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Consequentialism and Permissibility


Scalar consequentialism, recently championed by Alastair Norcross, holds that the value of an action varies according to the goodness of its consequences, but eschews all judgements of moral permissibility and impermissibility. I show that the strongest version of scalar consequentialism is not vulnerable to the objection that it is insufficiently action-guiding. Instead, the principle objection to the scalar view is simply that it leaves out important and interesting ethical judgements. In demonstrating this, I counter Rob Lawlor's contention that consequentialists cannot consistently care about permissibility and impermissibility.

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1 Norcross Alastair, ‘The Scalar Approach to Utilitarianism’, The Blackwell Guide to Mill's Utilitarianism, ed. West H. (Oxford, 2006). See also Slote Michael, Common-Sense Morality and Consequentialism (London, 1985).

2 Lawlor Rob, ‘The Rejection of Scalar Consequentialism’, Utilitas 21.1 (March 2009).

3 Mulgan Tim, The Demands of Consequentialism (Oxford, 2001), ch. 5.

4 Lawlor, ‘The Rejection’, p. 113.

5 Lawlor, ‘The Rejection’, p. 109.

6 One might argue that an ethical theory is insufficiently action-guiding if it fails to distinguish moral reasons from egoistic reasons, and offer an account of how they interact. (Lawlor has suggested this in personal communication.) For an account of how we should view the relationship between egoistic reasons and impartial reasons, see Brian McElwee, ‘Consequentialism, Demandingness and the Monism of Practical Reason’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, vol. CVIII, pt. 3.

7 See Norcross, ‘The Scalar Approach’, p. 220.

8 Lawlor, ‘The Rejection’, p. 105.

9 Mill John Stuart, Utilitarianism, ed. Crisp R. (Oxford, 1997), ch. 5.

10 Obviously, there is a significant distinction between acting in a way that is morally impermissible and acting in a way that is legally impermissible. I will not discuss this complication here as it provides no special problem for the consequentialist.

11 Lawlor, ‘The Rejection’, p. 105.

12 Mulgan, The Demands, p. 143. See also Hooker Brad, ‘Right, Wrong and Rule-Consequentialism’, The Blackwell Guide to Mill's Utilitarianism, ed. West H. (Oxford, 2006).

13 Norcross, ‘The Scalar Approach’, p. 228.

14 Norcross, ‘The Scalar Approach’, p. 228.

15 See Scheffler Samuel, ‘Prerogatives without Restrictions’, Philosophical Perspectives 6 (1992), pp. 377–97. For other possible approaches, see Slote, Common-Sense Morality; Murphy Liam, Moral Demands in Non-Ideal Theory (New York, 2000); Hooker Brad, Ideal Code, Real World (Oxford, 2000), Mulgan, The Demands, pt. IV.

16 My own favoured approach is one which endorses an account which is less systematic than Scheffler's in determining what moral requirements we face.

17 I am grateful to Rob Lawlor and Gerald Lang for useful discussion of the issues raised in this article.

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  • ISSN: 0953-8208
  • EISSN: 1741-6183
  • URL: /core/journals/utilitas
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