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The Pros and Cons of Consequentialism

  • Anne Stubbs (a1)

This paper is not another attempt to refute, or even primarily to criticize, consequentialist accounts of moral assessment; though I shall indicate the kind of criticism of such accounts which I consider to be philosophically appropriate. My primary aim is to examine the validity of some of the claims made by consequentialists themselves on behalf of their own standpoint. It is frequently maintained that an exclusively consequentialist morality uniquely possesses certain advantages; I shall argue that the case for the superiority of consequentialism has yet to be made out.

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1 ‘Extreme and Restricted Utilitarianism’, Philosophical Quarterly 6 (1956), 344–5. Reprinted in Foot (ed.) Theories of Ethics, (Oxford University Press, 1967).

2 Bentham Jeremy, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), 34. (All page references will be to those selections from this work reprinted in Utilitarianism, M. Warnock (ed.), Fontana, 3rd impression, 1965.)

3 See Mabbott J. D., ‘Interpretations of Mill's “Utilitarianism”’, Philosophical Quarterly 6 (1956), 115120, or Foot (ed.), Theories of Ethics, 137–143.

4 See, e.g., Beardsmore R. W.Consequences and Moral Worth’, Analysis 29 (06 1969), which elucidates the distinction between a principle of conduct (which is directed towards the achievement of some further end) and a standard of conduct, which is not. Moral ‘rules’ are properly construed as standards, not principles, of conduct.

5 Foot (ed.), Theories of Ethics, 182.

6 Published in Contemporary British Philosophy, Fourth Series, Lewis H. D. (ed.) (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd, 1976).

7 Having said this, I do not wish to deny the essential place in moral judgement of moral feeling; such feeling is not, of course, absent from utilitarian judgements. A full discussion of this would require much more space than I could devote to it here; an important contribution to the topic has been made by Bernard Williams in his Inaugural Lecture, ‘Morality and the Emotions’ (London, 1965), reprinted in J. P. Casey (ed.), Morality and Moral Reasoning (London, 1971) and Williams, Problems of the Self (Cambridge University Press, 1973).

8 In Ethics and Language (Yale University Press, 1944), 213.

9 An ‘essentially contested’ concept is one concerning which there is no agreement even about what is to count as a central or paradigm instance of it. (I must admit to some scepticism over whether there are any concepts of this kind; why should we not use a difference in paradigms as a criterion of concept discrimination? We would thus be led to speak of more than one concept of, e.g., freedom, democracy, etc.) The notion was first formulated by Gallie Bryce in his paper ‘Essentially Contested Concepts’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, LVI (1956).

10 Plato , Gorgias (Penguin Classics, 1960), 470474.

11 In the discussion following a paper read to Queen's University Philosophical Society in 1977. This, together with the remarks that follow, should not necessarily be taken to represent his settled views. I may of course have misunderstood or misremembered what he said.

12 In discussion.

13 Principia Ethica (Cambridge University Press), 147.

14 These latter concepts have been called ‘morally complete concepts’ in that they refer to types of act selected completely from the moral point of view. See Kovesi's Julius book Moral Notions (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967).

15 In L'Existentialisme est un Humanisme, 39–42.

16 See, e.g., Williams Bernard, ‘Ethical Consistency’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society Suppl. 31 (1965), reprinted in Williams B., Problems of the Self (Cambridge University Press, 1973), 166–186; and D. Z. Phillips and H. S. Price, ‘Remorse without Repudiation’, Analysis 28 (1967).

17 In Kant's Ethical Theory (Oxford University Press, 1954), 28.

18 The Leslie Stephen Lecture (Cambridge University Press, 1972), reprinted in S. Hampshire (ed.), Public and Private Morality (Cambridge University Press, 1978).

19 Op. cit., 12–13.

20 See his paper ‘Absolute Ethics, Mathematics and the Impossibility of Politics’ in Vesey G. (ed.), Human Values (Royal Institute of Philosophy Lectures, Vol. 11, 1978).

21 Utilitarianism, Warnock (ed.) (Fontana), 270. (My italics.)

22 Since writing this I have become aware of the existence of two other papers which contend that utilitarianism, on account of its consequentialism, is not a possible morality. Muller Anselm, in ‘Radical Subjectivity: Morality versus Utilitarianism’, Ratio XX, No. 1 (06 1978), 115132, argues that the ‘eventism’ of utilitarianism (i.e. its refusal to attach value to anything other than the state of affairs brought about by an action) renders it incompatible with ‘a central part of our moral tradition’, viz. Democruitus’ maxim that it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong. Devine Philip E. in ‘The Conscious Acceptance of Guilt in the Necessary Murder’, Ethics 89, No. 3 (04 1979), 221239, maintains that utilitarianism ‘offends… the very idea of morality itself’ on the ground that it counsels ‘systematic hypocrisy’—the utilitarian will be required to behave in ways which he is also required to condemn in others.

23 I am grateful to Professor Roy Holland and Professor Alan Milne for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper. Neither, of course, agrees with everything which it contains.

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