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Consequentialism's Double-Edged Sword


Recent work on consequentialism has revealed it to be more flexible than previously thought. Consequentialists have shown how their theory can accommodate certain features with which it has long been considered incompatible, such as agent-centered constraints. This flexibility is usually thought to work in consequentialism's favor. I want to cast doubt on this assumption. I begin by putting forward the strongest statement of consequentialism's flexibility: the claim that, whatever set of intuitions the best non-consequentialist theory accommodates, we can construct a consequentialist theory that can do the same while still retaining whatever is compelling about consequentialism. I argue that if this is true then most likely the non-consequentialist theory with which we started will turn out to have that same compelling feature. So while this extreme flexibility, if indeed consequentialism has it (a question I leave to the side), makes consequentialism more appealing, it makes non-consequentialism more appealing too.

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1 Dreier James, ‘Structures of Normative Theories’, Monist 76 (1993), pp. 1930; Louise Jennie, ‘Relativity of Value and the Consequentialist Umbrella’, Philosophical Quarterly 54 (2004), pp. 518–36; Smith Michael, ‘Neutral and Relative Value after Moore’, Ethics 113 (2003), pp. 576–98; Portmore Douglas, ‘Consequentializing Moral Theories’, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 88 (2007), pp. 3973; Oddie Graham and Milne Peter, ‘Act and Value: Expectation and Representability of Moral Theories’, Theoria 57.1–2 (1991), pp. 4256.

2 Portmore Douglas, ‘Consequentializing Moral Theories’, and ‘Consequentializing’, Philosophy Compass 4 (2009), pp. 329–47.

3 The truth-functional form of Superiority is P & ~Q (the best version of consequentialism is compatible with the Compelling Idea and the best version of non-consequentialism is not). P & ~Q is equivalent to ~(P➔Q). The denial of ~(P➔Q) is P➔Q, which is the truth-functional form of Parity (if the best version of consequentialism is compatible with the Compelling Idea then the best version of non-consequentialism is too).

4 For an argument to the effect that it cannot be done, or at least that it is not likely to be accomplished, see Schroeder Mark, ‘Teleology, Agent-Relative Value, and “Good”’, Ethics 117 (2007), pp. 265–95.

5 Portmore, ‘Consequentializing’, p. 333.

6 Portmore, ‘Consequentializing’, p. 333.

7 Shelly Kagan nicely elucidates the importance of moral explanation in The Limits of Morality (Oxford, 1989), pp. 13–15.

8 ‘Consequentializing Moral Theories’.

9 Kagan, The Limits of Morality, p. 11.

10 We should of course construe ‘state of affairs’ broadly enough to encompass facts about the act itself. That way a determination claim remains consequentialist even if it takes into account, for instance, the badness of a right being violated.

11 See, for instance: Rawls John, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass., 1971), pp. 26, 28; Bernard Williams, ‘A Critique of Utilitarianism’, in J. J. C. Smart and Bernard Williams, Utilitarianism: For and Against (Cambridge, 1973), p. 99; Mulgan Tim, ‘Rule Consequentialism and Famine’, Analysis 54 (1994), pp. 187–92.

12 An exception is Shaw William, ‘The Consequentialist Perspective’, Contemporary Debates in Moral Theory, ed. Dreier J. (Malden, Mass., 2006).

13 Part of the problem is that the distinction between consequentialism's moral principles claims and its determination claims often goes unnoticed, and therefore some theorists think they are defending the latter when in fact they are defending the former. See, for instance, Bales R. Euguene, ‘Act-Utilitarianism: Account of Right-Making Characteristics or Decision-Making Procedure?’, American Philosophical Quarterly 8 (1971), pp. 257–65.

14 William K. Frankena makes roughly the same point in Ethics, 2nd edn. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1973), p. 14.

15 This article was presented as a paper before audiences at the Department of Bioethics in the Warren G. Magnuson Clinical Center of the National Institutes of Health and at the 2008 annual meetings of the Wisconsin Philosophical Association and the International Society for Utilitarian Studies. Mark Schroeder, Jenny Louise, James Dreier, Joe Millum and Carla Saenz each read a previous draft of this article and aided me enormously with their comments. Finally, I owe a tremendous debt to Douglas Portmore for graciously helping me to straighten out my thoughts on this issue, correcting numerous mistakes, and offering encouragement on the worthiness of the project.

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  • EISSN: 1741-6183
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