused with authoritarianism or even with collectivism. It does not reject individualism and it does not advocate the abolition of private property rights.
Ethical egoism emphasizes the consequence of an action on an individual agent. It takes into account the fact that most people are self-centered and certain level of self-centeredness is necessary to promote the advancement and general welfare of society. Otherwise, if individuals were purely altruistic, society would collectively stagnate. For instance, profit-oriented corporate businesses won’t be possible if all individuals were purely altruistic. Consequently, technological and economic progress will radically stagnate in a purely altruistic society.
Ethical altruism, on the other hand, is the anti-thesis of ethical egoism. It is a philosophical position wherein the moral goodness of an action is only valid if it is beneficial to others but not to the agent. For example, a soldier who jumped onto an exploding grenade to save his squad performed a truly altruistic action.
Rule consequentialism is an attempt to reconcile deontological principles with consequentialist thinking. It emphasizes following certain rules or constraints that have consequences that lead to the greatest possible good. For example, always following the rules of traffic maximizes the goodness of preventing any traffic gridlock and accidents.
Two-level consequentialism refers to the act of rationally and intuitively assessing all possible ramifications of one’s action and then making an ethical decision, but reverting to generally acceptable rules if the dilemma cannot be decisively solved. One example of this is the dilemma of a doctor who could either save the life of a mother or her unborn child during labor.
Motive consequentialism evaluates the morality of actions based on the motives of agents. This means that an agent cannot be held morally liable for bad judgments even if these judgments lead to unintended and detrimental consequences, provided that an action is based on best intention. For example, a bomb disposal expert who accidentally injures or kills himself and innocent bystanders while trying to defuse a bomb in a busy street cannot be held morally liable.
Negative consequentialism is more concerned about minimizing bad consequences than maximizing good consequences. It is focused on eliminating unnecessary suffering rather than optimizing happiness. Hence, in this view, for instance, it is morally preferable for the government to have poverty alleviation and social welfare programs than to give tax cuts for the rich.